There was once a man called George Herbert Mead he was born in 1863 and was an American philosopher, Psychologist and Sociologist. Mead developed a theory around the concept of self, which explains that one’s identity emerges out of external social interactions and internal feelings of oneself. Self is not evident at birth but emerges over time through language, play, and games. The self consists of ‘me’ and ‘I’.
The theory of the social self is based on the argument that the self is a social thing. There are three activities through which the self is developed: 1. Language
Language allows the person to take on the “role of the other” allowing them to respond to his/her own gestures. Play allows the individual to “take on the role of others” (pretend) or (role playing) allowing them to express the expectations of significant others.
Game allows the individual to comprehend the rules of the game. So basically the “self” has two sides the “Me” represents the expectations & attitudes of others and is often known as the organized set of attitudes of others assumed by the individual.
The “I” is the response to the “Me” or the person’s individuality a major instrument of social control or the way the community exercises control over the conduct of its individual members. Confused yet??
Let me explain….. The self has two parts, self-awareness and a self-image. To explore this further we need to appreciate that this theory of the ‘self’ is completely social. We don’t focus on any kind of biological development of the self or personality. The self is something that is born out of social interaction. This theory highlights the self as social and not as biological. There is another social concept that correlates called “the looking-glass self” to refer to significant people in our lives. (I’ll discuss this later)
Our sense of self and our notion of who we are, what we like, and what our personality is, becomes constructed through being in the world, through interaction with ourselves, and being influenced by others socially. Therefore the self is developed as we age and grow we experience life in relationship with others. It’s not something innately biological, it’s learnt, taught, and experienced in real time.
The ‘I’ is the “born” you. The ‘Me’ is the “socialized” you.
To illustrate this point, you are born male/female. You are socialized as to how to behave as a male or female (for example, boys don’t cry or girls don’t play in dirt). As for the example of how a person would behave if in a car accident caused by another driver- the ‘I’ would react with a rapid heartbeat, sweating, a sense of fear and shock etc. The ‘Me’ may react by pulling over, swearing, getting angry or upset etc. See the difference?
“The self has the characteristic that it is an object to itself, and that characteristic distinguishes it from other objects and from the body.” George Herbert Mead.
For the purposes of this article I will use the example of a school teacher to illustrate how this theory works.
Imagine a lady called Joan who is a primary school teacher. Joan would identify the ‘Me’ as the Teacher self, and the ‘I’ as the person behind this, the one that enjoys teaching and helping others and having her own hopes, desires and vulnerabilities but not necessarily on display. The ‘I’ is the authentic self the one that wears no masks. This concept can be applied to you and everybody else. Basically the self develops through interacting with others, through reflecting on those interactions and how others are perceiving you. This helps to generate an image of yourself. A self -concept if you like.
This process unfolds as follows:
We experience being in this world by living amongst others, by being influenced by others and learning how to behave from a young age by watching our parents and significant others.
So how might these social interactions give rise to the self? Living in the world amongst community allows us to have interactions and express our developing personalities to see how the self that we put out there on display for others is being reacted to. Our social mask if you like, the parts of ourselves we readily show others in social settings are usually our ‘best behaviour’ masks. As you are aware people wear many masks it’s about perspective and being in relation to one another.
“What gives it its human character is that the individual through language addresses himself in the role of the others in the group and thus becomes aware of them in his own conduct.” George Herbert Mead
I want you to consider now:
• How are others reacting to me?
• Do people praise how you are, what you do?
• Or always putting you down and telling you that you are worthless?
• What labels have others given you that you now believe yourself?
Our self is mirrored in the reactions of the other. This is the ‘looking glass self’ concept. It is evident in babies who mirror their parent’s faces when happy, angry or sad. You watch a mother smiling at her young baby- that smile is reflected back at her from the child automatically. As adults you may be discussing a matter with a group of people and you make a statement that makes everyone laugh, someone might even call you an idiot.
This could impact you to start seeing yourself as stupid because you may internalise that belief but it’s not yours it came from an outside source yet you begin to believe it and act on it. You may adopt the looking glass, (others beliefs about you) the mirror image of yourself that is being put back to you by others.
Believing what others say about you until it becomes a self -fulfilling prophecy particularly if these patterns have a repeating effect and on several occasions you are called similar negative names. You may develop a self -image or self –concept that is tainted by that belief that was never yours to begin with but became engrained by others into you.
If these patterns get repeated again and again through your lifetime, you develop an image of yourself that is given to you not from your own frame of reference but from others. This is what we refer to as the ‘looking glass self’. It is other people’s version of who you are that you adopt and not your own.
