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10 Models of Our Self

Unicorns, chameleons, icebergs…

“Know thyself,” advised the oracle at Delphi. “Show thyself,” is the motto of today. The prevalence of selfies, sexting, Facebook pics and stories, tweets and Twitters, and new apps, all demonstrate the transition from a personal and private self to a public, even pubic, self.

This cult of the self may have emerged remotely from Delphi and Socrates but accelerated in the late 19th and 20th centuries with many philosophers, psychologists, and social psychologists, some of whom are mentioned here. These are now left behind by activists and the identity politics of gender, sexual orientation, gender orientation, and color. The front-page news in The New York Times recently (22 May) was the latest battle in the culture wars: bathrooms! We can fight about anything! — and everything, and we do.

Who are you? What are you? What is your self? Most people, in my limited research on this topic, tend to identify in three principal ways: their familial roles, or their occupational roles or the defining characteristics of their personality (warm, strong, a survivor, romantic, adventurer, nurturing were common responses). (Thomas Kuhn’s Twenty Statements Test is more scientific.) And if you really don’t know who and what you are, the are plenty of personality tests to tell you, and perhaps some frenemies to explain precisely what is wrong with you.

Some adopt a more existential vision. One respondent identified herself as “a butterfly” and as “a river. I have to keep moving or I’d die.” Active, but hopefully not all downhill. Performers are particularly demonstrative on the self. The Beatles: “I am the walrus” (A very strange self-concept, drawn from Lewis Carroll. “I am the emu” sounds much better). Michael Jackson: “I’m a lover, not a fighter.” Paul Simon: “I am a rock. I am an island.” (John Donne disagreed: “No man is an island.”) And Nietzsche: “I am… the Anti-Christ.” (1992:72.)

All sorts of different self-definitions and identities. All sorts of different people and types of people. What is also fascinating is how many people have tried to define this self, without too much agreement. It is elusive not least because it is constantly changing as we age, and enjoy or suffer different experiences: marriage, parenthood, promotion, job-change, sickness, disability, conversion, discrimination, lotto-winner, etc. Indeed the self is so mobile that Peg O’Connor described the self as a “unicorn” — “there is no authentic self. Identity is always a work in progress” (2014:50). One does have an identity, but it is fluid. You are not going to France or Indonesia in your gap year to “find yourself.” You are taking your self with you! Others believe it is a chameleon, for similar reasons. So this search for this unicorn-chameleon, albeit brief, looks useful, even fun.

1. Sigmund Freud: Self as Iceberg.

Influenced by Charcot’s work on hypnotism and especially post-hypnotic suggestion, Freud came to understand that there are two types of mental processes, conscious and unconscious. And the unconscious is not easily accessed, but it is possible in therapy through dreams (in The Interpretation of Dreams) and the analysis of symbolism, and through parapraxes (in The Psycho-Pathology of Everyday Life), which we now know as Freudian slips (verbal slips, slips of the pen or of the body, mislaying, misreading, forgetting, and errors generally). He gives numerous examples of these giveaways. These parapraxes are thought of as expressions of repressed psychic material. Also conversion: how psychic concerns can affect the physical self: a union, or communion, of mind and body. One friend said that whenever her husband was unfaithful, she got sick. They say that 90% of an iceberg is underwater. Freud suggested that much of the self is below consciousness, and that it was important to bring it to the conscious. Perhaps how much is below varies with degrees of repression.

Freud theorized the self far beyond the iceberg/unconscious to include the stages of psychosexual development (oral, anal, and phallic) and the stages of id, ego, and super-ego to include the many mechanisms of adaptation including fixation, regression, projection, repression, displacement, sublimation, transference, resistance (defense mechanisms), and more. While some of his contributions to self-understanding and to psychiatry have been contested, others have led to his being labeled among the top 10 intellectuals of the 20th century by Time magazine.

