In psychology concepts such as “I”, “Ego” or “Self” are often used to designate the self-referential dimension of human experience . The perception of continuity and coherence, and therefore the development of the sense of identity, depends on our conceiving a part of ourselves as the subject that is the protagonist of our life.

Since William James (1842-1910) distinguished between the “I” as an observer and the “Me” as an object of experience in the late nineteenth century, a large number of theories have emerged that attempt to define what the “I” is . Below we will describe the most relevant ones through a brief historical overview.

The self in psychoanalysis

In Sigmund Freud’s (1856-1939) theory the Self is understood as the conscious part of the mind , which must satisfy the instinctive and unconscious impulses of the It by taking into account the demands of the external world and of one’s own consciousness – the Overself, constituted by internalised social norms.

The Self or identity would therefore be an intermediate instance between the biology of an individual and the world around him. According to Freud, its functions include perception, information management, reasoning and control of defense mechanisms.

His disciple Carl Gustav Jung (1875-1961) defined the Self as the nucleus of consciousness ; every psychic phenomenon or life experience that is detected by the Self becomes conscious. Thus, the sense of self is understood as a complex structure with a double component: somatic and psychic.

Furthermore, for Jung the Self, the centre of identity, is immersed in the Self, which constitutes the core of the personality in general; the Self includes the unconscious, as well as the conscious part of the experience. However, we are unable to experience the Self completely since we are anchored to the Self and to consciousness.

The social roles of the self

In the social sciences of the first half of the 20th century, symbolic interactionism was very popular, a theoretical trend that stated that people interpret the world and its elements from the meanings given to them socially. The self is built from face-to-face interaction and from the social structure.

If we talk about the I and identity, within the symbolic interactionism it is worth highlighting the dramatic model of Erving Goffman (1922-1982). This author was of the opinion that people, as if we were actors, try to appear consistent before others by adopting roles. For Goffman, the “I” is nothing more than the set of roles we play .

Later, social psychologist Mark Snyder (1947-) developed his theory of self-observation or self-monitoring. This model affirms that people who are high in self-observation adapt their roles, and therefore their identity, to the situation in which they find themselves; in contrast, those who self-monitor little show more of the “I” with which they identify.

Multiplicity and complexity of identity

Among the recent advances in the conception of the self from social psychology, two theories in particular stand out: Patricia Linville’s model of self-complexity and E. Tory Higgins’ theory of self-discrepancy. The central aspect of both models is that the self is understood as the mental representations that we make of ourselves .

The model of self-complexity proposes that identity depends on our social roles, interpersonal relationships, core personality traits and the activities we perform, such as our professional career. The concept of “self-complexity” refers to the number of representations that make up the self, as well as their degree of differentiation.

According to Linville, people with a high degree of self-complexity are more resistant to negative life events , since even if a part of their identity is questioned or weakened by experiences, there will always be other parts of the Self that they can use as a psychological anchor.

Higgins’ theory of self-discrepancy

In his theory of self-discrepancy, Higgins also states that the “I” is not a unitary concept, although he defines the different components of identity based on two parameters: the domains of the Self and the views of the Self . In this last criterion we find the person’s perspective on him/herself, as well as the one he/she believes significant people have.

In the domains of the self, which can be associated with one’s own perspective or that of others, we find the real self (how I am), the ideal self (how I would like to be), the self that should be, the potential self (how I could become) and the future self, which is the identity we hope to be.

Higgins believes that the real self, both from one’s point of view and from the point of view we assume meaningful people have, is the basis of our self-concept. On the other hand, the rest of the aspects are the guides of the self, which serve as a model and reference for us to act and to evaluate our behaviour.

Post-trationalist cognitive theories

Vittorio Guidano (1944-1999) is considered the main pioneer of post-trationalist psychology. This theoretical orientation emerges as a reaction to the predominance of positivist and rationalist philosophies, which assert that there is an objective reality that can be perceived and understood accurately through the senses and logic.

Cognitive-constructivist psychological theories defend the fundamental relevance of language in the way we interpret the world around us and share these perspectives. Through language we organize our experiences in the form of narratives , from which memory and identity emerge.

Thus, the “I” is not conceived as a defined entity, but as the constant process of building a coherent autobiographical narrative that allows us to give meaning to our experiences. From the post-trationalist perspective, the problem of identity becomes a linguistic-narrative issue.

Guidano also distinguished between the “I” and the “Me”. While defined the Self as the body-emotional dimension of experience, predominantly unconscious, for this author the Me is the part of the Self that observes and generates meaning through language. The union of the “I” and the “Me” results from the creation of coherent narratives that pretend to be explanatory.