It is quite a troublesome thought to think that a large part of who I am is determined by the external world. I would like to believe that there are no limits on myself, that my decisions, options and choices are not governed by other forces and outside agendas. Yet I can perceive that in my life, regardless of the fact that I might be an isolated monk in a monastery, that everything I do, every single act, has a social consequence or a social meaning. John Dunne famously said ‘No man is an island, entire of himself.’ I like to think I could be but ultimately I know that if other people in my life suddenly disappeared I would find it extremely difficult to carry on. But it does happen and people are more resilient than they think; yet it remains constant that ‘island status’ is both undesirable and impossible.
This, in short, is how both psychology and anthropology, view identity. When a child is born, despite religious claims to the opposite (original sin etc.), they are a blank canvas. It is culture and family which paint on it. In the early years the central actors are mostly the family. The importance of their role is lost upon a lot of families and is over emphasised by many others. Getting the balance right is extremely difficult.
There are many people who have written about the formation of identity. John Bowlby famously wrote about attachment theory and how a child’s consistent relationships with adults formed a secure base, which became the fundamental source of knowledge for all future relationships. Jean Piaget, a french psychologist, focused on how children began their lives in an egocentric state (essentially self serving) only to transform to one of the sociocentric (focusing on the needs of others). D.W. Winnicott transformed our ideas about identity in the 1960s. He proposed that there was a ‘false’ self and a ‘true’ self. The false self was something which arose from the expectations of peers, culture and social constructs. The false self protected the true self from the world and from the expectations of others. It was unfortunate than in protecting ourselves we become compliant with whatever social structure it is we have to live in. After Winnicott’s work there were a myriad of theories which focused on the duality of identity and the struggle which exists to find ‘real identity.’
The issue of identity is further confused by the issue of love. Not sexual, woah I fancy them, kind of love, but brotherly compassionate concern for the other. Unfortunately for most love is an embarrassing word and is confused in its definition. But to be loving, or not to be, is a choice which is fundamental to our identities. It is a choice which I think many ‘true selves’ make in a positive way, but who are then drowned out by the rationalisations of the ‘false self’. Some people are able to overcome the ‘false self’, which leads to them questioning the world around them and how conducive it is, or is not, to caring for people (which isn’t a complex proposition). Yet many more never find, or even seek, this contradiction: the ‘false self’ remains, controlling all actions and responses and leading to cleverly rationalised compliance. And at the same time, for most of us, the potential we carry is denied.