What would you say if you were asked to describe who you were?
Would you talk about your personality traits, gender, appearance and features, hobbies, habits, career, education or family and friends? All of them? Or would you mention any of those at all?
So many of these things play into who we are and how we think about ourselves. We see ourselves within a context in all situations. We see ourselves within our family structure, within friendship circles, within culture, within a nationality, a religion, a political view, a personality type… these are some categories and labels we fall into. While they don’t fully summarise who we are, they certainly help understand ourselves.
I think what you consider to be the most important parts of how you define yourself will shape the majority of your actions – these are probably the first things that come to mind if I asked you who you were. To explore this in more detail, let’s consider why our self-concept might shape our actions.
As people we like to be consistent across situations with our actions, making sure they line up with the narrative of our lives and the way we perceive ourselves. This theory is aptly called a desire or need for self-consistency and congruence. Carl Rogers, a humanist psychologist, observed that when we act in ways that contradict or conflict with our self-concept or self-image, it causes distress and may evoke feelings of guilt or anxiety. This means we are compelled to act in ways that support our self-concept to avoid this discomfort. For example, a woman may feel she is unlovable, fearing she will be rejected and hurt by people if they get too close. The woman will act in ways that match this narrative, distancing herself from others. If others retreat in response to her detachment, this confirms in her mind that she is being rejected, even if this is only a result of her own actions.
Although we have many different ways we define ourselves, some ideas are more important to us than others. Some people are very patriotic and proud of their country, and this is a huge part of how they define themselves. Others may not feel a very deep connection to the place they live, so it isn’t really something they define themselves by. You would expect these people to act differently. I believe that what you consider to be the most important part of ‘who you are’, will direct most or even all of your actions.
Your self-concept shapes your motivation for everything in life. We need this kind of ranking in our lives to keep congruence when two aspects of our lives conflict. When our loyalties lie in two places at once, we will tend to stick with what we consider to be more important – this is the logical thing to do right? Your identity shapes your actions! If a person we admire does something that doesn’t match our morals, there is conflict. We must make a choice, either to call that person out, possibly stop supporting them or we can compromise our views and excuse/forgive their behaviour. When we must choose between ourselves and others, as will inevitably happen in life, we go back to basis of our identity for direction. Whatever we consider to be at the core of ourselves, guides us in everything we do.
So now I ask you again, who are you? But more than this, who do you choose to be? This time, I don’t want to you think about your name or where you live, not your family or your job… I want you to look to your values and how you conduct yourself in life. That is who you are on the inside. Our actions reveal our true desires and intentions. Who are you?