In a recent post I referred to the death of my mother and my subsequent mourning as saying something of the loss I felt in me. Yes the subject of my grief has gone and there is an undoubted sadness to that but the more intense feelings were more to do with the absence of part of my person.
I have been doing some more thinking around this and I am starting to conclude that our identity, the essence of who we are, is a composite of the persons in us known to those people that we interact with. We are brought into existence by the acknowledgement of that existence in others. Moreover if everyone that knew us no longer did so we would effectively cease to exist.
To take this back to the start of me we look at attachment -that stage in our childhood development when we form an emotional bond, or relationship, with a significant adult. This is generally our mother but doesn’t have to be and doesn’t have to take place in very early childhood though both carry great benefits for us if that is when and with whom it happens. This emotional binding is significant in defining who we are. As we start to get a sense of being ‘someone’ we need to work out who that is and this attached person provides us with feedback on the way our behaviour affects them and others. As we later develop other relationships this process occurs with more and more people and enables us to develop our own characteristics or personality.
At various times we might experiment or play with this mechanism and deliberately mistreat others to see the effect that has on them and, consequently, us. However, if we are not careful in doing this we run the risk losing ourselves. In our attempts to portray ourselves differently to different people it may become difficult to hang on to who we really are. This is generally ok in the world where we actually encounter one another and is generally kept well in check by interventions from the people we meet. In the virtual world of social media though it can obviously go unchecked, potentially leading to significant personality issues.
Lets say, for instance, I said to everyone that I was now a vegetarian. This would be ‘true’, regardless of my diet, if no one saw me eating meat. In a familial situation it’s probably fair to assume that I would be rumbled quite quickly but if I never shared a meal with anyone I could get away with it for some time.
To further illustrate how we are we are defined by our relationships and interactions with others we can compare two scenarios; someone kept in solitary confinement and a couple that spend the majority of their lives together.
For the person isolated from contact with other humans and only themselves for company eventually they could descend into a form of madness or insanity where they are unable to determine the difference between the reality and fantasy. Their idea of who they are would never be challenged and would soon become quite distorted.
Contrast that with the couple that are in constant contact with one another. Their personalities would eventually overlap to the point where they would find it difficult to separate one from the other. Indeed there would effectively be no division as they would eventually act like mirrors to one another reflecting similar responses and reactions to the events around them. We often hear how the death of a person in such a relationship is felt so deeply in the other that they feel like they have died themselves. This is because so much of them is defined by the relationship with their partner that when that part of them is removed there is very little of themselves left.
So it is essential that we are open to encounters with others in order that we continue to develop and define ourselves. It is also crucial that we don’t merely use these experiences to reinforce our idea of who we are…. but more on that another time.