Society and the True Self, Part 2: The Socially Conditioned Self

In my last post I described how other peoples’ outside opinions about us get incorporated into our own internal experience of ourselves. Now I want to show how the opinions about us that become part of our experience of who we are do not only come from people we interact with. Society as a whole has views about us that we unknowingly incorporate into our sense of self.

There are ideas about who we are that are spread throughout society – not about us as a particular individual, but as a human being, a member of a particular nation, a particular ethnic group, being a man or a woman, belonging to a profession, as a family member, etc.

One of the great human endeavors of history has been the ongoing struggle to understand ourselves. The answers to the question “what does it mean to be human?” have evolved over time, but there have always been a collection of prevailing ideas about human beings that get incorporated into your own self-concept. Human beings are rational creatures. Human beings should be compassionate toward each other. Human beings should not cause harm to each other. So many of these ideas exist in culture and they have been absorbed into our sense of ‘I’ – either as reflective who we are, or as ideas about who we should.

We were all born in a nation and the citizens of that nation hold another set of ideas about each other. If you are an American your national identity includes being industrious and driven by results. It includes a love of the ideals of individual freedom and democratic forms of government. And it includes many other ideas –positive and negative – about what it means to be the particular kind of human known as an American.

We might also have a connection to an ethnic background with yet another set of ideas about us. Many of us are part of organizations, either work or social groups, and these too revolve around ideas about the kind of people who successfully belong to these organizations. Of course gender ideas have received a great deal of attention in recent decades. And then we have our families and acquaintances and the ideas they hold about us more specifically.

All of these ideas, from the most general notions about what it means to be human, to the very particular ideas about you held by the people you know, have all been deeply incorporated into your sense of who you are. And all of these ideas from the most general to the most specific come to us via other people and are then incorporated into our sense of self. They start as ideas about ‘me’ that get incorporated into my sense of “I”. We typically see our sense of self as something that exists inside of us, but seeing how it actually comes to us from the outside we can see that our sense of self is located as much in society as it is inside of us. We are truly social beings.

The internal sense of “I” and the external ideas about “me” co-emerge through our constant interaction with others. Our sense of self has become completely intertwined with external ideas about us held by the people we know.  The “I” and the “me” co-emerge in us through our constant interaction with others and perhaps it can best be thought of as existing not inside of us, but in these interactions.

To get a sense of the depth of the deeply amalgamated quality of the co-emergent aspects of ‘I’ and ‘me’ let’s start with a metaphor. Imagine a piece of blank white paper (or put one in front of you if you want.) Now draw a circle on the paper. Once the circle is completely drawn you can easily see that it consists of three aspects an “inside”, an “outside” and a “boundary” that separates the inside from the outside. You cannot have a circle without these three elements. Can you image a circle without an inside? an outside? a boundary? None of these parts exists independently they only exist as a particular set of relationships.

Similarly I don’t believe that you can separate your internal sense of “I” and the ideas about you that become the sense of “me” from the society in which it all develops in the first place.  Can you have a society without ‘I’s and ‘me’s? Can you have an internal sense of ‘I’ without any ideas about ‘me’?  Your internal sense of self and the external ideas about you cannot be separated. We are not separate individuals living in society. We are individual expressions of ideas and tendencies that are held in society. Our so-called individuality is not separable from the larger groups that we are a part of? And that means that our ‘personal’ growth cannot be achieved in isolation. Our growth has to include in some fundamental way the growth of others.