There are three reasons why I wrote this post. A post that runs across today and tomorrow.
Firstly, this post is inspired by love! The supreme love that I receive from my darling Jeannie and the love that I sense practically twenty-four hours a day that flows from the beautiful dogs that we have here. But also from the wonders of the rural world in which I live. From sights like the one below to being visited by wild deer every single morning when I go out to feed the horses.
The second reason for writing this post is a direct result of the love that flows in from so, so many of you precious readers. You are like one big online family that I live in. And, as one hopes to do within a family, from time to time you want to open up your inner feelings.
The third and final reason for this post is wanting to explore how one might find some peace from the chaos that seems to be spread so far and wide across this planet that we all call home.
It’s a very personal journey and I suggest that if this is not your ‘cup of tea’ that you call back another day!
OK! Now that’s off my chest, here we go!
“Life’s beauty is inseparable from it’s fragility.“
Pause awhile and just let those words float around your mind.
It is a quotation taken from a TED Talk that Jean and I watched a few days ago.
Psychologist Susan David shares how the way we deal with our emotions shapes everything that matters: our actions, careers, relationships, health and happiness. In this deeply moving, humorous and potentially life-changing talk, she challenges a culture that prizes positivity over emotional truth and discusses the powerful strategies of emotional agility. A talk to share. This talk was presented at an official TED conference, and was featured by our editors on the home page.
If you want to watch the talk it is a little over 16 minutes long and may be viewed on the TED Talk site here.
Let me return to that quotation. For there is no question that life, at whatever scale, from the personal to the global, is fragile. Fragile with a capital “F“!
Whether it’s the madness of our politics and governments, or nature presenting us with extreme hurricanes, volcanoes, earthquakes and floods, or the frustrations of life itself, especially when one is the wrong side of 65, or numerous other aspects of being human it’s terribly easy to become frustrated, or worse, with oneself. I speak from a very personal perspective as my short-term recall is now pathetic!
STOP! (You see, I wrote the word “pathetic” without thinking. Demonstrating how quickly I come down on myself. Without automatically and unconsciously being gentle on myself and being very grateful that this old Brit, born in 1944, is still able to string a few words together!)
One of the great, possibly the greatest, things that we can learn from our dogs is to be gentle on ourselves. So very often our dogs take time out to relax, to be happy and to spread their joy around the home. Look at the following photograph!
Being gentle on yourself!
But for us humans that seems a great deal more easier to say than to practice!
Yet the argument for being gentle to yourself is compelling. And the first step in that personal journey towards being kinder to yourself is to be better aware of oneself when it comes to our emotions.
I shall be continuing this inward journey tomorrow but today, holding on to that idea of how we manage our emotions, I want to close with another TED Talk. Just 18 minutes long but invaluable to watch.
The talk is given by Professor Lisa Feldman Barrett, PhD who is Distinguished Professor of Psychology at Northeastern University,and has positions in psychiatry and radiology at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School.
As I was reading the draft of this post it did cross my mind that you do know I write from a purely personal perspective. I hold no qualifications whatsoever in the fields of psychiatry, psychology or any related disciplines. If you have found yourself to be affected to the point where you think you need proper counselling then, please, do seek help.
An intriguing examination of how we build our sense of self.
Note: This article goes back to 2007, part of a programme that I was involved in back then. However, re-reading the article shows it to be timeless, so trust you find it interesting. There is a fascinating test, still online, details provided at the end of the article – but if you can’t wait, it’s here.
What is Self?
Edited by Fiona Kerr from original text by Dorothy Miell
So what is self and how do we study its development? As we grow older we become aware of differences between ourselves and others, for example: what I look like; my gender; what makes me happy or sad. A sense of self is not achieved in a single step; we don’t emerge from our mother’s womb as fully formed adults. As our bodies grow and change we also learn more and more about ourselves. How we describe ourselves to others changes as we get older. This process is not necessarily constant – some aspects of self may stay the same for many years, others may change rapidly.
There may also be big differences to how you feel and how you want others to think you are. This may colour your choices in self-description.
A sense of self is also a cultural construction – in some societies individual uniqueness and self-expression is seen as vulgar and uncivilised. In Open2.net’s “Who Am I?” test we will be examining self in a Western sense, the gradual formation of becoming a self-aware individual. We’ll be grouping the results in age groups, so you can see how the self-descriptions change as people get older. Although self development is most significant in childhood, we’ve decided to keep the results going to see how things change into adulthood (if at all!).
A child’s first step to self-understanding is the recognition that she or he exists. As an infant explores the world and interacts with caregivers, she becomes aware that she has power – she is an agent of change within her own environment. She is able to cause things to happen and control objects. This awareness is known as “self-as-subject”, “I” or the “existential self”:
There are thought to be four elements to the existential self:
an awareness of one’s own agency (i.e. one’s power to act) in life events,
an awareness of the uniqueness of one’s own experience, of one’s distinctiveness from other people,
an awareness of the continuity of one’s identity,
an awareness of one’s own awareness, the element of reflexiveness.
