Monday, September 17, 2007

As you really are

In the psychological study of the self, there are often two competing perspectives put forth in regards to how people want to be perceived-- self-enhancement and self-verification.

Self-enhancement tends to fit into our traditional individualistic views-- people want to see themselves as positively as possible. As such, we engage in favourable social comparisons and all sorts of other tricks. For instance, almost everyone rates themselves as above average on traits that they view as important to their self-concept, such as attractiveness and intelligence. Of course, when one looks at the bigger picture, this make little sense, as you wonder where exactly all the average, or heaven forbid, below average people have hidden.

Self-verification theory instead counters that people are motivated not to be seen as positively as possible, but rather as honestly as possible. For the bulk of people, this does not necessarily contradict self-enhancement theory-- many people, at least in Western society, do genuinely have shiningly confident views of themselves, and thus believe that being seen as they really are does mean being seen as beautiful and witty. Where these two theories really do come to the test is for those people with poor self-views. Whereas self-enhancement theory suggests that they would still wish to be seen as great and wonderful, self-verification theory suggests that they would prefer to be seen as they believe they really are, although it may not be an especially rosy picture.

What research actually does suggest is that people do prefer to be seen as they really feel they are than especially positively, if these two things are in contrast. In other words, being seen honestly, even if it is negative, may be better than being seen positively, if it doesn't feel true (see the work of William Swann, if interested).

Why do I bring this up? I have been thinking a lot lately about the importance of affirming one's identity. Western society is fixated on the notion of self-esteem, and how all social ills can be solved merely by boosting people's self-esteem. While one would be hard pressed to disagree that increases in self-esteem is a bad thing, I think we may be overlooking something simple-- the importance of people's personal identities, and the simple power of reifying people's self-concepts.

I just finished watching (yet another!) documentary film called "Small Town Gay Bar", which discussed the huge significance of two gay bars in small town Mississippi in the lives of gays and lesbians in the community. It was amazing how one night a week of feeling free to simply be themselves, to be able to acknowledge the part of their identity that they felt forced to keep closeted, to be able to publicly hold the hand of their loved one without judgment was enough to support them through another week. This is something that myself, as a heterosexual, take hugely for granted-- I don't feel the need to declare my straightness, as it is a fact that is simply assumed unless otherwise contradicted. Several of the people in the film had to hide this very basic element that is so core to their identity in every aspect of the public sphere, and thus could not be seen for who they really were except in such very restricted situations.

This made me recall a high school friend, D, who I've known since I was 14. He came out of the closet, very slowly and tentatively at the age of 18, to a small town and conservative parents, and always seemed to be somewhat ill at ease. However, he moved to the city about a year later, and his world seemed to go into overdrive. He dove headlong into every aspect of the gay community-- events, dating, classes-- you name it. It was as though he was going through the identity development of adolescence in hyperspeed, as though he couldn't get enough of it, as though it was the most refreshing thing in the world to be able to try things out and discover who he really was-- both the good and the bad aspects. Now, at 26, he has slowed down a lot, and really come into his own skin-- but I really do believe it was the opportunity to be a part of a community that genuinely acknowledged and accepted all aspects of him that led to this sense of comfort.

On a similar tangent, a colleague was recently telling me about two friends of his who lived on a Native reservation outside of a large metropolitan centre. Of course, whilst being on the reservation, their identity as First Nations was fully acknowledged. However, their appearance was somewhat ambiguous, such that, with a little effort, while in this large city, they could pass as Caucasian. In order to avoid the influx of racism when visiting the city (e.g., being followed around by suspicious shopkeepers), they would sometimes "disguise" themselves as White. And although apparently their experiences were vastly more positive at an objective level, they would return to the reservation, feeling exhausted at the effort of the pretense and how stifling it felt to be denying who they really were.

On a much more day-to-day level, though, isn't this notion of needing self-verification part of why we blog (particularly anonymously)? Part of real life impression management, especially in a field where I feel as though I have to "play professional", is not feeling able to let all sides of you show. It can be a very restricted picture you let peer out-- I have spoken on here several times about my need to keep personal problems out of the eyes of others. Perhaps that is where the catharsis of this type of writing gets its power-- there is something particularly refreshing at having the ability to be able to express myself on a completely honest level, and being seen at that very same level.


EA said...

Yes, I agree, ultimately I do blog because I can be honestly myself on my website. Is it because I can't necessarily be honestly myself elsewhere? Not primarily... Primarily it's because I can't always be the center of attention, and I need a place to talk through my day-to-day experiences more than I have people who could tolerate such total narcisism!! :o)
Great post. Thanks for it.

Crushed by Ingsoc said...

Odd that you should have posted on this, because I kind of had a similar post planned for tomorrow- but It can wait.

To me, the whole point of anonymity is to post my REAL thoughts- without having to curtail them- to an audience who do not know the person who has these thoughts.
It's the only way to validate them.
People in real life judge your innermost thoughts by how well they know the outer person.

