Sunday, March 08, 2009


I have been thinking a lot about the concept of identity and self-image lately. I wanted to try to come up with a polished essay on the topic, but finally gave up. Below are some of my unpolished thoughts.

Our concept of who we are and what our purpose creates the foundation for the choices we make. I personally think that a lot of people are confused about their identity, and that, as a result, live sort of unfocused lives. In fact, it’s so common to wonder “Who am I?” and “Why am I here on earth?” that it is almost cliché. (Or maybe I’ve just watched too many corny church videos.) I don’t think it is any accident that one of the first things the LDS people teach young children is that they are children of God (and everyone else is, too). In fact, the title of the first lesson in the new Nursery Manual is, “I Am a Child of God.” (I just checked.) We teach our children when they are young that they can become like God by following His plan. In other words, we teach our children some of the most fundamental concepts of who they are and why they are here as soon as, or even before, they can really understand them.
I am not saying that that is all there is to it. Even knowing all that, the concept of identity is hard to define in general, and it is perhaps even harder to define one’s own individual identity.

A few examples of what I have observed:

Katie for many years considered herself a non-extreme “liberal”. She studied English, which is traditionally a liberal subject – so the fact that she was taking these classes at a conservative university gave her a somewhat balanced range of viewpoints from her professors and fellow students. When she would talk about politics or social issues with other people at BYU or her family members, she often found that her viewpoint well left of anybody else’s viewpoint. When she graduated, she rather quickly found out that she is no liberal. When she discussed social issues with most people outside her family and outside of BYU, she found that she was only liberal in comparison with some of the quite conservative people with whom she associated at college. Anyway, the point is that she sort of had to reshape her self-image to accommodate this new information.
We have some friends in the ward whose daughter recently went to college. Her parents really wanted her to go to a church school, but this girl was scared to death of being lost in the crowd. She was the only member of the church in her school, and it became part of her self-image. It wasn’t the size of BYU-Provo that scared her. It was the fact that everyone would be LDS and she would not longer have an identity. She even told Katie and some of the other leaders in the Young Women program that she didn’t want to be just the same as them. This was, of course, funny to the leaders because they didn’t think of themselves as very much alike. She ended up going to BYU-Hawaii.
I participated in a training course at work on social styles. They categorized peoples behavior into four major groups and talked about how to recognize the behavior, or “social style”, of other people and how to best interaction once you had made that recognition. As part of the training, they categorized the participants into the four groups based on surveys from coworkers. Then they had everyone divide up based on their social style. (I was an Analytic. The other groups were Driver, Amiable and Expressive.) I was surprised at how tribal (I don’t know if that’s the right word, but something like that.) most everyone became. People were so willing to adopt the characteristics of the group, (which were, the trainers admitted, not intended to precisely describe everyone). Many people tried to speak their own group with authority derived from their identification with the group, rather than what they had learned in the training. Anyway, it was really interesting to me because it seemed like many of those people really took what their coworkers said about them to mean a lot about their identity, as if they had few other points of reference.
I think that it’s useful to look at many of the social issues from the perspective of identity and self-image. I think the way forward on race relations will become clearer as people realize that self-prejudice, or creating a self-image based on your race rather than on internal feelings and knowledge, is just as damaging as prejudice against others. Regarding sexual orientation, I don’t know. I suspect that when people, usually teenagers, decide (or discover, depending on your Views,) they are homosexual or bisexual or whatever, there are a lot of confusing self-image and identity they have to deal with. I guess that’s sort of true for teenagers even when no sexuality issues are involved. They want to be individual, but most of them also want to fit in.
I guess that’s all I have to say for now.


Nick said...

I must be an analytic because all I do while reading was try to figure out what 24601 meant. At first I thought it was your area code, but then I googled it.

Nick said...

Me fail English? That's unpossible!

'do' should, of course, be 'did'

And JohnnyF, is the Fredrickson's blog your extended family blog or you and Katie's blog? If its you guys, I want an invite.

apyknowzitall said...

It doesn't surprise me that your coworks became tribal with the exercise. I think it's part of human nature to cling to people who have similarities with yourself. The amusing part is what you said how quickly they developed their tribal tendencies as the groups were based soley on what others thought of them.

I wonder if there's a do-it-yourself social style quiz someplace... But then again, I think taking the quiz yourself would take the fun out of seeing how others would classify you.

And Nick, what does Ralph have to do with this?