After an endless night, it’s finally daytime. Marc opens his little eyes and in one jump, stands up in bed. He begins to run to the living room with his eyes wide open, thinking that this year Santa Claus was going to bring him many gifts and sweets, since he had done all his homework. However, when he arrived, he was surprised to see charcoal next to a letter: “next year help mom and dad”.

Mine or yours?

One of the worst moments of childhood is the disappointment experienced by Marc . However, this feeling does not arise from having received coal. The discomfort comes from the fact that Marc, who thought he had behaved well, is being told that, in the eyes of others, he has behaved badly. So, is Marc a good or a bad child? Are his own eyes right or those of others?

The duality of identity

This duality reflects that there is a part of us that we are not aware of and only from the outside, it is communicated to us. While the conception of ourselves may differ from that of others, s e presents us with a duality in the perspective of identity . In this sense, there is a perception of one’s own identity, but there are aspects of it that we can only access through others. Mead (1968) was one of the first theorists to differentiate a more personal identity from a more social identity (“me” and “I”), as two parts that coexist within the person and feed off each other. Although he was trying to identify two elements, he was really pointing out a process; a continuous relationship of the person with the environment he forms and of the person who shapes the environment.

We could say in a few words that, just as we are aware that we have two eyes or a nose because we can touch them, only in front of the mirror do we see ourselves clearly. Following this line, society is that reflection, thanks to which we can discern our way of being .

Required reading: “Personal and Social Identity”

What’s mine?

If you think that you are just you, I’m going to start by trying to deny you and, for the moment, tell you that is less you than you think . Identity is usually defined as a unitary set of traits that remain stable and allow for self-identification ; an iron core to hold on to.

Why we are the way we are and self-identification

Imagine Marc growing up and becoming a Goth feeling misunderstood; and then a skater without getting involved in anything; and then a romantic looking for commitment; and then a crazy bachelor; and then a businessman; and then… Where is that stability? However, the person is able to perceive it and understand himself in each of the contexts . That is, each of us can understand each other in each of our stages. In terms of Bruner (1991), identity is situated -in a space-time- and distributed -it breaks down into several facets-. Not only is one capable of understanding oneself in each of the facets of one’s life, but one is also understood by others; Marc’s parents have understood him in each episode of his growth.

Self-concept and its relationship to identity

This fact opens the door to the theory of mental models (Johnson-Laird, 1983). Although right now it has been questioned what we are, it is true that we have an idea of ourselves in our head, a self-concept. Moreover, his self-concept serves as a model of mentality on our repertoire of behaviours : we can imagine how we would act in different situations or before different people. Thanks to this, we can maintain an internal coherence of what we think of ourselves and not fall into a cognitive dissonance. This is how, in each interaction, we evoke to the outside part of what we are, since in this process we only evoke the features of our self-concept related to our environment, to our here and now – in a discotheque we would certainly not show the same part of us as before an exam.

Continuing with another metaphor, let us think for a moment about the case of an old painter, on a chair, with a canvas in front of him, behind a leafy meadow. No matter how many hours he spends sitting down trying to recreate the landscape that surrounds him, he will never be able to accurately represent every detail that reality shows him . There will always be a small leaf or some shade of colour that will only exist in reality. It is because of this fact that, when you paint, you are recreating reality, not creating it.

What’s yours?

This is how, although we may believe a lot, what we are to each other, may be less. Right at this point I propose to change it, to tell you that you can be different from what you imagine .

Let’s go back to our previous metaphors. For example, Marc’s experience, in which thinking about whether it is “good” or “bad” is a question of whether we value doing our homework or helping our parents more. Or more simply, the case of the painter, who after finishing the painting will have his own impression of it.

The emission and interpretation of intentions

In this line, it is explained how in the interaction, our interlocutor develops an inference process . This process is based on interpreting the semantics and pragmatics of the message, the what and the how it is said. From this, he does not interpret the message, but the intentionality of the sender, with what intention we are addressing him. Several studies show that features of communication such as accent, formalism or others, create different prejudices of people about their status, competence, anxiety, etc (Ryan, Cananza and Moffie, 1977; Bradac and Wisegarver, 1984; Bradar, Bowers and Courtright, 1979; Howeler, 1972).