It means I can talk about issues without people dragging the way I lead my own life into it.

libby said...

i was never too great at psych. i blog anon...but because it allows me to be honest. what a paradox!! my posts aren't always about mememe, but when they are being known as 'libby' definitely gives me some comfort!

and what ingsoc says about people judging the innermost thoughts by how well they know the outer person? TOTALLY EXACTLY HOW I FEEL. But i could never say it as eloquently.

All Mod Cons said...

I've blogged as "Me" and as AMC...and I think that I've been both true to myself and honest on both blogs. I'm very much a "here I am, take it or leave it" person. I know that some views or opinions may be disliked by some and not by others.

Everyone wants to be liked, but maybe I'm at a stage where I just don't care too much.

Not sure how that fits into your post information...I confess that I got a little lost at one point! Maybe I'm just tired.

Princess Extraordinaire said...

You're right on about why we blog - although there are some times I do wish that I saw myself more positively and thus blogged as such..on the whole, though, I do it for the same ereasons you do.

SMARTBuddy said...

Heaven forbid! Im a below average blogger.
Never really thought about why I like blogging, I thought I just quite enjoyed writing stuff. Its interesting that there is accepted theory behind such actions- I wish I had time to read it.... I probably would if I stopped writing... ahhhh dilemma...

Beth said...

I'm fascinated by both theories - I think I'm an example of someone motivated by those competing perspectives. I want to be seen in a positive light but also crave being seen as I truly am.
As for blogging - many times I have wished I began doing so anonymously - and that's the "self-verification/see me as I truly am" part wanting expression.

Yoda said...

Excellent post PP!

Written as a true blood graduate student. For a while, I thought I was reading a treatise on the value of self-verification rather than a blog post ;-)

Jocelyn said...

I know to dial you up for documentary recs, for sure.

Your breakdown of this line of thinking is very good, esp. as it's so appropriate to the blogging world. When people congratulate me on a particularly "frank" post, I think to myself, "I didn't include the half of it."

eric1313 said...

I will echo everybody else in this sentiment: Wonderful post.

I feel as though I'm an oddity, even on blogger. The innermost thoughts I post are couched behind "interpretation". The layers then get stripped away one by one on my comments page. But then again, I can also fall back to the veil of interpretation, if need be.

On the other hand, I tend to make very long comments. And disclose, um, a lot... But that's what blogger is about, being able to disclose without the concern that that disclosure will become an issue in my actual life.

I feel I'm a hybrid of both these ideas, to be truthful. At least, I can't discount self-enhancement without feeling like a fraud on the self-verification aspect of this debate. I would rather be honest and ugly that a beautiful lie.

I know I'll never win a pageant that isn't judged mostly by elocution. That sums it up, I'd say.

Interesting, as always. You make psychology fun--as opposed to something to be avoided for fear of what might be discovered about one's self. My Piston's cap is off to you, Princess.

btw--thanks for the link to The Duke. That concert review was awesome.

Ant said...


I have the opposite problem though. I'm not sure if it's because I'm very aware of how un-anonymous the Internet can be, but I find myself reining in my more controversial thoughts. I've crossed the line two or three times and each time it had major fallout (once was when I had to change blogs).

I like your vendor-neutral thoughts on self-esteem btw. Whilst I do generally agree that boosting a person's self-belief could help a large percentage of the population lead happier lives, I think over-confidence is a trait that many suffer from as well, and causes great problems. (I understand that Hitler had no problems with self-esteem.)

Oh, and I like your words on homosexuality too. This is one of the cruxes of the arguments that I occasionally get into with my generationally homophobic parents: I can publicly hold hands with my girlfriend if I choose. If you're gay you still can't do that without feeling like you stick out. And probably won't for a while...

benjibopper said...

what a fascinating post. i think that is part of the motivation for blogging, but it doesn't necessarily satisfy. it's very difficult to express all facets of ourselves in this format, no?

personally, i think i lean toward the first theory - i want people to see the best version of me even if i can't see it myself.

i remember going to a gay bar in hali years ago and running into a colleague of mine. he was surprised to see me and asked, 'are you gay?'

'no!' i blurted stupidly.

'are you?' my friend asked him, and he said yes he was, but please don't tell anyone because he wasn't ready to come out. my two female roommates were totally in love with this guy so it took some effort to keep his secret, but i did. i felt enormous sympathy for him, having to keep such a huge part of his identity a secret.

captain corky said...

Great post Princess! It's a shame that we can't let people be who they are in our society. I don't know what I would do if I had to hide who I was... I do know what it's like to be ashamed of who I am, because of other people telling me that I'm not good enough, but that will never happen again.

Ultra Toast Mosha God said...

Society survives on its little white lies. It's the dark foreboding ones that eat away at it. But how does one tell where one ends and the other begines.


I have compromised myself by revealing my blog to those whom I know. Certain things have had to be reigned in.

Lord Chimmy said...

This post reminds me of Erich Fromm. Are you familiar with him?