By Jean McAulay
I can still see her standing at the blackboard. My seventh grade social studies teacher, with her frizzy hair leaping out in all directions, granny glasses slipping down her young nose and gauze peasant top swooshing through the chalk dust has scribbled, “Free to be you and me” above the day’s notes on Eskimos (we didn’t know to call them Inuit back then).
It’s 1975 and, as much as the teachers at Poquessing Middle School are talking about right whales, paramecium and how to find the value for x, they are subtly exhorting us to know ourselves, love ourselves and be our own people.
A little preoccupied with braces, bras and learning to smoke, we didn’t seem to be paying a lot of attention. But in the decade that saw the launching of “The Phil Donahue Show,” the runaway success of Wayne Dyer’s “Your Erroneous Zones” and the unveiling of SELF magazine, we were laying a strong foundation for a future consumed with getting to know ourselves—pondering, meditating and stewing over who we are, what our life’s purpose is and whether we’re reaching our potential.
We would be well prepared for a middle age dominated by Chopra, Robbins and Oprah promising we could enjoy levels of personal insight never before imagined while making our lives magical.
The relationship to the self is at the core of a vitalistic lifestyle. It’s an understanding that your sense of self is more than listening to ego, it’s the consciousness on whole being—it’s who you are versus who you were told you were. A vitalistic outlook on this relationship promotes a mind and body connection and asks: How well do you receive the genius of your innate?
“The idea of self is a hugely researched topic that has been studied from many different angles,” explains Jennifer Lilgendahl, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychology at Haverford College in Philadelphia, where she teaches Psychological Perspectives on Self and Identity. “Self concept is typically thought of as one of the key characteristics we recognize in ourselves, along with related ideas, such as identity, that look more at who you are in the world, your values and purpose, and those things that most define you as a person.”
Although in North America we tend to take an interest in self development for granted, Lilgendahl says psychological researchers have started to notice that many of their accepted theories in the field have a distinctly Western bent.
“Research shows the concept of self looks and operates differently in different cultures,” Lilgendahl explains. “In the West, we are typically more preoccupied with self and have a much more individualistic concept of self, with traits bounded in terms of an individual and what is unique to me. Eastern and Asian people tend to describe themselves in more collective terms, relating their ideas of self to their connection to roles, other people and a larger group,” she says.
Even the very idea that wanting to explore who you are is evidence of strong mental health is much more common in Western cultures and those where young people have the ability to exercise choice over their life paths.
There are many schools of thought on what actually constitutes a healthy self. “A lot of research in the past 20 years has focused on self esteem,” Lilgendahl says. “Although we have found that chronically low self esteem correlates to depression, aggression and negative outcomes, there is some push back now on whether just encouraging people to think super highly of themselves is the right approach.” Very high self esteem can create a “self-enhancement bias” where people tend to assume responsibility and take credit for anything good that happens in their lives and blame others for all the bad stuff.
Another area gaining steam in psychological research is the idea of self complexity. “Some research is showing that greater self complexity, seeing yourself as having many different facets, can help people cope in times of stress because it gives them more to pull from,” Lilgendahl says. “Although, other research has shown in certain circumstances a more complex self concept can make someone feel fragmented, confused or conflicted.”
Authenticity, or self determination theory, adds another voice to the mix, saying we are better off if we feel our definition of self comes from within rather than being forced upon us by others. It’s the idea of intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation you learned back in Psych 101. “There is research that shows when the lion’s share of your motivational world comes from external sources, there is greater anxiety and unhappiness,” Lilgendahl says.
Congruence is what comes to mind regarding a healthy self concept for Jennifer Farmer, a licensed professional counselor in private practice and the former executive director of Reconnecting Families, a nonprofit organization that supports juvenile court treatment programs in Marietta, Ga. “The inside needs to match the outside,” she advises. “If you feel one way and act another, that’s always going to cause problems. When expectations are in sync with reality and what we can do, we feel balanced.”
“What we think is most important today is more a basic sense of worth along with the capacity to acknowledge one’s strengths and weaknesses,” Lilgendahl adds.
You could criticize ours as the age of navel gazing, or argue we are engaged in the hard work of self discovery. “The literature can point in both directions,” Lilgendahl says. “On one hand there is a sense that you move through adolescence and young adulthood, a time typically more preoccupied with self, and transition into adulthood where we see it as healthy to have more of an outward focus—leading, mentoring and leaving your mark. To still be preoccupied with self discovery at that point is sometimes associated with immaturity, stagnation and depression issues. It is possible to be too self absorbed,” she cautions.
Still, there is research, including Lilgendahl’s own work, that shows reflecting on one’s life story can have emotional and physical benefits. “As a personality psychologist with research that focuses on narrative identity, I look at people’s life stories because a big part of identity and how you derive your self concept comes through your reflection on past experiences and the stories you create about yourself related to those experiences,” she says.
Lilgendahl specifically focuses on the stories people create about negative experiences. “Negative events are really interesting when you look at people’s life stories, because they challenge the self and there are so many different directions people can go with them,” she explains. “Their story might focus on the growth, transformation and insights that occurred because of a challenge, or they can be stories of bitterness and depression from someone who became stuck on a negative event.”
When people write about their stories or tell them to others it can actually create emotional and physical health benefits, including improvements in immune function. “Really tuning into yourself and reflecting on experiences that were difficult and then integrating them into yourself in a way that gives them meaning and makes them less threatening, that kind of tuning in can be a very good thing,” Lilgendahl says.
Although it comes naturally to some people, in a recent study in the journal Emotion, researchers at the University of Denver and the University of Basel in Switzerland taught research subjects how to take the sting out of a situation by reframing how it’s understood. The study found women who were able to use this type of technique suffered less from depression after significant crises in their lives.
Behavioral psychologist, assistant professor at Life University and president of The Fruits of Labor, Inc., executive and personal coach Cherry Collier, Ph.D., says there’s definitely room for improvement in most people’s relationships with themselves and benefits to pursuing personal growth.
The first step is self awareness. “We learn math, science and so many things in school but we don’t typically learn about self development and self awareness,” she says. “Even though we tend to be individualistic in the West, we actually don’t typically do much in terms of self discovery and self learning. Sometimes it’s even seen as selfish.”
“There’s a stigma that we’ve allowed society to place on us,” Collier adds. “Extraversion is one of the top five things employers look for in a candidate. We’ve taken that concept to the extreme and find it hard to tune out, disconnect and just be quietly alone. People are often afraid they are going to miss out on something. But getting in touch with who you are and learning more about yourself requires quiet, reflection and thinking.”
She sees people in the helping professions, such as DCs, as among the worst offenders. “Caregivers are typically the last to help themselves,” Collier says. “They are so busy making time for and caring for everyone else that they don’t make time to quietly care for themselves.”
In addition to the personal impact, Collier worries about the message all that outward-focused busyness is sending to children. “If we aren’t modeling the behavior of taking time for ourselves and being able to sit quietly and reflect, they won’t know how to do it either.”
Farmer likes the idea of thinking of yourself as a baby or child with needs that have to be met and that deserve time and attention to do so. “Create nooks of comfort in your home where you can sit and think. You have to be quiet, even if it’s only sitting for 10 minutes with a journal every morning. It will help you think about what you love, what’s important to you, and ultimately what you’re all about.”
In the end, a healthy self concept and relationship may mean integrating a broader idea of yourself into your thinking. We all have positive characteristics and more destructive ones. We take actions for our own benefit but must also consider their impact on others. In ways and at times we are extraordinary, and in others we are very average. We are all these things, and more, and less.