The ‘looking glass self’ was given to us by Charles Horton Cooley an American Sociologist Psychologist born in 1864. He developed the ‘Looking Glass’ concept in 1902 and believed that everybody is susceptible to this behaviour as we can so easily influence others within a social context. Through the lens of this theory we can see how many people are living their lives believing themselves to be the sum total of what others have told them they are- without truly reflecting on it or challenging it.
Wearing negative labels, harbouring negative or even positive views about themselves depending on the messages received from others.
They then become the ‘naughty boy’ at school or the ‘class clown’ or the ‘drama queen’ these labels often shape their personalities and grow with them into adulthood. Significant adults around children such as parents, teachers, aunts, uncles and grandparents often have the most powerful influence on children and often what they say is gospel to the child who swallows it whole without question believing they really are those things. Maybe they hear messages like ‘you are fat, stupid, ugly, useless, thick, won’t ever amount to anything’.
Such powerful negative messages on young minds can play havoc with a child’s personal development. In contrast those adults who nurture and stimulate their children positively with remarks like ‘wow well done, you are amazing, we are so proud of you, we love you’- those children develop a healthier self- concept.
Their belief system is boosted with confidence whereas their negative counterparts are degraded and shamed. A note to readers- if you are parents or significant adults in any child’s life please be mindful of what you say to them as words really do count. Your words can have lifelong consequences and impact on others. Try to nurture a sense of confidence and belief in children and they will thrive.
Now try and think back to your own childhoods:
• What negative or positive messages did you receive? Feel free to list them and process.
• How has it impacted on your life today? Feel free to journal or reflect on how your past has impacted your present.
• Do you still believe those comments to be true? Have others views of you cemented in your mind and become a self- fulfilling prophecy?
• Or have you flipped the script and created your own reality in which those negative comments are banished?
• Through self -awareness have you been able to challenge those perceptions and remove others negative views from your heart and mind and replaced them with kinder beliefs that you own?
On the basis that a self- image is developed in recognizing how others are perceiving us, we then become consciously aware of the other and try to put ourselves in their shoes and think about how they are seeing this event or situation playing out. This is called ‘imitation’.
We are constantly, with imitation, trying to see the world from another’s point of view. It begins with young children who imagine the position of their parents. This final role, is called the ‘generalized other’.
By taking on the role of the other, we can become self-aware and develop a sense of empathy. As we become more aware of ourselves we develop two parts of the self.
1. Self-image- The idea one has of one’s abilities, appearance, and personality
2. Self-awareness- Conscious knowledge of one’s own character and feelings.
To illustrate this point picture this scene:
Children are playing together in a nursery playground where there is a ‘Wendy House’ and dress up toy box full of outfits. Some children choose to role play ‘doctors and nurses’ others play ‘mummies and daddies’ in the Wendy House assigning roles of the mum, dad and child and enacting those roles in what they have seen at home. (self -images in play)
Stereotypically children enact mummy busy cooking in the kitchen and daddy going to work with baby crying for attention. (although in modern families this maybe quite different) Young children reflect back their lived experience of the world around them in the purest sense as they have no filters.
They took on the generalised role of the other from watching adults around them- children live what they learn. Children are not self-aware enough to know the difference between the ‘Me’ or ‘I’ yet.
I guess it could be amusing to watch a diverse group of young children play mummies and daddies together from very different backgrounds where mummy works and daddy stays at home and watch the ensuing confusion between the children whose parents live different lifestyles. Each child would believe their way is the right way because it’s what they see at home.
Basically children copy or ‘imitate’ what they see, then gradually learn to take the point of view of several others, often simultaneously of significant adults in their lives. Until finally when they are fully socialized, they take on the viewpoint of society in general.
This happens when people have internalized the widespread cultural norms, and expectations of what is acceptable behaviour in that society.
So consider now about your own behaviour:
How have you been shaped by the generalised ‘other’?
And how do you think this generalized other in turn sees ‘me and my behaviour?
In summary we have the “I” part of the self and the “me” part of the self. The “I” part is the part of you that’s out there, acting, being spontaneous and doing things in the world. It’s the subject of action. It’s what you would probably commonly think of as your authentic self.
The “me” is the jointly combined image of yourself that has been given to you from others interacting with society. ‘Me” is basically the part of you that society sees and “I” is how you respond to the “me”.
For example the “me” would expect to go straight into a job right after finishing studies, because that’s what society wants, but the “I” might respond and say, ‘Actually, I just want to chill out for a year or travel a bit before I start working. ‘Me’ is the part that does things that are in keeping with society’s expectations. ‘I’ is more spontaneous in terms of its actions, and less likely to conform to society’s norms.
To break it down, the concept of “me” enables the individual to regulate the behaviour of “I”.
“The self has the characteristic that it is an object to itself, and that characteristic distinguishes it from other objects and from the body.” George Herbert Mead