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.

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