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“Who are you?” The Concept of Self

In which I pose perhaps the most popular question that’s been puzzling philosophers, therapists, and all of us normal people pretty much since the moment we first saw ourselves in a semi-reflective surface. The question of identity. Read on if you dare…

Raise your hand if you’re a sci-fi fan. I’ve recently started a Babylon 5 marathon. It’s a show I have watched at least twice all the way through. Is it perfect? No. But it has an interesting mix of complex characters who keep me watching, even when the acting itself sometimes falls short of believable. The memory of Michael Garibaldi’s security passcode being “Peek-a-boo” will stick in my mind for the rest of my life. Because he was absolutely right: “Would you have guessed it?”

There is an episode in this show that puts one of the main characters to the test. The test is simple, just one question: “Who are you?” But if your answer is unacceptable, you will be punished, and the punishment will get worse each time you give an unacceptable answer until you either get it right, or you die.

A similar scene (in a much less dramatic context) is in the movie Anger Management, where Dave Buznick gets asked that question over and over until he “loses it” when nothing he says seems to be the right answer for Dr. Buddy.


The question itself may be simple, but the parameters required for the answer make it nothing more than an exercise in sadism. The only way to respond is to point out the question’s inherent paradox, and that would still be considered an unacceptable answer.

You cannot define yourself free of other people’s validations when your answer is subject to someone else’s validation.

The very fact that there is a “wrong” answer makes the question unanswerable.


Which of the following statements is true?:

  1. In order to know others, we must first know ourselves.
  2. In order to know ourselves, we must first know others.
  3. We learn ourselves through learning others.
  4. We learn ourselves through others.
  5. We learn others through ourselves.

So who are you? How do you define your own identity? What do you have that’s inherently yours without it being defined or somehow assigned by someone or something else? Does such a thing even exist? 

Who are you when you don’t or can’t compare yourself to others?
When you’re not allowed to use their words to define yourself?

We define ourselves with labels. Remove them, and you lose the language necessary to form a definition. But does that mean that without our labels we don’t have a “self”? There have been cases of real life Mowglis where a child, lost or abandoned in the wilderness, somehow survives to adulthood and then finds him/herself back in society. We would define that person based on our perceptions and ideals. But how would they define themselves? Perhaps more importantly, would it even matter to them, or is the question of self and identity something people only ask when they have too much time to think?

In the most basic definition, I can say I am myself. I am an individual entity, but still part of a cohesive family group, which is part of a larger societal group, which has its place in the global population of Earth. But are we really that separate? Or is there some cosmic connection binding all of us together as one multi-faceted entity and we just don’t know it? Each of an octopus’ tentacles has its own independent neural structure and can act independently of the rest. Is it aware that it’s part of a whole?

Beyond that basic definition, everything else about me is a role or label I have either adopted or been assigned. My name. My job title. My religious beliefs and political affiliation. My gender identity, sexuality, MBTI personality type, astrological sign… Even the parts of me I consciously chose were chosen from options predefined by someone else. The options and their definitions may change across time and societies, but falling outside of them will automatically make you an outcast every time.

Let’s set social norms aside for a second and look deeper. Am I a body with a soul, or a soul encapsulated in a physical form? Or, as the Minbari in the Babylon 5 universe believe, is my soul not even housed inside my body, but merely projecting its consciousness into my body from somewhere else? Who defines what a soul even is? And how can we ever know if that definition is accurate? (Notice I didn’t say right or wrong.) 


True or False: I am the same person at all times, in all situations with all people, including when I’m alone. 

As a friend of mine sees it, labels are a good starting point, but there’s a lot more to us than that, and we may not yet have the language to describe it. The way we see ourselves is not the way others see us. Sometimes, their perception of us helps to shape our identity. We strive to become someone other people like, or we fight to escape the definition in which they imprisoned us. 

And sometimes, by observing others and labeling them, we discover ourselves, and how we fit into the world by comparison. We are the same, or we are different. We are better, or we are worse. That internal judgment is ever-present because it helps us identify ourselves and those around us.

But when you have that sort of mechanism on autopilot, and all you ever see are people who are more or less like you, it skews your perception of yourself, as well as those around you. Same becomes good—because it is familiar and safe. Different becomes a threat—because it challenges the very basis of your own identity and self-worth.

On the other hand, meeting a wide variety of people will force you to become more adaptable in order to be acceptable. You learn to shape a projection of yourself that will more easily fit the ideals of those around you. You hide parts of yourself they find objectionable, highlight parts they like or admire. In essence, you become a different person in different situations. And when those different social circles collide to compare notes about you, the result will be a two-faced fake. 


Discussion: How do other people’s perceptions of you fit into your own definition of who and what you are?

If you don’t define yourself, others will do it for you. That may or may not be a good thing. Western society is firmly individualistic, and we demand and require that every person carve out a place for themselves in the world. We place importance on independence and personal achievement. What are you bringing to the table? What are you doing with your life? How will history remember you? For Westerners, life is one identity crisis after another as we find our place in society, and our gift—the thing that makes us different and unique, that no one else can provide but us. 

Flip that coin East, and you’ll find that individualism is not only undesirable, it is frowned upon. You’re not unique. You’re part of a society that can only function and provide for its members if everyone conforms to the part that has been assigned to them. Strength in unity. Your society is your identity. Your place in the world has already been carved by those who know where you can best be of service, and your goal in life is to perform that function to the best of your ability so the whole may rise together. Your identity crisis (if it is one) is to come to terms with who and what you are told to be.

Take the mindset from either of these and shove it into the other system. It won’t work.  People who know who they are will not function well in a place where their self-definition is “wrong.” People who don’t have a well-defined internal course to follow will struggle in a society that won’t tell them what to do. 


Can there be a definition of self, completely independent of societal context, social pressures, or external perceptions? Or are all of these facets of who and what we are? 

And does it matter?

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