This semester I’ve been taking a sociology class, and one of the most impacting things I’ve learned is in regard to the processes we go through in creating our sense of “self.” (Bear with me as I slip into academia for a moment, I promise it will get good).
A quick summary is that our concept of self is generated through the process of our interactions with something called the “generalized other.” The “generalized other” is the group of people that we “engage in internal duologue with when we evaluate our own feelings, thoughts, and actions. When we find ourselves saying, ‘Well, that’s just the way it’s done,’ or ‘People will be upset if I do that,’ we’re responding to our interpretation of the ‘generalized other’—our own internalization of social attitudes and expectations. We [may not] actually know who the ‘they’ is that we’re referencing; we just know that ‘they’ have certain expectations, and we judge our own behavior in accordance with our perception of this generalized other, or ‘they’” (1).
In other words, we are constantly evaluating our thoughts, feelings, and actions against our perceived ideas about what other people (and especially those important to us) will think or feel about them. While this can sometimes happen on a conscious level, it is always happening on a subconscious level. There is no getting away form this, we all do it, it’s just part of what it means to be a human being. Now here’s where it gets good:
This means I get to choose.
Not only do I get to choose who my “generalized other is,” I actually consider it my responsibility to choose who my “generalized other” is. I’ve long told my kids that the people we choose to have in our lives matter (especially those most important to us), because these are the people whose opinions will influence our thoughts and actions. Not only does this make it incredibly important to choose our friends wisely, it also confirms something I have done for years—something that doesn’t always sit well with the important people in my life–which is to continually change my life in accordance with new ideas that I want to incorporate into who I am. For instance, many of the people who currently make up my “generalized other” are authors I have never met and public figures I have never spoken to. An ex-girlfriend saw this and accused me of “letting other people influence me.” Another told me she felt it was “hypocritical” to be continually changing. (She once asked “aren’t you supposed to be consistent?” to which I responded by reciting a favorite quote: “Don’t be consistent, but be simply true.”) And several family members have accused me more than a few times of “reading too much.”
It’s understandable that some people see this process as inauthentic or hypocritical, because while we are all always subconsciously shaping our identities in accordance with the opinions and values of others, I also try to be aware of this process and do it consciously and purposefully in a way that is a bit less typical. For instance, I might read something that resonates with an idea of who I want to be and then work to incorporate that trait into myself. For instance, if I hold “kindness” as a personal goal, I might watch someone help an elderly person across the road, interpret that as an attribute of what I define as “kindness,” and then incorporate this practice into my concept of self and begin walking little old ladies across roads every chance I get. This example is a fairly easy and painless one—I’m simply adding to an identity I already have. But others are not so simple (or painless). For instance, I might read something and decide to “try on” certain traits to see if they fit. I’ll ask myself questions such as: “does this seem to integrate well into my sense of who I am or who I want to be? Does this seem like an action that is helpful or beneficial to myself and others? Do I find joy in doing things this way?” After a period of “trying it on,” I will either choose to accept this as another aspect of who I am or discard it. Likewise, I might take off previously accepted aspects of my identity and work to determine whether these old standards are those I wish to retain. (One of my partners actually saw me go through this process in “real time” when I was struggling with the feeling of guilt. Rather than give in to the feeling or try to suppress it, I sat thinking about it in an effort to determine whether the belief I had adopted and was feeling guilty about was one I wanted to keep [it wasn’t. More on that tomorrow]. Another time a family member accused me of not being there for her, and I engaged in the same process to first determine whether she was right and, upon realizing she was, whether I wanted accept her opinion of how I ought to behave or remain distant. I chose the latter).
Understandably, this is not the easiest process for a loved one to go through with me. As Jodi O’Brien states, sometimes significant others are able to “shift themselves into new alignment,” and sometimes they are not. I have lost many people along the way due to my desire to be ever-evolving, and I know I will lose many more, but I have come to understand this as an imperative part of who I am.
But whether we want to spend this life constantly evolving or we want to spend it (as a friend says) “sitting with our ancestors on Plymouth Rock,” WE GET TO CHOOSE. If we do not like some of our actions, thoughts, feelings, or ways of navigating the world, we get to change them. If our “generalized other” is causing us to act in ways that don’t mesh with who we want to be, we get to change that. If we are exposed to something completely different from our norm that we appreciate and want to take on, we get to do that. If our “generalized other” no longer fits, or if we find a “generalized other” that fits us better, we get to adjust.
As I spoke with a friend about this today, I pointed out that this is likely one of the reasons it usually takes years and a lot of therapy for someone who has always identified as “straight” to come out of the closet. She said that during her own journey, her therapist would continually ask “what are you afraid of?” But recognizing the concept of the “generalized other” makes it easier to see why this is so hard—it’s not necessarily that my friend was afraid of what people would think, it may just be that those opinions had so long formed her “generalized other” that they had become incorporated into who she thought herself to be. And, for most people, changing their self-perception to include traits that the “generalized other” considers wrong or immoral (especially if it could completely change their lives) can seem almost impossible.
This also helps me to better understand some of my past relationships and some of the difficulties I have had. If my partner and I have vastly different “generalized others” who hold extremely different beliefs and have had extremely different experiences, there is a very good chance our values and desires regarding how we want to navigate the world just won’t mesh. In this sense, learning these concepts can turn them into valuable tools that help us to better comprehend the motives and actions of those we love as well as help us better understand why we are who we are. More importantly, they can help us to consciously make choices that align more closely with who we want to be.
(1) Jodi O’Brien, The Production of Reality