*Part of the Identity Series*
When I asked my grandparents who they are, they couldn’t answer. When I asked them how they thought others would describe them, they suddenly could answer.
When I asked my mom, she listed some great things about herself, but then she said other people think this and that about me though; and I can’t deal with others very well.
So, this made me think: how does other people’s view of us affect our identities? Or rather, our sense and perception of our identities?
I think self-esteem plays a big role in how easily our sense of personal identity is affected by other people’s view of us. A confident, self-assured individual is less likely to believe a bad narrative that someone else has of them, compared to someone with low self-esteem.
I have low self-esteem. I think it has gotten better over the years, but it is definitely still low. This is why I care what people think of me (subconsciously). This is why I can allow other people’s views about me to cause me to question who I am.
So, does this mean that people with low self-esteem have less of a chance to form an accurate personal identity/self-image? I think so.
Most of us, even if we deny it or don’t realise it, do care what others think. As much as we try not to, we care because we seek validation from others. It is often not good enough for us to feel that we are a capable writer, for example. We want other people to tell us that we are, in order to validate that part of ourselves and our abilities.
But is this fair? Does external validation lead to the formation or solidification of one’s true identity?
“I think therefore I am.”
This is a popular philosophical idea that means that what we think about ourselves becomes who we are. I believe this to be true, but especially now in today’s world of social media and sharing our lives, it can be altered to this:
“They think, therefore I am.”
External validation is important to all of us, and so we base who we are on what other people validate to be true about us. It’s like a stamp of approval.
Another reason why we care so much about how others see us is because of our natural, instinctual need to belong.
Belonging is a means of survival. Back in the times of cavemen when danger was all around us, we needed a group of people to help us hunt and survive. If you’re left all alone, you’re vulnerable, weak, and prone to death.
Of course, things are different now but the need to belong is still very much alive in us all.
It makes me think of a typical American High School, where there are groups of people segregated in the cafeteria. The jocks, the punks, the geeks, the musicians, the drama club, and so on. The reason this happens is not because we are all cut-and-paste, but because we all want to belong. And so we wear a skin, pick a group, and try to blend in.
We then have our tribe, our place, and we are safe in that space of belonging.
But what happens when you’re the misfit? The kid who doesn’t have a group? You don’t belong and so you feel like something is wrong with you.
When we’re out of school, we finally see that we can grow out of the group identity that we had given ourselves. We realise we weren’t like those people deep down. We realise we don’t need to belong in that way; in fact, it’s often not belonging at all, it’s fitting in (which is the opposite of belonging, says Brene Brown). Then, we grow into ourselves.
So, why do we still search for belonging even in adulthood? I discussed this in a previous post: Belonging and Community in Adulthood
Following on from my previous point, society has its power over us because it endorses belonging.
Follow the pack, fit in, be happy.
This is why there are social norms that society approves of; it’s a way to control us all and keep us in line. When you follow these norms and rules, you are seen as acceptable. You are validated. You are worthy. And this feels good. This allows us to be content with our identity because other’s see us as “correct” to societal standards.
This includes values, norms, rules, laws, expectations, and so on. When people make lifestyle choices that are judged by others negatively, this is because it goes against the norm or the previously formed expectations.
Analysing this, though, many social norms or rules or expectations are outdated:
- Pre-martial sex
- 9 to 5 full-time office work
- Hard working labour jobs
- Having kids before you’re 30
- Having kids at all
- Education systems
- Opposite sex attraction and relationships
- Needing to follow a religion
- The Golden Formula: School -> Higher Education -> Good Job -> Marriage -> Kids -> Retirement
Where is the space for creatives who need the time to explore their ideas?
Where is the space for same-sex couples with equal rights and livelihoods?
Where is the space for those who learn differently to their peers?
It doesn’t make sense that our society is still restrictive, and at times downright against certain things that are just as much the norm now as anything else. It doesn’t make sense that little has changed in schools, work, and relationships in the view of society and what it sees as “right“.
And this gives room to those who are outside of the norm either seeing themselves as a change-maker (go you!); or more commonly, seeing themselves as misplaced, outside of society, and broken. They don’t belong.
And yet we wonder why there is a mental health decline…
I think how others see us is very important to us all. You’d be lying if you didn’t care a little.
Our self-esteem is both influenced by and influencing our identity through how others see us.
We each seek external validation. When we get it, we decide that our identity is good; and when we don’t, it can cause inner conflict.
We all need to belong and this need drives us to seek validation and to change ourselves to fit in.
And lastly, society is outdated in its view at times but we forget that we are society, and so we have the power to change it.
Feeling like other people see you as wrong, bad, or weird (or whatever else) can lead to a poor sense of identity. It can lead to inner turmoil which causes depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, hiding away, or worse.
I think it is important for us all to regularly revisit who we think we are. The awareness of how you view yourself versus how others view you is important in ensuring that who you are is not based on social norms, a need to belong (or fit in), or seeking external validation. That who you are is the true, authentic you, whether that aligns with what society demands or not.
Being you, despite what others think, is the bravest thing any of us can do.
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