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Socrates - Know thy Self

Updated on August 20, 2012

Socrates once stated "Know Thyself." These words are of perpetual importance. No better advice has ever been given to man or woman. Socrates is well-known for arguing that one must Know Thyself in order to be wise, and that the unexamined life is not life worth living. It is a cruel irony that Socrates himself wascondemned to death for corrupting the youth by educating them to study of philosophy and arguing that people are ignorant of their own truth. In order to know thyself as Socrates says one needs to find out what “self” really is.

No topic in the world of psychology is more heavily researched than that of the sense of “self”. The terminology of the word “self” is very young in the psychology field. In 2009, the word “self” appeared in 6,935 book and article summaries in PsycINFO. This is more than four times the number that appeared in 1970 (Meyers, 2010). Which leads to the conclusion that now more than ever there is more research and information being gathered about our sense of “self”. The sense of “self” can be defined simply as the sense of personal identity. It’s literally what makes someone their own individual person.

The sense of “self” is determined by a myriad of factors and environmental influences. A person’s sense of self comes from growing up and learning from our families, our friends, our teachers and classmates. The sense of self comes from achievements we attain and from the praise and criticism we receive along the way in life (Grohol, 2003). Everybody has a sense of self or sense of personal identity. Most people have many different ways of thinking about themselves that are substantial enough to be considered multiples senses of self (The Brain Injury Association of New York State, 2006). The sense of self includes the behaviors, roles, associations and attributes that one considers the most important about themselves. According to The Brain Injury Association of New York State: “These sense-of-self associations can be based on any combination of the following:

1. Occupations (e.g., teacher, physician, plumber)

2. Social relationships (e.g., husband/wife, friend, colleague)

3. Familial relationships (e.g., brother/sister; son/daughter; mother/father)

4. Quasi-occupations (e.g., helper, volunteer)

5. Avocations (e.g., athlete, musician, artist, collector, helper, volunteer)

6. Affiliations (e.g., Shriner, Yankee fan)

7. Abilities/disabilities (e.g., smart person, funny person, shy person with a disability, “patient”)

8. Salient attributes (e.g., reliable, hardworking, good looking, lazy, dishonest)

9. Spirituality (e.g., child of God, Catholic, Buddist)”

Sense-of-self is often linked with physical attractiveness and attributes, physical possessions and physical prowess during the early school years, one needs only to walk down a hallway in a middle school to see that. But by late adolescence, mature and developed students start growing beyond the group norms, the physical associations, and peer pressure and start to think about what sort of person they want to become. These young adults base their new self on the morals and values that they hold in high regard. With this change in the sense of self young adults may come into an increased feeling of relief in being different from their peers.

The sense of self has much interchange with social worlds. Some examples of this interaction are the spotlight effect and the illusion of transparency. In accordance to the spotlight effect a person believes that others are paying attention to their appearance and behavior while in actuality the others are not. The illusion of transparency describes how one believes that their hidden emotions can escape and can be easily read by others (Meyers, 2010). The sense of self and society interacts more than one realizes. For example, social surroundings affect one’s self-awareness. For example, I am Swedish and my boyfriend is Puerto Rican. When I first met his family I was the only Caucasian person, and the only one that spoke English as a primary language. I felt very uncomfortable and felt that everyone was watching what I doing. As time has passed, I have grown accustomed to his family and have even started to learn Spanish so I could at least understand some of conversation. But I will never forget how uncomfortable I felt that first time. I now realize that it was not his family that was watching everything I do, but it was me overreacting to the fact that I was the only English speaking and Caucasian person there. When a person is the only member of a certain gender or race or of nationality in a group, one notices how they differ and how others are reacting to our differences.