2. William James: Self as Multiple.

“A man has as many social selves as there are individuals who recognize him and carry an image of him in their mind.” But social selves may be contradictory, depending on the individuals. Your spouse will not have the same view of you as your ex-spouse. I think we can agree on that. And co-workers will not have the same image of him or her as the children do. But that is their concept of you, not your image of your self. So James does imply the possibility of contradictory, conflicting and multiple selves in the minds of others. Walt Whitman expressed this well: “Do I contradict myself? / Very well, then I contradict myself. / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)” As did American best-selling novelist Karin Slaughter. Here the protagonist, a rookie cop, debates shooting a villain:

The fifth Kate reared her ugly head. This Kate wanted darkness…Then the other Kates took over. She wasn’t sure which ones. The daughter? The widow? The cop? The whore? The real Kate, she wanted to think…The real Kate was a good person (2014:392).

So that makes six Kates in one; a double trinity, multiple personalities, and even conflicted and contradictory. Some of these images may be negative. In The Souls of Black Folk (1903) W.E.B. Du Bois pondered the question: “How does it feel to be a problem?” He explained that “being a problem is a strange experience – peculiar even for one who has never been anything else, save perhaps in boyhood and in Europe.” He added, “I remember well when the shadow swept across me. “ When as a “little thing” in school, a girl refused to accept his play visiting card. "Then it dawned upon me with a certain suddenness that I was different from the others…shut out from their world by a vast veil.” Self as problem to self, and to others who create the problem.

It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. "One ever feels his two-ness – an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder" (ch. 1).

3. C.H. Cooley: Self as Looking-Glass

His couplet:

Each to each a looking-glass,

Reflects the other that doth pass.

The couplet reflects not only how poetic sociologists may be (don’t you love the “doth?"), but also their insight. Our idea of our selves is deeply influenced by what other people think of us or, strictly, what we think other people think of us. (True, the looking-glass is a flawed metaphor since it does not judge, unlike people.) This is especially true for our primary groups of intimate personal relations, the families of birth and our closest friendships. Significant others mirror us back to our selves, ranging from invective (crooked Hillary, crazy Bernie) to labelling (he’s a sexist, racist, fascist) to positive reinforcement (you’re the best) and high self-esteem to narcissism (I’m the best!). But there are many mirrors, all with different reflections, so figuring out who or what the self is would be tricky; indeed this self too would be multiple and contradictory.

Cooley perhaps under-estimated the degree to which we can refuse to internalize and can resist these looking-glass reflections which may problematize us, as Du Bois made clear. Distorting mirrors reflect us, badly. And much as mirrors may influence us, they do not determine us. One can fight back, resist the reflection, smash the mirror, as Frederick Douglass showed. Reflecting on his victory over an overseer when he was a slave, Douglass wrote: “The battle with Mr. Covey… was the turning point in my “life as a slave.”… I was a changed being after that fight. I was nothing before — I was a man now” (1962:143). A new self. Dramatic identity change.

4. G. H. Mead: Self as Structure

“The self, as that which can be an object to itself, is essentially a social structure and it arises in social experience” (1967: 140). Mead reflects both James and Cooley, but perhaps goes beyond them in his emphasis that the self is not only a reflection but is essentially a product, and reflexive. One can think about other people’s ideas about oneself, and react against them, like Douglass, (the boomerang effect,) or double-down and reinforce them, (the self-fulfilling prophecy). Yet Mead distinguishes between the core, the “me”, as object, developed out of past experiences and understandings, and the “I,” the sometimes impulsive subject, generating new ideas and new selves. So the self is both both solid and fluid.

5. Abraham Maslow: Self as Flower

Maslow is well known for moving psychology away from Freud to Humanistic Psychology: “It is as if Freud supplied us with the sick half of psychology and we must now fill it out with the healthy half.” (Not a very generous verdict!) He is also well-known for his “hierarchy of needs” which should be satisfied for optimal psychic health. The self in this view is like a flower, potentially growing into full bloom. The seven needs are: 1) physiological: warmth, food, etc. for the baby; 2) safety needs; 3) psychological needs: love, belonging; 4) esteem needs: self-satisfaction; 5) cognitive needs: education, skills; 6) aesthetic needs: harmony, order; 7) self-actualization: maturity, joy, creativity. The process is not automatic, like an elevator, but it can be linked to changes in the life cycle as discussed by Eric Erikson, Daniel Levinson, George Vaillant, and Gail Sheehy.

