I have long wrestled with the concept of identity online and especially on social networks but, as I wrote previously, what happens online is influenced by that which occurs offline. The two are linked for me.
But, what is identity? Where does it come from? Does our own sense of self match that seen by others and how does any discrepancy affect us? Is it just a projection of how we envisage ourselves to be rather than anything concrete?
What happens when how we have defined ourselves no longer applies? We may have spent so long in a job the we view ourselves solely in that context even after leaving or retiring.
This was perfectly illustrated in Bethany's post where she says:
"Of course the hope always is that that makes room for the new — some kind of fabulous version of me. But what if it doesn't? What if all these parts of me that I am losing leave a bigger and bigger hole until I'm nothing at all?"
But that's what you do not who you are.
How do we separate ourselves from that and really dig in to what makes us us?
Identity is transient; we are always changing, growing, responding, adapting, but that very change scares us. It forces us to question. The feeling that we don't really know who we are, that what we think of as our identity is subject to change when we ideally want stability and consistency, can be terrifying.
If our identity is an internal construct designed to separate us from everyone else - that which makes us unique - how do we reconcile this and maintain a meaningful self-image in spite of this change?
Why does it scare us so much? Because, as Bethany points out, we are afraid of losing ourselves.
Our feelings about self-image, often driven by comparisons with others, determine our self-esteem. We may construct our identity but we might not always like it. Being uncomfortable or unhappy with our self-image makes it more likely that we might adopt a false or exaggerated persona online.
All too often we will try to artificially fuel our self-esteem in order to feel better about ourselves but this can have negative effects in the long term, especially in our current environments where we fish for likes, requiring an ever greater "hit" to reach the same levels.
Instead, it is advised that we work on self-compassion: a way of relating to yourself with kindness and being more forgiving, even when things are going badly. Not having, or losing, this self-compassion begins a downward spiral and self-esteem plummets.
Self-esteem is normally defined as "an individual's subjective evaluation of their own worth" but I stumbled across an interesting paper from 2014 which proposes three dimensions of self-esteem: worth-based, efficacy-based, and authenticity-based. These are linked to social/group, role, and personal identities respectively.
Rather than just a simple measure of acceptance and self-worth, this paper pulls on research that shows "three motivational aspects of the self that ... makes oneself feel good" being:
- the motive to feel worthwhile and accepted
- the motive to see oneself as efficacious or agentic (effective and having self-agency)
- the motive to find meaning, validity, and coherence in one’s life
This final aspect is interesting as it relates to one's authenticity and being "your true self" - this is what really interests me and is what links back to personal identity.
Our identities are a combination of personal (the self) and social (our roles) but the two are distinct.
In her post, Bethany says "I seem to be losing all the pieces of what has made me me over the years" but this is very much the social identity, the what rather than the who. And that's what I want to separate: the role itself from what it means to you as a person and what it allows you to be.
I mentioned before that depression can be contextual or situational. In my experience, there is an interplay between these aspects of self-esteem with different weightings based on context that determine how I feel at that time.
Although I may be feeling relatively good on a personal level I may not feel particularly agentic or in control with regards to work or my social roles and, based on the circumstances, those can be the overriding factors. Remove such negative stimuli, however, and the balance is redressed.
It seems obvious when you write it down.
The Stoic philosophers advise that we shouldn't worry about things that we cannot control but maybe we can go deeper. By better delineating the different aspects of self-esteem we truly identify who we are and what really matters with a more evolved sense of self-compassion.