On the basis of these clues, the receiver interprets our intention and thereby creates his own mental model of us . Because in the same way that one imagines how he or she would act in different situations, a pre-determined image of the other is also elaborated that allows us to predict what he or she may do or say, think or feel; what we can expect from that person. This is one of the basic heuristics to process information more quickly: if I can foresee, I can give an answer sooner.

That is the same end in the role of the receiver: give an answer . In every relationship we have, the other person elaborates his feedback , his feedback, from his interpretation of our acts. And if we have already said that our acts are somewhat different from what we would think and that the interpretation may be different from our intention, the feedback we receive may be totally different from what we expected. It can teach us parts of ourselves that we don’t know or weren’t aware of; make us look different.

What do I choose to be?

So, as a third step in the process, I tell you that you are more than you thought, whether you want it to be good or bad. We continually receive feedback from the outside, in every interaction we have with others, with the environment and with ourselves. And that message we receive is not ignored, because we also exercise the same process that they did with us: we are now the receiver. We interpret the intention behind it and it is then when we can find that we can be treated in a different way than we thought .

The importance of feedback in shaping identity

In the process of interpretation, the mental model received from the outside comes into conflict with one’s own, that is, how we are seen and how we look. Possibly, the feedback received has included new, unknown information that does not correspond to the idea we have of ourselves. This information will be included and integrated into our mental model based on two features: the affective charge and the recurrence (Bruner, 1991).

Going back to the painter, he can receive different opinions about his painting, but he will be shocked if all of them are only critical -recurrence of the same feedback- or if one of them comes from his wife he loves so much -affective load-.

We arrived then, in the danger zone. These two features modulate the influence that “how we are seen” has on us . If, in addition, it is very contrary to our initial mental model, we enter into cognitive dissonances, into internal inconsistencies due to the contradiction they imply. Much of the psychological discomfort comes because we feel that “we do not receive what we give”, or that “we are not how we want to be” and the strength of these beliefs can cause much suffering and psychological disorders such as depression if they become persistent and insidious.

But it is in this same risk zone, where the person can grow, where that feedback can add and not subtract. For personal development and growth, after defining this process, the keys are in the following points:

  • Self-awareness : if we are aware of our self-concept and the context around us, we can optimize the adaptation of what we evoke. Being aware of how we are and what surrounds us, we are able to make the decision of how to give the best answer to the needs of our environment.
  • Self-determination : we can be aware that the feedback we receive is information about how others receive us. In this way we can think about how to develop ourselves better and focus on and achieve our goals.
  • Self-critical sense : in the same way that feedback can help us to achieve objectives, it can also serve us for personal growth. Knowing what to collect from the feedback we receive in order to improve, or what areas are showing us that we still need to strengthen. In this case it is important to know how to recognize which needs are satisfied by our environment.
  • Self-regulation : the ability to be more or less flexible in each of the parts of the “being”. Both knowing how to expose ourselves authentically and how to put up defences when we play, both knowing how to make the most of what we are told and discarding it if it is very contaminated. The fact of optimizing resources and our own management

Finally, you can either be less, you can be different, or you can be more. But -and excuse the expression- I leave you in the most “fucked up” situation of all, and that is that you can be whatever you want to be.

Bibliographic references:

  • Bradac, J. J. y Wisegarver, R. (1984). Status atribuido, diversidad léxica y acento: Determinantes del estatus percibido, soledad y control del estilo de discurso. Journal of Language and Social Psychology, 3, 239-256.
  • Bradac, J. J., Bowers, J. W. y Courtright, J. A. (1979). Three language variables in communication research: Intensidad, inmediatez y diversidad. Human Communication Research, 5, 257-269.
  • Bruner, J. (1991). Actos de significado. Más allá de la revolución cognitiva. Madrid: Alianza Editorial.
  • Johnson-Laird, Philip N (1983). Mental Models: Hacia una ciencia cognitiva del lenguaje, la inferencia y la conciencia. Harvard University Press.
  • Howeler, M. (1972). Diversity of Word use as a stress indicator in an interview situation. Journal of Psycholinguistic Research, 1, 243-248.
  • Mead, G. H.: Espíritu, persona y sociedad, Paidós, Buenos Aires, 1968 a.C.
  • Ryan, E. B., Cananza, M. A. y Moffie, R. W. (1977). Reacciones a diferentes grados de acentuación en el habla del español-inglés. Language and Speech, 20, 267-273.