Theories on the Development of Self-Identity

Identity Self Authentic Self-Actualization

Undoubtedly everyone at some time in their life has posited the question”Who am I?” This, along with “Why am I here?” ,”what’s the purpose of life?” , and other apparently transient questions, has been a question that has puzzled philosophers throughout the ages. Individuals and cultures alike have attempted to render a verdict for the evidence that has been presented. Although the glut of answers that has been given throughout history has varied tremendously both in nature and scope, they can be condensed into two basic perspectives: atheistic and theistic. From the atheistic view, which will be the leaning of most modern philosophers, is that we are here, the same as everything else – by accident. Over the course of centuries of evolution, humans, somewhere in the last few million years have developed a conscience – a self-realization. What it is really, is anyone’s guess, but it somehow puts us a little over the plants and flowers, which although are alive, growing, and reproducing, have in themselves no idea of being; they just simply exist, and nothing more. In this scenario, we actually don’t have any existence or purpose in life; we just have a few overdeveloped brain cells that are firing erratically causing us to temporarily become somewhat aware of our existence. When we die, it is all over and we, conscious of our being or not, only cease to exist. On the other hand, in the theistic view, humans were created by God with a set purpose in life. Following are brief synopses of three prominent sociologists. 

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Charles Horton Cooley was a professor at the University of Michigan from 1892 until his death in 1929. Dr. Cooley set out to theorize human self-awareness by postulating three components that define our awareness based on our relationships with people around us. He believed that we imagine how we look to those around us, then we interpret the responses of others based on their perception of us, and finally we create a self-concept based on how we interpret the reactions of others. He called this theory that the”looking-glass self”. He felt that we perceive in our minds how we look or seem to people around us. Irrespective of how we feel about ourselves, we often worry about how others respect us. In middle school, most of us hope that everyone will think we’re cool. In high school we can’t fathom the notion that we won’t be found appealing. In college and throughout life we constantly worry that others will look down on us for some unknown reason. We frequently evaluate the answers we get from those around us to ascertain how they feel about us based on how they view us. Do they think we are weak because we are nice? Perhaps they see us as cool because we speak condescendingly to other people. If we are quiet by nature, do they perceive us as intelligent, or simply unfriendly? After we have evaluated the responses of our friends and acquaintances, we will begin to develop ideas about ourselves. He believed that the idea of self was a lifelong, constantly changing, procedure.

George Herbert Mead also employed a three-step process to explain the growth of self, but his steps differed from those suggested by Dr. Cooley. The first of his steps was what he called fake. In this stage, which begins at an early age, we start to imitate the words and actions of those around us. We don’t really have a genuine sense of being; we just view ourselves as an extension of those around us. In the next stage, called play, we begin the process of studying our self-identity by no more simply imitating others, but rather by pretending to be them. Although we have not fully realized ourselves as being a complete and separate entity, we’re realizing a step in that direction by demonstrating that we know that others are people who are different from one another. In the final stage we begin to undertake the roles of others when we play team sports. In these situations we must learn to play as a team by not only playing our role, but by also understanding the functions that other people play so that we may anticipate their moves. In some cases we might also be asked to actively take on their role, like if a player is hurt and we must substitute for them. It’s in these 3 measures, according to Dr. Mead, we each develop our own individual identity.

Jean Piaget was a Swiss psychologist who noticed that kids often make the same wrong observations in similar situations. He cautioned that all kids used the same reasoning when presented with a problem, no matter their background. At the conclusion of years of studying them, Dr. Piaget decided that children go through four phases in the development of reasoning skills. The first stage, which he called the sensorimotor stage, lasts until about the age of 2 in many children. All of our ideas about self are limited to direct physical touch. We have yet to develop the idea of abstract thought or the ability to understand that actions have consequences. The preoperational stage, which lasts from about age two to age seven, is the time period where we begin to learn about what he called logos. That is, anything that we use to represent something else. This terminology not only applies to concrete symbols, such as the male/female silhouettes on bathroom doors, but also to more abstract symbols like language and counting. Although children start to use and realize using these symbols, they do not always fully understand their complete meaning. For example, a child may be able to comprehend the difference between a single cookie and two cookies, but they would not have any concept of the difference between a car that cost $400 and another that cost $40,000. In the third stage, the concrete operational stage which lasts from approximately 7-12 years old, older children are starting to grasp the general meanings of concrete symbols such as numbers (even if they’re extremely large numbers), yet still have difficulties understanding abstract ideas such as love and honesty. In the fourth and last stage of our development, the formal operational stage, we now are beginning to comprehend abstract ideas. We are now able to answer not only questions about who, what, where, and when, but we can also begin to answer questions related to why something is right, wrong, beautiful, kind, etc..

Although Charles Cooley and George Mead differed in their approach to the development of self (Cooley’s was mental in aspect, whereas Mead’s was physical), their thoughts were the same in that their approach was the idea that we look to others to determine our idea itself. Regardless of whether it is our thoughts or actions which are based on those of others, we can not develop the idea of self without the existence of others. On the exact same hand though, those we are looking at are also awaiting us to make their own determinations about them selves. These all, of course, differ from the theistic view which states that we need to look to God (Hebrews 12:2, KJV). The Bible recounts a story of the Apostle Paul debating with all the philosophers in Athens. Whom therefore ye ignorantly worship, him declare I unto you. God that made the world and everything there… neither is worshipped with men’s hands… he giveth to all life, and breath, and all things… they should seek the Lord, if haply they might feel after him, and find him, though he be not far from every one of us… for in him we live, and move, and have our being; as certain also of your own poets have said…” (Acts 17:15-34)

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