“Who are you?”, said the Caterpillar.
“I – I hardly know sir, just at present—at least I know who I was when I got up this morning, but I think I must have changed several times since then.”
“What do you mean by that?” said the Caterpillar sternly. “Explain yourself!”
“I can’t explain myself, I’m afraid, Sir,” said Alice, “because I am not myself, you see.”
-Lewis Carroll, 1981/1865
Tumbling out of bed, my five-year-old exclaimed: “Mama, I really feel like myself today! I mean, I always feel like myself, but today I really feel like me.” As I took in her beaming face, my thoughts turned to Alice and the Caterpillar, our recent week away from home, and the nebulous nature of “self.” I love it when life — and literature — provides me with good examples of psychological experiences.
Alice’s exchange with the Caterpillar and my daughter’s exclamation nicely illustrate the same complex psychological process: the formation of “me,” or “self-concept.” We take self-conception for granted since we take ourselves with us wherever we go. Our sense of self permeates our consciousness. Self-conception exists in our minds; all individuals hold deeply detailed schemas containing self-relevant details (schema being a mental category; see “Labels on the Brain” for more on schemas). A mature self-schema contains all the bits & pieces of knowledge gleaned from self-defining experiences, along with personality traits, sense of identity, hopes & dreams, favored possessions and, yet, although this schema is internal, it isn’t solely created and maintained in isolation.
We need others in order for the self-conception process to occur. Without you, there is no me. Self, as a concept, only makes sense when situated in a real social context. The meaning of “self” is defined as much by social conventions and expectations for how people relate as it is by the owner’s perceptions. Here’s a bare-bones sketch of the way “me” is maintained. It’s a cycle of perception and reflection:
- I perceive the world around me, in a proprioceptive sense
- I perceive how others react to my presence, my words, and my actions
- I reflect on what I think others think
- I reflect on my presence, my words, and my actions
- I come to understand myself in comparison to my perception and my perception of your perception of me
This cycle carries on all day long, without the need for much conscious control, just like breathing. Indeed, just like breathing, I can control it, but if I don’t, it still happens. Along these lines, in writings published near the turn of the last century, William James coined the terms “I-self” and “Me-self.” I-self is personal and private, reflecting your consciousness of being in a place and time and is not something easy to articulate. James thought of this sense as “self as knower.” I think of the first bullet point above as representing “I-self.” In contrast, me-self is public, and reflects how you present yourself to the world (words, actions, possessions) combined with your thoughts on how others view these things. When we describe ourselves to others, we articulate our “me-selves,” and in this way the me-self-system is language based. James thought of the me-self as “self as known.”
Because the me-self-system is language based, it is also intertwined with the memory system, in particular, episodic / autobiographical memory. Along these lines, present-day researcher Dr. Martin Conway and colleagues theorize and examine what they call the “Self-Memory-System.” This psychological system reflects our need for what they call coherence and correspondence. Coherence refers to our need to feel a sense of sameness and belonging across space and time: we need to feel like ourselves. An opposing force, what they call correspondence, refers to our need to accurately represent in mind our past experiences. Coherence and correspondence are often at odds with one another, in no small part because in actuality, we don’t always act the same way in all aspects of our lives. We monitor and shift our behavior, our words, and our possessions when we move, for example, from home, to work, to the gym, to the restaurant or grocery store, then back home. If we were to reflect on how we differ from moment to moment, it would be distressing – so many different ways of being. Such reflection begs the question “Who am I?!” Doing so threatens our need for coherence. To avoid such threats, we distort our memories ever-so-slightly to smooth out the gaps formed by the ways that we shift in our self-presentation.
In this way, regularities in our lives, familiar places and faces shape our sense of self as we connect past to present and find match after match. Regular social interactions, regular routines, regular reactions to our presence, words, and actions feed and reinforce our need for coherence. Our need for coherence is particularly satiated when we are with folks with whom we share a rich array of past experiences – these are the people with whom we feel “most like ourselves.” Our familiar family and friends cue memories of shared experiences that not only make us feel all the more connected to each other, but they also make us feel connected to the present. Indeed, when we are with our families, long-time friends, or long-time colleagues, coherence and correspondence nicely mesh. We are known. (And, incidentally, this is why old family patterns of interaction are so hard to break.)
