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A Powerful New Way to Think About Your Self-Image

A way to gain a clearer view of your own self.

Key points

  • Sense of self is a focus of a theory of Erik Erikson; your sense of self develops throughout life.
  • A new approach to mental health uses sense of self as a basis for both diagnosis and treatment.
  • By gaining a better sense of how your identity matches your behavior, your mental health can benefit.

Ever since Erik Erikson published his influential theory about lifespan development, psychologists have puzzled over how best to understand the concept of identity, one of the primary concepts he introduced into the field. According to Erikson, your identity consists not only of your sense of who you are as a person, but also the way you view your relationships, values, social roles, and abilities. Research on identity has tended to focus on adolescence, when people first begin to develop these qualities, but there are also psychologists, including myself, who believe that identity continues to play an important role in adulthood.

You can probably attest to the role of identity in your own life, regardless of your current age. How would you describe yourself if someone asked you to elaborate on your sense of who you are as a person? How has this sense of self changed over time? You know you are the “same” person you always were, but do you truly feel the “same” on the inside? How have life’s twists and turns influenced this view you carry around of your most important qualities?

Why It’s Time for a New Look at Identity

According to the University of Aberdeen’s Jie Sui and colleagues (2021), the self, or identity, “serves as an information-processing hub through which the world is experienced and acted upon.” In other words, you interpret your experiences through the lens of your sense of self and then do things that reflect this particular view of reality.

For example, you may believe that you haven’t changed at all from the standpoint of physical ability since you were a teen or young adult. If your knees start to ache, well, then, that’s due to the weather or poor quality footwear. As a result, you won’t change your behavior and you’ll continue to overwork your joints, no matter how bad it gets.

Continuing to act in ways consistent with your sense of self despite what reality “tells” you might get you by to a certain extent, but eventually it will create a disconnect from your reality. You can see how this can create problems not only for your physical health (your knees will only continue to get worse) but also your mental health.

The Scottish-led authors propose that, indeed, “self-related disorders connect with the majority of domains” covering a “range of psychiatric conditions." In order to advance what they call “precision psychiatry,” i.e. greater accuracy in diagnosis and better treatments, it’s necessary to develop “tools that capture dynamic changes in mental states and how these influence self-related disorders."

How Identity Can Affect Your Mental Health

Consider the self-referential processing disturbances Sui et al. suggest could provide a new understanding of psychological disorders. In the case of a mood disorder such as depression, for example, it’s known that the so-called “cognitive triad” of depressive thinking about the self, the world, and the future creates and reinforces a chronically sad mood.

If your identity of yourself is that of a highly flawed individual, you’ll interpret your experiences in a way that reinforces this view. Someone gives you a sideways glance at a social gathering, and you immediately assume that they’re being critical of you. As a result, you move away from this person rather than trying to engage in what might have been a pleasant interaction.

As central as identity can be to mental health, the U. of Aberdeen researchers note that measuring this elusive concept presents a major challenge for scientific study. A researcher may give you a set of items on which to rate yourself, or perhaps interview you to probe into your deepest-held self-views. The limitation of this method is that it relies on self-report and, as such, is subject to the desire that people have to present a certain view of themselves to others (so-called “demand characteristics”).

Also, perhaps just as significantly, self-report measures and even interviews are removed from people’s actual behavior. You say you feel about yourself in a certain way, but how do you really act? Do you try to appear as well-adjusted as possible if you're answering a questionnaire, but in a social situation do you engage in the kind of negative thinking which leads you to stay away from people?

A Better Way to Tap Into Identity

Instead of using the “narrative” approach, in which people tell a researcher or mental health practitioner about themselves, the Scottish-led team believes that far greater precision in diagnosis and treatment can be achieved through a multi-modal approach. In what they refer to as the “Mechanistic Ecology of Self Research,” the self becomes a central feature incorporating perception, memory, and control over emotions. This “center of gravity” underlies the way that people interact with their environments and, in turn, is shaped by those interactions. To assess that core hub of the self, a researcher or healthcare practitioner would conduct both subjective evaluations (self-report) and objective evaluations (based on behavior) along with empirical measurements such as bio-behavioral measures (e.g., stress hormone levels).

All of this information could then be fed into a set of algorithms or computer programs (i.e. the “mechanistic” part of the model) that, as is being used in medical settings, helps to formulate recommendations for precision-based mental health treatment. Although this may seem like science fiction, machine-learning and artificial intelligence, the processes that would crunch the data, are becoming standard fare in precision medicine. There are computers that can, for example, read brain scans and x-rays with greater accuracy than even experienced diagnosticians can provide.

The authors go so far as to claim that their approach would not only provide more accurate mental health diagnoses and treatment plans, but would also provide more opportunities for equity and inclusion because it accommodates “the diversity of individual needs."

These recommendations indeed provide food for thought but what implications could they have for you, an individual who wishes to understand better your own mental health via the route of understanding your identity? The most important insight seems to involve that potential disconnect between the interpretations you make of your experiences and the more “objective” nature of those experiences themselves. Sure, that person at a social gathering may be looking at you critically, but maybe that person’s gaze has nothing to do with you at all.

This kind of reality testing can do more than cheer you up momentarily. If indeed you’re trying to do your own precision mental health, keeping track of the number of times your worst fears (or maybe unfounded optimism) are confirmed or disconfirmed can be useful data you essentially plug into your own “machine” learning.

To sum up, the idea of focusing on the self in this broad, data-based manner could help provide a new approach to mental health. Developing your own “scalable feedback” might very well help to shape and foster your identity as you navigate your own life experiences.

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Sui, J., Greenshaw, A. J., Macrae, C. N., & Cao, B. (2021). Self research: A new pathway to precision psychiatry. Journal of Affective Disorders, 293, 276–278.

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