Saturday, 11 April 2015

Defining Self: T2 article dated 22nd March 2015

Who am I? This question has probably been around from the time humankind existed. The idea of the ' self ' has undergone several transitions. With each passing generation, we redefine who we are. In modern psychology, the self is no longer considered as just an individual, separate from social contexts and relationships. Rather, the idea of self is seen as embedded in its cultural social and family contexts.

As individuals, we try to gain our worth by being of value to a bigger identity, which may be our family, tribe, community, society or nation. How ' valued' we feel depends on two major factors: 

A) Social comparison: 
We compare ourselves to others or to an idealised version of how we ' should be'. From this we develop our idea of who we are and form an estimation of our worth. This self- judgement serves as a double- edged sword, as it can help bring out the best in us and also pull us down.

B) Feedback from others: We constantly try to define ourselves based on the judgement of others.
The feedback can be actual, such as from parents, teachers, friends and peers, or it may be our presumptions about how others will judge us. This is a problem area as our opinion about ourselves depends upon external validation.

Yogesh, a man in his early 30s, was referred to us by his friends. He came because he had a feeling of " emptiness and purposelessness". Though he ran a fairly successful company, his friends and he had noticed that he was becoming socially withdrawn and morose of late. On inquiry he told us that his elder brother had a manufacturing company which had suffered a massive loss, and so immediately on completing his MBA, he joined his brother to help out.
Yogesh started a safer and lowinvestment assembly unit, which gave lower profits but was more sustainable and gradually they made up for the losses. But of late the manufacturing unit run by his brother had picked up and was once again the main business in terms of financial returns. Here's how our session went... 

Yogesh: I feel that somehow I am not required for anything now. My family is secure and I am not adding anything significant and there is no purpose to my life.
Therapist: Okay, so you are feeling less significant these days? Yogesh: Yes. I know it's very stupid.
Sometimes I question myself if I am jealous of my brother. He's doing very well and naturally we are always talking about his plans, his problems, his achievements.... But I honestly don't feel so. I am extremely proud of him.
Therapist: So, is it possible that though you are not jealous, because your brother's contribution has taken centre stage and when you compare yourself to that, you feel less significant? 
Yogesh: Yes. But that's shallow, isn't it? I also feel that when my family was in a crisis I was ' valued' and now that the crisis is over, I am no longer needed. Sometimes I secretly wish for a crisis… and this makes me feel horrible about myself.

Yogesh's problem was a multilayered one. First, he was feeling a lack of self- worth due to the change of his role in his family. In comparison to his brother, he was feeling ' less needed'. Second, he was judging himself and feeling guilty about being competitive with his brother and finding his sense of self-worth in the family crisis, which was clashing with his moral ideas of how he ' should be'. Though we are naturally inclined to social comparison, we can train our mind to change the criteria by which these comparisons are made.

In the early stages of life, our comparison is naturally goal- centric but as the life situations change we need to redefine ourselves through self- actualisation, i. e through developing and exploring our own ability and potential.

Adapting to new roles: Like Yogesh, a lot of people find themselves at a loss when their role in the social context changes. It can be for a professional post- retirement, or it can be for a mother when her children grow up and become increasingly independent. Situations will always change and it demands that we realign ourselves to the new roles and new responsibilities.

Changing the criteria for comparison: When our role changes, we need to redefine the criteria for evaluating ourselves. If we can focus on doing our best instead of simply focusing on the end result of our efforts, it will become easier to find value. We can train ourselves to focus on our own self- improvement rather than comparing ourselves with others to feel good about ourselves. Yogesh slowly opened up to the idea of finding value by contributing in different ways. He started spending more time with his family and also started focusing on volunteer work.

Self- feedback: That and self assurance can play a major part in redefining our self- worth. As we mature and go through life, we come to be our own person. Ideas of success and failure, being worthy and unworthy — as defined by society — may not be enough to define who we are. 
We gradually need to become comfortable with our own uniqueness and depend less on conventional norms to make us feel valued. We need to find ways to appreciate and reassure ourselves every now and then, and not wait for it to come from others

( Name and details have been changed)

 Dr Sangbarta Chattopadhyay and Dr Namita Bhuta are medical practitioners, psychotherapists and life coaches Share your problems with them 
dr. sangbarta@ gmail. com

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