Which self are we talking about?

Who are you, really?

“Who am I?” is not the easiest question to answer.

Over the last 40 years there have been hundreds of thousands of research articles and books published on self-related phenomena.  And before that, of course, philosophers and religious scholars have wrestled with the notion for millennia.

Self-conscious, self-esteem, self-understanding, self-control, self-deception, self-defeating, self-acceptance, self-determination, self-image, self-protection, self-efficacy, self-actualization,…the list is very long.

Perhaps a unifying construct for these seemingly diverse self’s lies in the capacity for self-reflection.  Reflexive awareness – the human ability to recognize and think about oneself as a Self – is a rare and special characteristic among the animal kingdom.

Common conceptual groupings in our thinking about the self often include:

  • thinking of the self as a combination of genetic pre-dispositions plus formative experiences resulting in the unique personality of the individual;
  • thinking of self as the all-inclusive totality of the person;
  • thinking of the self as the invisible internal decision maker, planner and doer (executive agent of volition) who steers the body-machine through life;
  • thinking of the self as the experiencer of life (my life, “me” = self as known/self as object);
  • thinking of the self as the observer of the experiencer of life (“I” = self as knower/self as subject) (The subjective witness of the life of “me” as object);
  • thinking of the self as the contextual living awareness within which the observer, the experiencer, the personality and all other aspects and levels of “self” exist.  (Pure sentient consciousness)

So we can see that when we refer to our self (or another person) as a self, it’s not always clear which self we are referring to.

It can be useful to note that both taking oneself as an object of one’s attention and noticing oneself as contextual to all other concepts of self can bring a certain measure of cohesion and stability to life.  It is from these perspectives that mistakes are minimized and choices are more frequently aligned with core values.

Three psychological processes are involved:

Attentional processes that allow us to purposefully direct our conscious attention onto ourselves;

Cognitive processes that allow us to think about ourselves – our current state and circumstances, our traits, roles, memories, wishes, etc. and their relative stability or fleetingness;

Executive processes that enable us to self-regulate and navigate from where we are right now to where we would like to be in the future – thus we can aim for and achieve goals of our own choosing.

There are also numerous self-relevant emotional and motivational phenomena that affect our coping and adaptation to the ever-changing conditions in life, but these are not inherent aspects of the self and thus won’t be considered here at this time.

Our focus, in this post, is on the interface between 1) the experience of self and 2) the locus of identity; and how these two processes contribute to our ability to achieve successful outcomes in life.

Four factors affecting our understanding of what’s going on here include:

  • individual developmental processes;
  • evolutionary processes as a species;
  • cultural influences on self-related phenomena; and
  • advances in neuroscience and how the biochemical and bioelectrical activity of the brain gives rise to subjective experience and self-awareness.



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