Back To CourseEducational Psychology: Help and Review
9 chapters | 331 lessons
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Sarah has taught Psychology at the college level and has a master's degree in Counseling Psychology.
If you have ever read Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll, you probably remember the infamous Caterpillar perched on his mushroom. The first thing he says to little Alice is, ''Who... are... you?'' Alice responds with, ''Why, I hardly know, sir. I've changed so much since this morning, you see.'' Alice is experiencing a crisis of self-identity. Self-identity is defined in many ways and with many theories within psychology; however, it is most easily explained by understanding all the parts that can make up our self-identity.
Take a moment to think about what you would say to someone when asked the question, 'Who are you?'
Although it sounds like a simple question, are you finding it hard to choose words to describe your personality? Self-identity is a very complex idea. So complex, in fact, that even those who actively work on understanding themselves and their self-identity still have great difficulty. Some aspects of self-identity can be identified and described by others. When thinking about how to define yourself, did you use the words that describe your job, hobbies, family ties, nationalities, religious beliefs, and group affiliations? But how about what you think? Your morals and values cannot truly be known by anybody else; nobody else can hear your thoughts. These parts of self-identity can only be truly explained by you.
Let's go back to Alice in Wonderland. How do you think she should have responded to the Caterpillar? Alice could have stated many things, including her name, her age, her height and weight, and other physical descriptors. She could also say that she is a daughter, a sister, a student, a cat-owner, and a book-lover. All of those last descriptors involve relationships with other people. Since we all live in a world with many other people, the external world of our society plays a huge role in defining our self-identity.
As humans, we all have a need to develop a personal identity that distinguishes us from others. Questions such as 'Who am I?' and 'Why am I here?' or 'What is my purpose in life?' are critical parts of understanding ourselves and defining our self-identity. Simply distinguishing ourselves from other people makes defining our identity a social comparison. Even the most simple of physical descriptors such as our height and weight can be evaluated socially. Are you tall or short? If you consider yourself tall, short, or even average, it is a comparison to other people in your social culture. Although weight is just a number, many people judge themselves based on other people's weight.
In this example, society plays a huge role in defining what is acceptable through the media. In many historical cultures, weight was a sign of good health. Since food was scarce, weight was a sign of health, wealth, and therefore, beauty. Those who were thin were easily identified as lower, working-class people, while the well-fed were likely rich and of high birth. In society today, food is easy to obtain. A higher weight is not valued the same way it was in ancient times. Today, television has a tendency to use only the thinnest women and the most fit men, who are often professionals when it comes to looking good for the camera. How would you value your weight differently if you had no access to television and media? Most likely, you would consider yourself far more acceptable without the skewed ideas from the media.
Clearly, society plays an essential role in how we evaluate and define our self-identity. We cannot define our self-identity without the context of our society. Let's go back to Alice for an example. We can theorize that one of the difficulties Alice has in answering the Caterpillar's question has to do with the society of Wonderland. Alice is new to this land and has not established her place in this weird world. She has few friends and does not know the rules. Alice may have been a cat-lover at home but in Wonderland, cats are strange beasts. At home she may consider herself a lover of croquet, possibly even a fan of the sport. In Wonderland, she finds that she is not much of a fan of the sport at all, since they use flamingos for mallets and hedgehogs for balls. Alice has lost her sense of self-identity, not just her personal, internal self-identity, but also her social identity.
As psychologists continually refine their theories of the self, sociologists also continue to refine social identity theory. Social Identity Theory explains that we can define ourselves by the social categories that we feel we belong to such as nationalities, religious or political associations, gender roles, families, and even as niche as a group of fans of a certain sports team. Social identity includes memberships of social groups and the perceptions and behaviors associated with those groups. Throughout history, many political, religious, and cultural groups have gone to war to preserve the ideals of their groups. Gay pride parades and religious groups picketing abortion clinics are common. But even those social affiliations that seem the most harmless can be taken very seriously by their members. Rioting sports fans are an excellent example of how seriously we take our social identities and wish to protect them.
As you're starting to see, there is both an internal and an external component to self-identity. What makes self-identity so tricky is that we evaluate ourselves as humans based on how we believe we are supposed to feel and how we are supposed to act according to our society. Sometimes, we can evaluate ourselves negatively or critically. Critical thoughts can affect our self-esteem and how we think of ourselves.
Self-esteem is defined as how we evaluate our own general worth. If we feel that we are successful members of our social groups and live up to our expectations and those of the groups, we will probably feel high self-esteem. For example, a teenager who works at a beach as a lifeguard in the summer may feel a great boost of self-esteem when they save someone from drowning while in that role. Low self-esteem can occur when we do not feel that we are living up to the standards set by ourselves and our social groups, or even when we feel disconnected from social groups and feel a lack of self-identity.
A person with low self-esteem may not be able to define their personality characteristics in an objective manner. The reverse is also true. A person with unjustifiably high self-esteem may define their personality characteristics in an exaggerated manner.
So, how do we evolve a sense of self-identity? Every person approaches their self-identity differently. Some people may not think consciously about their self-identity. Others may consciously think about their own thoughts and feelings and reflect on their actions. This is called introspection. People who consciously try to answer the question 'Who am I?' are engaging in introspection. Through introspection, we can gain self-knowledge about our personalities and motivations.
Another way to gather information about self-identity is through the people we interact with every day. Our friends, family, and social groups provide us with feedback on how we seem to them. For example, a teenager may start high school feeling that they are an excellent student. Poor grades, trips to the principal's office, or negative feedback from parents about school may alter the way that this teen sees himself or herself, whether it is true or not. Introspection is not something that can ever truly be finished. As human beings, we are constantly evolving and changing, taking in new information, and making judgments based on the new information. What we feel is true about our self-identity now may not be true years from now.
Self-esteem can increase, decrease, or stay the same depending upon how much value we put upon a changing aspect of our self-identity. For the young teenager, it may be very important to be a good student or not important at all. The teenager may value their identity as an athlete, musician, or artist more importantly than any other self-identification. Upon graduation, the role of being a student can be replaced with the role created by a job or family.
Much like a role in a theater play, a psychological role is a set of rules of expectations of behavior that exist for a person in a certain position or group. The role of a professional lawyer is different than the role of a parent. These roles can exist simultaneously and dictate the way a person in that role should act. Or, for example, the role of a student can be replaced by the role of a career, and the role of being a parent can give way to the role of being a grandparent. Our roles change throughout life. The importance we give to any one role can affect our self-esteem and self-identity.
Self-identity, or how we define ourselves, is very complex. It can be influenced by internal characteristics, like self-esteem and our thoughts about ourselves, but it can also be influenced by external appearances, such as our interactions by others.
What we include in our self-identity can range from physical descriptors, like height and weight, to relationships with other people, like being a parent or a friend. And Social Identity Theory explains that we can define ourselves by the social categories that we feel we belong to, such as nationalities, religious or political associations, gender roles, families, professions, and even as niche a group of fans of a certain sports team. Our self-identities can also be informed by the various roles that we play throughout our lives.
By the end of this lesson, you should be able to:
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Back To CourseEducational Psychology: Help and Review
9 chapters | 331 lessons
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