For example, if a child closes his or her eyes, the world goes dark. If a toy is touched, it moves. The interaction with the world is physical, external and, in developmental terms, it helps the child differentiate between self and other.
What Makes Me?
At around a child’s second birthday, many children recognise themselves in a mirror or in a photograph. In Western cultures, from the age of 18 months to 3 years of age, infants start to display self-awareness through the use of the word “me” or “mine”. This self-sense isn’t a passive, self-reflective discovery, but is often the result of effort, particularly in rivalry with others. It arises from striving in the face of obstacles.
These are the second steps in establishing a full sense of self, the acquisition and elaboration as “self-as-object” or “me”, now often referred to as the “categorical self”. This aspect of self concerns the qualities that define oneself as a person, e.g. gender, name and relationships with others. Once a child has gained a certain level of self-awareness (of the existential self) he or she begins to place herself (or is placed by others) into a set of categories. This aspect of self is the most influenced by social factors, since it is made up of social roles (such as being a student, a sister, a friend) and characteristics that come from a comparison with others (such as trustworthiness, shyness or sporting ability). Social context is an important feature in self-development.
Measuring self-esteem is difficult. We might feel good about ourselves in one aspect of our lives, but not so good in others. One way of measuring self-esteem in children is to ask questions about how they feel in the different aspects of their life, such as: scholastic competence; athletic competence; social acceptance; behavioural conduct; physical appearance.
How we feel about ourselves overall may bear little or no relationship to how we feel about ourselves in these different areas. It’s the importance we place on our areas of achievement or failure that leads to an overall level of self-esteem. A child who is anxious to succeed at sport would have a high level of self-esteem if she did well at sport, but low self-esteem if her performance in sport was poor, even if the child was good academically or socially. The match between our aspirations and performance is one important factor in determining self-esteem. Another factor which might influence a child’s overall feeling of self-esteem is the regard in which they are held by “significant others”, people whose opinion the child values, such as parents, teachers and peers.
Children by the age of about two are able to correctly label themselves as a boy or a girl. But it is not until later that they understand that gender is a stable concept, e.g. that boys cannot become mothers. Being able to identify themselves in terms of gender helps children develop a sense of categorical self and helps define appropriate behaviour for boys and girls. Children develop their gender roles in part through imitation of models, so parents’ reactions to the behaviour of children are an important influence on children’s developing sense of gender identity. Parents who try to raise their children in a non-sexist way have encountered difficulties, as other influences such as the media and society itself can counter their attempts.
If children are shown individual differences between people, that different people believe different things, they can see that contradictory beliefs and behaviours can co-exist, that the rules for their family may not be true of the family next door, but both are valid.
Describing self changes as we grow older
A child uses comparison with others to see how he or she fits into different categories. In order to evaluate if he or she is short, tall, clever or shy, a child either has to compare themselves physically with others, or consider their evaluation by others.
This contrast between self and others helps the child to develop an increasingly complex understanding about self. Children’s self-descriptions change as they become more able to evaluate themselves and develop a sense of self-worth and self-esteem. Children seem to think about themselves in different ways as they get older. Younger children seem to focus more on physical features, activities and behaviours, whereas older children mention more psychological characteristics. So, by the age of about 18, individuals are able to describe themselves in terms of the world of emotions, attitudes, secrets and wishes. Self-reflection is focused inwards, on their inner, private world.
OpenLearn, part of The Open University, have designed a test to illustrate how people of different ages define themselves. Once you take the test, you can then compare yourself to the database of other people who have taken the test to see how you compare with others in your age group, how you compare with people from other age groups and how people differ according to gender. Alternatively you can view the database without taking the test first. Try taking the test with a child and see how your results compare. So why not take the test to find out “Who Am I?”
MIELL, D. (1995) ‘Developing a Sense of Self’
BARNES, P. (ed.) Personal, Social and Emotional Development of Children, Oxford, Blackwell Publishers
The above article was published by the BBC as part of their Child of our Time series, unfortunately no longer available online.
The results of the Who Am I test based on 53,345 entries as at October 30th, 2011, show overwhelmingly that both sexes at all ages describe their relationships and inner emotions as more important than their physical or character descriptions. For men from the age of 16-19 until 61+ their description of their relationships scores more important than their inner self but the margin is slight. For women over the same age span the situation is reversed; inner emotions score marginally higher than relationships.
What is very revealing is that for both sexes across the whole of their adult life, their physical and character identities are significantly less important than their social and emotional selves.