Exploring Oneself: How to Know Who "You" Really Are

Nov 6, 2018

For many years, the predominating school of thought in the field of psychology was that one's sense of self is a culmination of the thoughts, feelings, and sensations one feels on a daily basis. Newer research, however, suggests a more detached sense of self. Michael Bordieri, Murray State professor of psychology, visits Sounds Good to discuss this concept.

It has been said that "self-knowledge is of social origin," meaning the concept of ourself is derived from our responses to or from social interactions. Learning how to tell when you're hungry, learning how to react to pain, etc., can all come from participating in or witnessing social experiences at a very young age. In this way, we learn how to evaluate ourselves in relation to the rest of the world. This relationship is at the root of the psychological concept of one's sense of self being a conglomerate of thoughts, feelings, and internalized sensations. 

Research done in the late twentieth century suggested that individuals with higher self esteem were also physically and mentally healthier and more financially successful. With the thought that the presence of one would encourage the growth of another, a push towards increasing individual self-esteem began, with the desired result being greater health and success garnered from the improved esteem. Measuring youths' self esteem now compared to the 1970s shows greater overall self esteem, but the intended effect of corresponding benefits did not occur as planned. A new way of thinking, which involved a different, detached perspective of self, was born from this halfway successful experiment.

Bordieri explains that by removing oneself from inner thoughts and feelings, and viewing oneself as a conduit through which these emotions can pass, one can obtain a more successful and positive self image. "The focus on the content of thoughts themselves might be misdirected. Maybe you're not what you think you are, or your thoughts or feelings, maybe you're [just] the person doing all of this noticing. This change in focus -- focusing on [the] self not as content ('good' or 'bad,' the story you have about yourself) -- teaches people to relate to themselves as context (a place from which you experience thoughts and feelings)." Practices of mindfulness, transcendental senses of self, and other similar self-evaluative techniques focus on this sense of detachment. 

Paul Atkinson and other Australian researchers conducted an experiment in which they asked fairly successful individuals -- doctors, scientists, etc. -- to talk about a difficult experience they had in their life for thirty minutes to an hour. The researchers found no direct correlation between the number of 'positive' and 'negative' things the subjects said about themselves and their overall success in life. Instead, what mattered was the subject's relation to themselves. Phrases like, "I noticed myself becoming more anxious," or, "I stepped back and wondered why I was feeling the way I was," proved to be more beneficial to the participants' psychological health and the maintenance (and even improvement) of their self worth. 

This disconnected sense of self can prove to be even more beneficial than tying life experiences, innermost thoughts, and wide expanses of emotion into the measurement of one's character or identity. As Bordieri explains, "we can let go of the idea that we have to feel a certain way, or that a thought we have at any moment or an emotion we have at any moment is who we are. Who we are is the person experiencing it. And from that perspective, on days when we're having not so friendly thoughts of ourselves, or on days when a tough emotion is there, it gives us a little space. Recognizing that this isn't who we are, [that] this is just like the weather, and maybe it's a rainy day. If you're the sky, one bad day of weather isn't something to worry about because you know something different will come along the next day."