Society and the True Self, Part 1: How the ‘me’ became the ‘I’

Human existence is punctuated by distinctions – self/other, me/you, in/out, here/there, us/them, up/down – and the list goes on and on. These distinctions are what we use to locate ourselves in reality. For those of us inspired by the possibility of individual and collective transformation there is one distinction that we have to pay very close attention to. That is the distinction between what we call ‘me’ and what we call ‘I’.

You can say, “I am going to the store” but you can’t say “Me am going to the store.”  You can say “Take me to the store” but you can’t say “Take I to the store.” Why is that? If you think for a moment, it appears that an ‘I’ is an active agent – they do things. A ‘me’, on the other hand is an object that gets acted upon. An ‘I’ is a someone; a ‘me’ is a something. Another way to say this is that the ‘I’ is the internal experience of being you, while the ‘me’ is the external view on you. In more classical terminology the ‘I’ is the subjective sense of self, while the ‘me’ is an objective sense of self.

So far this all seems simple and obvious enough. But where did the sense of ‘I’ and the sense of ‘me’ come from in the first place?

Any of us who have had the opportunity to spend time with a newborn baby before it has acquired any language skills have all had the experience of sensing the little ‘I’ in there. Behind those beautiful baby eyes you recognize that there is someone in there. There is an ‘I’ already in existence. We see a flash of the ‘I’ in the way they move or look at us. For now let’s just assume that we were born with a sense of ‘I’ and move on to the ‘me’.

How did we form a sense of ‘me.’ I am going to start with the assertion that the objective sense of self, or ‘me’, is made up of a collection of ideas about you – as opposed to the ‘I’ which is the experience of being you.  Those ideas about you would have to be held in language, meaning that they would come in the form of sentences asserting who you are.

As a newborn you didn’t have any ideas about yourself yet. But other people started to develop ideas about you. She is cute. She is good. She is fussy. She doesn’t sleep well. Etc. The people around you started to form a ‘me’ for you before you could even hold one in your mind. And they started to shape you into  what they considered to be a more ideal form of a ‘me’ almost immediately.

If you did something that your caretakers liked they would be sure to inject positive feelings into your nervous system to make you more likely to do the same again. Over time you would become a “good” girl or boy. (I hope you will allow me to use this overly simplistic model to make a point. You may balk that most of us don’t turn out good, but having spent 6 years working with severely disturbed children, I have come to the conclusion that most people are actually pretty darn good.)

As you grow older you acquire language skills. You have already begun the process of becoming a ‘me’ by being limited to a certain set of conditioned behaviors.  Now that you understand sentences you have the opportunity to learn about the ‘me’ that you have already started to become. You initially find out who you are when people tell you about yourself. You are good. You are bad. You are lazy. You are smart. Many sentences about you will be handed over. And you will begin to use those sentences about yourself in the form of: I am good, I am bad, I am lazy, I am smart, etc.

But wait; did you see what just happened? You just took another person’s external experience of you and turned it into an internal conviction about yourself. Your ‘I’ absorbed another person’s idea about you. And when you repeat these sentences over and over again you are committing yourself through the force of habit to being that person. And similarly when other people repeat these sentences about you they are committing you to be that person.

Eventually we get so adept at the use of language that we begin to be able to make up our own external sentences about ourselves. We have gained the skill of perspective taking and are now able to mentally put ourselves in the place of another and form our own outside opinions of ourselves. Then we use ‘I’ statements to commit to these external ideas about ourselves.

I am over-simplifying to make my point. Our sense of self is more complex than this, but one part of it is definitely formed when outside opinions about us – our own or those of others –become internally experienced convictions about us. This acquired sense of self is not something we were born with, and it is not something that is developed on our insides. It is a social self that emerges through our interactions with other people. This socially acquired sense of self eventually becomes so deeply embraced that we can only see it as who we are.

The most amazing thing to consider here is the location of the social self. That aspect of yourself does not exist within you alone. It exists in you in the form of ideas about yourself and it exists in society in the form of other people’s ideas about you. It exists in conversation. The inner conversation you have with yourself in the form of thinking. And in the outer conversations that other people have about you either in the form of spoken conversation or in their thinking. You cannot change your social self on your own because it doesn’t exist only inside of you. That part of yourself floats in your social circles and must be changed collectively.  We all hold a part of each other’s social self. That self cannot change in just one of us. It must change in all of us.