The Social Sources of Self

Curves of Personal Capacity from Dan - the revised graphic.jpg

We tend to think of self-identity as something individual, internal, and stable, but it’s not that simple. I will share some thoughts on how “relationality” is a fundamental condition of human existence and experience. As you’ll see, what persists are patterns of self-awareness, which are memorable but also malleable. We are, in our most vital nature, a project of continuous becoming. Alas, this vital process may also become blocked. Relationality then also becomes a means to right our forward movement.

Development of self begins in that small, intimate relational world of mother and infant. There is no me without this experience of an I-with-thee and a thee-knowing-me. All of this, of course, transpires in the preverbal exchanges that guide care of the child. It’s the gaze, touch, and tone of voice, as well as the associated acts of care, but also the expressions of frustration and distress, and their resolution which restores attachment. The we as a dyadic unit grows in its capacity to function, cope, and adapt.

When it progresses in this way, imperfectly but “good enough”, beliefs form that relationships can be worthy of trust, can prove reliable. Any failings are as seen isolated failures of efficacy. Even as failings, these acts bear a virtuous intent and commitment to care that survives them as a determination to “get it right”. Thus, with belief comes a basis of hope, which can only emerge when there is something yet to be, strivings that live on as active evidence of an underlying capacity for belief and hope. 

A relationship of nurturance manifests as encouragement in the next modality of caring. It’s when the caregiver expresses belief and hope in the child’s independent potential to initiate action and effect change in his/her environment. Especially now, “good enough” becomes advisable (normative) in order to avoid hovering and smothering, while remaining available as a safe harbor when the child is overwhelmed. Knowing this support is available, the child’s distress is quickly displaced by curious confidence.

This positive me (self-concept) reflected back to the child bolsters his/her readiness to enter the social world of peer relations outside the home in those difficult middle school years. Again, belief and hope persist as a basis of confidence, not just their own belief and hope, but their caregiver’s. This positions them to navigate the challenges of this new social arena. Still, even with a healthy level of self-esteem and resilience, the role of caregivers as a safe harbor and sounding board remains important.

With a history of good-enough parenting, youths are well-prepared to shape a social identity, one that is anchored in values of good and bad, right and wrong, but one that is also distinguished by patterns of interest and ability. Of course, one also experiences moments of falling short that evoke painful self-judgment and conscience. We may disappoint ourselves, but we can also fail others who depend upon us as friends, lovers, colleagues. Learning to mend these ruptures is a vital source of maturity.

In fact, learning to form enduring relationships, including the capacity to navigate periods of conflict, is an important part of what enables us to achieve and sustain intimacy. It is through these deeper bonds that we open ourselves to the influence of others. We “unfreeze” the foundational beliefs and values that have heretofore defined us. We discuss them with our intimate other. We hear about theirs too. Individual identities become mutually understood, and the basis for a we-identity emerges.

A deeper sense of authenticity and vitality as a person evolves when we experience life in this way. As we live, adopt roles, accept responsibility, and do the adaptive work of dealing with life’s challenges, we grow. Prosocial motivations arise that focus on encouraging the next generation, promoting the greater good. This is a natural, normatively positive direction of development in adulthood. Retreating from this call to care about more than oneself – at home, at work – can lead to stagnation.