Another way that the sense of self and society intermingle is the fact that self-interest colors one’s social judgments. An example of how this phenomenon works can be seen in close relationships. When things go wrong in a marriage or domestic partnership, one usually attributes more responsibility to the other partner and not to oneself. But on the other hand when things are looking up or going well, a person will see themselves as being more responsible. It all boils down to the fact that one tries to avoid the blame when bad events happen, but tries to receive the praise when things are going well. Another way that society and the concept of self interact is how self-concern motivates our social behavior. This can be seen in the age old reference of politician kissing babies. Politicians want to be seen as caring, loving and nurturing while trying to gain popularity, but have no problem changing their behavior when they are debating their opponents. As a whole people monitor other’s behaviors and expectations and we adjust our behavior accordingly (Meyers, 2010).

Social relationships help define the sense of self. As humans, we all have very many different relationships. We are students, teachers, mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, friends, lovers and many other roles. It is interesting to note how our sense of self differs when we take on different social roles. For example there is ten years between my sister and I. When I was younger I would have no problem playing dolls with her or playing dress up, but if my friends ever came over I would never think about playing dolls or dress-up with her. When I was in the role of the sister, I had no problems playing dolls, but when I was in the role of friend, I would not have even dared to let my friends see me playing with my little sister. Or another example, even to this day I act completely different around my parents then I do my friends. I do not swear around my parents, talk about sex or anything I think they would deem inappropriate, but when I am with my friends there is no limit on what we talk aobut.

When a person starts developing a self-identity or self-concept, one develops different self-schemas. These self-schemas are beliefs about the self that form and guide the processing of self-relevant information (Meyers, 2010). For example in your self-identity includes being a fashion model one would develop a self-schema that would include a keen eye for fashion, pay attention to the fashion industry and look at others fashion sense. With developing self-schemas, people also develop possible selves. These possible selves are likened to the being “The Good, The Bad and The Ugly” of a person. Possible selves are images of what we dream of or dread being in the future.

When a person develops a “self” it can be either classified as an individualist or a collectivist type of self. An individualist type of self is one that gives priority to one’s own goals over group goals and defining one’s identity in terms of personal attributes rather than group identification (Meyer, 2010). More individualistic sense of self is found more in industrialized western countries while a collectivist sense of self are found in more countries in Asia, Africa and Central and South America. A collectivist type of self is one that prides themself on giving priority to group goals and defining themselves as part of a group. For example if I were to describe myself as being Roman Catholic followed by being a female student, I would be representing a collectivist type of self. By aligning myself with the Roman Catholic group, the female group and the student group I am stating that I am part of a bigger whole. If on the other hand I described myself as tall, I am honest, I am a hard worker, then I would be personifying the individualistic self because I am describing my own personal traits. I am an individual and prefer not to be seen as part of a whole.

The concept of self cannot be discussed without looking at the concepts of self-esteem and self-efficacy. Self-esteem is the sense of self-worth, while self-efficacy is the sense that one is competent and effective. If one believes that they can accomplish something than that is self-efficacy, if one likes themselves it is self-esteem. These concepts do not go hand in hand. One can have a feeling of self-efficacy but still have low self-esteem.

The journey to know thyself is a journey that one must take on their own. It’s a personal journey of self-exploration and gathering knowledge. Although people during this journey use others for guides, it is up to the individual themselves to carve out their definition of self. My journey to find myself was an adventure. I was not raised by the typical nuclear family. I was raised by my grandparents, so I believe in my sense of self, I have some “old fashion” values combined with new age values. My sense of self and my sister’s sense of self are too completely different ideas, even though we grew up together. How is that possible? The journey to find the sense of self is an individual journey that is different for every person. Just like DNA, the sense of self, is individually unique.

References

Grohol, John M. 2003. “Self esteem and a sense of self.” Retrieved 8 July 2011 from: http://psychcentral.com/archives/senseself.htm

The Brain Injury Association of New York State. (2006). “Sense of self / personal identity”. Retrieved 11 July 2011 from: http://www.projectlearnet.org/tutorials/sense_of_self_personal_identity.html

Myers, D. (2010). Social Psychology (10th ed.). New York: McGraw Hill.

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