When we find ourselves in unfamiliar territory whether that territory be marked by people, places, or things, we feel strange, distressed, upset (or perhaps invigorated, depending on our perspective). Why? Because the process that feeds our self-system, the one that usually runs smoothly, is jarred. In an unfamiliar place, the perceptual cues don’t trigger the typical patterns of reminiscence that feed the coherence-correspondence mechanism of the self-memory-system, and we feel it. We don’t quite feel like ourselves. We are not known. Sometimes this can be good – a chance to start over again. However, often, not being known is equated with negative emotions and we act in kind: we feel frustrated, self- conscious, uncertain, upset.
I am certain that that is what my daughter was reflecting on that morning when she commented that she really felt like herself. We were finally home, after a week away. We’d traveled by train and by car, visited a handful of cities, a new museum, new restaurants, and interacted with all kinds of folks, some known (grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins) some unknown (at least to her). During our travels, the cycle of perception and reflection that she was familiar with was totally askew. Because her memory system is still in development, as is her self-system, this change in routine shook her sense of self to its nebulous core. But then, “Ah! The comfort of home.” She felt like herself again, surrounded by all the familiar sights, sounds, smells, and expectations. Sigh.
You know the feeling yourself. Lewis Carroll knew the feeling too, and aptly illustrated it in Alice’s story. As we enter into the summer months (here in the Western Hemisphere, that is), and schedule changes, summer travel and the like start to shake things up, you are likely to have an “Alice moment” or two or three as well, as will your children. As adults many of us have learned to roll with such moments, but children often struggle with transitions, transitions from school to summer and from home to vacation, and back again. To help children weather such storms, I here are some tips to keep in mind:
1. Parents: expect that your children might act in unexpected ways on vacation.
- Expect your children to be not-quite-themselves
- Help your children seek out familiarity by discussing what you see and feel
- Encourage your children to think about what they like and don’t like in the newness around them
- Compare and contrast new adventures with old, to help your children connect their current experience with memories of past experiences
- At the end of each day, discuss the days adventures and compare them to their normal routine at home
2. Teachers: expect that at the end, and again at the beginning, of a school year your students will feel out-of-sorts.
- With a new social group comes new social comparisons. When students don’t know their new classmates, they don’t have a shared history of perceptions and expectations, in a sense they don’t know themselves in the context either.
- Expect your students to present themselves in a self-conscious, slightly a-typical manner
- Do not expect that their behavior in the first week will represent their behavior for the entire semester or year
- Help students get to know you and their classmates to smooth out the adjustment: do some self-definition exercises with the class. Depending on the age your students, have them complete an appropriately lengthy list of “I am _________” statements. Encourage them to share their responses with each other.
3. Any adult who cares for children knows that transitions are difficult; here are some things to keep in mind about why.
- Most children struggle with transitions, though there is some variability, depending on a particular child’s temperament (i.e., children with “spirited” or “difficult” temperamental profiles find transitions quite challenging).
- Transitions from day care to home, from school to home, from activity to activity throughout the day force children to experience a change in social comparisons, which again changes the social context and the way they feel about themselves.
- In an age-appropriate manner, talk to your children about transitions and give them some hints or tricks to help them cope (e.g., five-minute warnings; make clear “who’s the boss” when both parent and day-care provider are together; establish clear and regular drop-off and pick-up routines; establish regular transition cues in classrooms).
4. Because of how the self-system works, children’s behavior can change, depending on who they are with. Recognize that this comes from the social interactions that occur and comparisons therein. If you don’t like what you see, try to shape the conversations and activities in a different direction.
5. Because of how the self-system works, remember that children identify with virtual characters (tv, movies, stories) too, and comparisons therein can also influence their self perception and behavior. Caregivers – listen to your inner-voices and encourage your children to interact with characters you admire.
- Children compare themselves to who they are with, what they are watching, or what they are reading about – it’s natural.
- Help your children engage in experiences that reflect the kind of self you want them to have.
In closing, knowing about how the self-system operates can help you become a better user. If you want to change your self-concept, you can. All you have to do is shake things up: change your surroundings, more deliberately guide your perceptions, and challenge your former perceptions. If you change your behavior, the reactions you receive from others will change to. If you stick with it, you will find that your sense of self shifts in kind.
I am me, thanks to you, and it goes two ways. We are all in this together.