This article explores how the self develops and portrays itself in everyday situations.
The way one presents themselves in society is of utmost importance. It paves the way for how people perceive them and, consequently, how they perceive themselves. One must have a constant good self-image which will allow others to be fond of them. This fondness (synonymously called social validation) acts as fuel to increase the individual’s self-esteem and enables them to see themselves in a better light.
Sociological definitions: The Self
From a sociological viewpoint, the self can be defined as the individual from their perspective. Michael Foucault is credited with developing the most ideas on the self. According to him, the self directly results from power and can only be understood via historically particular discourse systems. He emphasises that because self and identity are produced “inside, not outside, discourse,” there can be no authentic self-hiding “within” or behind the artificial or superficial.
The self is formed via control relationships and is intertwined with knowledge and discourse systems. In simple words, your self grows from the social interactions and relationships you have and depending on that; it gathers knowledge and cues. (Cahill, 1998) notes that ‘the public person is not made in the image of a unique self; rather, an interpretive picture of a unique self is made in the image of the public person”. This means that a complete understanding of self-meanings, self-images, and self-concepts necessitates a broad understanding of context, which goes beyond the immediate definition of the situation to include the historical and cultural contexts where unarticulated assumptions about the nature of the person originate.
“In a way, the concept of identity has become central to a wide range of substantive concerns, so too has the self, expanded beyond the traditional boundaries of symbolic interactionism. Indeed, in many ways, the self has been resurrected; in its new form, we find a deeper appreciation of the historical, political, and sociological foundation of selfhood and a more sophisticated understanding of the relationship between the self and social action.” (Callero, 2003)
Mead’s two aspects of the self
George Mead proposes two components of the self, the “I” and the “me”.
The “me” represents the social self; it represents the self as an object. The “I” means the “me’s” response; it represents the individual’s desires. The “I” shows the self as a subject. For example, the difference between “I shoved him” and “he shoved me”.
These components each serve different functions for the self. They both keep evolving as the person grows; the “me” acts in habitual (inherent) ways, and the “I” reflects on these and makes self-conscious choices. This allows individuals to grow through introspection; the growth of the “I” and “me” is directly proportional.
An example of this growth is learning social cues for internet chatting.
“I know my friend is upset with me when she messages monosyllabic responses.” The social self grew and learnt from society that when people give short responses to your questions, it means that they are upset with you.
The two types of selves in the internet age
The self can be viewed as a character that performs in society. Now that we know how the self develops and grows let’s explore the different kinds of selves and how they function.
Since the growth of virtual chatrooms and online games, two selves perform-
the virtual self, how the individual behaves online and the in-person self, and how the individual acts in face-to-face interactions.
The virtual self differs from the in-person self in two ways-
- It portrays the individual through a heightened sense of self by showing that one’s life is better than it is or showing off one’s achievements and expensive possessions extensively.
- Or it portrays a more reckless version of the individual. The use of fake accounts or “throwaways” enables individuals to be unfiltered and insensitive with their self-expression and speech. The individual knows that there will be no consequences since no one will be able to figure out who they are in person, who fuels them to act on whatever is on their mind without even the slightest bit of censorship.
The virtual self relates more to the individual’s “backstage persona”, and the in-person self relates more to the individual’s “front stage persona”. The backstage persona is who you are, and the front stage person is the face you put on to make others like you. To explain this with an example, an individual might struggle to answer questions in an in-person college lecture because they fear being judged or ridiculed by their peers or feel humiliated if they answer incorrectly in front of everyone. But the same anxious student will be more relaxed in a zoom class lecture since their video is off and no one knows what their face looks like, so one in their class will care if they say anything stupid. I.e., the consequences will not be that heavy.
However, there are times when the in-person self and the virtual self fuse over online video calling platforms like Zoom, Discord, or Gmeet. When individuals are pulled out of their reality and flung into the virtual world, as the pandemic caused, the lines between their front and backstage persona blur. Individuals start to be at both the front and backstage simultaneously. For example, individuals can impress their online lecturer with their intellect by paying attention in class while attending it from bed and playing mobile games simultaneously.
Looking glass theory and modern times
Cooley’s looking glass self-theory is more applicable than ever in this day and age. Cooley’s theory speaks about how an individual’s sense of self is dependent on how others view them, and through the growth of social media, this theory proves to come into play. With social media actively promoting specific body type standards and a benchmark for what’s considered attractive or not, people (especially young adolescents who’ve just started puberty) start to chase social validation actively. When they don’t get it, they base their self-worth on that. As harmful as it sounds, this issue is only spreading because people fail to understand that social media is supposed to be a recreational outlet with mindless content, not a resume or a cv where you upload every achievement you’ve ever had. People, especially adolescents who are just being introduced to social media sites, unintentionally let their inner sense of self get influenced by other people’s pretentious sense of self.
The younger children’s malleable minds get conditioned to chase after likes and follow as a source of self-happiness. If they don’t get enough likes on a picture of themselves, their mind instantly concludes, “oh my god, I’m hideous; everyone hates me”. The speed at which they jump from assumption to assumption is fascinating but not admirable. This anxious overthinking can be triggered by the most ludicrous things. For example, a tween thinking- “Suzie didn’t comment on my post; what did I do now, why does she hate me, am I a horrible friend?”
To try and fit these ridiculous societal standards, the individual starts to photoshop their pictures, flex their expensive possessions like watches, cars, etc. and achievements like academic awards and hope that people fall for their façade and start to like them.
Trends like toxic positivity also convince individuals to feel good about themselves when they shouldn’t. Let’s look at this through an example, an individual is suffering from depression and doesn’t know what to do. The correct advice would be to reassure them that things will get better and be okay if they get professional, component help. A toxically positive person would give them frivolous advice like telling them to distract themselves and that it’s okay not to be okay. They convince the gullible individual that their situation will automatically get better and that they’re in a better place than they are without giving them any constructive advice.
The solution and conclusion
An individual can only fight back against external negative views about themselves if they have a solid base of self-confidence to fall back on. If you don’t, you’ll get sucked into all the negativity and start to treat yourself harshly, all because some random person on the internet commented calling you ugly. The way to beat this is by understanding that you’re never as bad as the overly negative comments say, and you’re never as good as the excessively optimistic comments say. Individuals need to learn how to keep balance in their self-image without letting themselves slip into the extremes.
As satisfying as it is to the individual to have a grandiose image of themselves to show society, they need to realise that they’re doing more harm than good- for the community and themselves. The old enough people can see through the façade, and those who aren’t old enough will get pushed into a cycle of self-loathing. It would benefit everyone if they started directly showing their authentic selves to society; It would avoid much mental stress and ill feelings for both parties.
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