6. Jean-Paul Sartre: Self as Self-Creative

“Man is nothing else but what he makes of himself.” (1957:15). Rejecting any traditional, essentialist idea of human nature, Sartre adds: “In other words, there is no determinism, man is free, man is freedom” (p.23). To clarify: “You are nothing less than your life” (p.33) combining all your projects, actions, and choices. We are who and what we make our selves to be. We create our selves. If we persistently cheat, we become cheats. The meaning of our lives is the meaning we give it. Again: “Man makes himself” (p.43). There is a choice of ethics, and a freedom to choose, whether we want it or not. Hence his idea that “man is condemned to be free” (p.23). He insists that “life has no meaning a priori. Before you come alive, life is nothing; it’s up to you to give it a meaning…” (p.43). The self, in his view, is not an iceberg, nor a passive reflection, nor a flower that may grow; it is what we make it. But it is somewhat atomistic.

Two dissenting opinions are worth noting. Schopenhauer insists on luck as the prevailing wind. That would include the luck of parents, genetics, country of birth, status, war, plague, etc.: pure chance, no freedom there.

A man’s life is like the voyage of a ship, where luck…acts the part of the wind, and speeds the vessel on its way or drives it far out of its course. All that a man can do for himself is of little avail; like the rudder, which if worked hard and continuously, may help in the navigation of the ship; and yet all may be lost again by a sudden squall (n.d.:169)

He was a bit of a pessimist: “We are like lambs in a field, disporting ourselves under the eye of the butcher, who chooses out first one and then another for his prey.” (n.d. 382)

The second opinion, of a physicist, is also deterministic, not luck but neurons, but less pessimistic:

We have 100 billion neurons in our brains, as many as there are stars in a galaxy, with an even more astronomical number of links and potential combinations through which they can interact… "We” are the process formed by this entire intricacy, not just by the little bit of it of which we are conscious (in Lapham, 2016:17).

7. Self as Onion

We might think of others, or ourselves, as like onions, layer upon layer, level upon level, or as a many-sided diamond, or like those Russian dolls, the matryoshka, one inside another, inside another. Someone might say: “I’ve never seen this side of you before!” (self as polygon). The novelist Dick Francis described this layering:

I was amazed by his compassion and felt I should have recognised earlier how many unexpected layers there were to Tremayne below the loud executive exterior: not just his love of horses, not just his need to be recorded, not even his disguised delight in Gareth [his son], but other, secret, unrevealed privacies…(1990:50).

But the funniest has to be Shrek. Ogres are like onions, not layer-cakes.

This model is indicated by the phrase “hidden depths” (wherein monsters may lurk) and reflects the notion that one may not really know someone, just the Goffmanesque presentations of the different selves acting in different roles and circumstances, which may be camouflage and masks. But the better one gets to know someone under very different circumstances, the more clearly one can see different selves emerging — or not. The self may be remarkably opaque, not only to the self, as Freud indicated, but also to others.

Two classic examples are Kim Philby and Bernie Madoff. They were not who they seemed to be. Shakespeare got it, as Julius Caesar mused: “One may smile and smile and be a villain.” And as Lady Macbeth instructed her husband: “Look like the innocent flower, but be the serpent under it.” It took years before investigators “uncovered” who Philby and Madoff were — and their double lives, double selves. “Uncovering” indicates the utility of this onion/layer metaphor.

In a less lethal application, spouses may take years to realize (and hopefully appreciate more and more) who and what their beloved “really” is. (Not as in the comic phrase: “deep down you’re shallow”). Onions do not have cores as dates and avocados do, so the metaphor is somewhat inadequate, but it does capture the layering.

Winston Churchill expressed this well speaking of Russia: “Russia is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.” (Much like their nesting dolls.) Banyan in the Economist just applied exactly the same phrase to China (2 July 2016:36). The journalist Kim Barker wrote something similar about India: “India was a series of challenges wrapped up in a mystical blanket covered in an existential quandary” (2016:82-3). It seems that we do not know each other very well.

8. Self as Identity

Our self-concept is our identity, but identities are socially constructed according to cultural norms, which are not universal. Consider Barack Obama, widely described as the first black President of the USA, in accord with American norms, specifically in the tradition of the “one-drop” rule. But his mother was white. In accord with another possible rule, “one drop of white blood,” he would be considered white. He is really a shade of brown, anyway, and would be described as such in many other cultures, more sensitive to shades of color.

James McBride offers a classic example. His father was black, his mother white. He remarks about his 11 siblings: “We were all clearly black, of various shades of brown, some light brown, some medium brown, some very light-skinned, and all of us had curly hair” (1997:22). The usual confusion of chromatic and social color. The terms “black” and “white” are symbolic, cultural, and political. Malcolm X noted: “…when he says he’s white, he means he’s boss. That’s right. That’s what white means in this language.” (1966:163).

Then again, Rachel Dolezal exemplifies the issue of who defines us. The daughter of white parents, she identified as black, darkened her hair and her skin and passed as black for years, and worked for the NAACP; but when her parentage became known, her self-defined identity was largely rejected by others as a lie and a fraud. She defended herself insisting that her identity was not biological, but presumably political or psychological. Color identity is seemingly problematic.

Consider too how gender identities have suddenly been spotlighted, most publicly by Caitlin Jenner. We used to recognize two genders, biologically defined and immutable; now we recognize that they are psychologically defined and are mutable. India, however, recognizes three on visa applications. Other cultures also recognize three. As do some individuals who refuse to be labeled male or female. If even such apparently basic identities as color and gender are culturally constructed, not to mention age, beauty, and more, then so, clearly, are ideas of the self. Identity is slippery.

9 & 10. Self as Unicorn and Chameleon

In sum, the self is both unicorn and chameleon. From the fog or flashlight brilliance of identity, theorists we might conclude that the self is a unicorn since it is partly unknown, even unknowable because it is so below consciousness and “in progress”; and a chameleon because it is multiple, mutable, adaptable, and selective in presentation. These selves may be complementary, contradictory, or conflicted.

So while the self is constantly presented to numerous “friends," it is itself both one and many: unicorn and chameleon, iceberg and onion, a mask and camouflage, a flower and what you create, a looking-glass and a distorting mirror, fluid, a work in progress, a polygon with hidden depths and many layers. Given all these ideas and models, I suspect that there are not many selves who are an “open book.” If nothing else, the self and other selves are: “Surprise!” “Know thyself” is hard enough. Know someone else… really?

Yet surely all this fixation with the self is a trifle unhealthy — me! me! me! — since it may vitiate against community, and concern with and for others: a cultural narcissism.


Barker, Kim 2016. Whiskey, Tango, Foxtrot. New York: Anchor.

Douglass, Frederick. 1962 [1892]. The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass. London: Collier-Macmillan.

Du Bois, W.E.B. 1995 [1903]. The Souls of Black Folk. New York: Signet.

Francis, Dick 1990. Long Shot. London: Michael Joseph.

Lapham, Lewis H. 2016 “Dame Fortune” Lapham’s Quarterly Summer 13-19.

McBride, James 1997. The Color of Water. A Black Man’s Tribute to his White Mother. New York: Riverhead Books.

Mead, G.H. 1967 [1934]. Mind, Self and Society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Nietzsche, Friedrich 1992 [1888]. Ecce Homo. Penguin Classics.

O’Connor, Peg 2014. “Searching for the Self, and Other Unicorns.” Psychology Today Nov/Dec 50-1.

Sartre, J-P. 1957. Existentialism and Human Emotions. New York: The Wisdom Library.

Schopenhauer, Arthur n.d. Essays. New York: Burt.

Slaughter, Karin 2014. Cop Town. New York: Delacorte.

X, Malcolm 1966. Malcolm X Speaks. New York: Grove Press.

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