By Matthew Palmer
A police officer pulls a car over for a routine traffic stop. The officer strides confidently up to the car, hands on his hips, with a bravado swagger as if he is fully in control of the situation. He peers into the driver’s window. Suddenly, the man in the car pulls a gun and fires several shots. The officer falls to the ground, screaming and crying in a frenzy, "I’ve been shot! I’ve been shot! Call an ambulance! I’ve been shot!"
When the paramedics arrive, they discover the officer has no’t even been wounded. All the shots missed. The only observable damage is that this tough cop wet his pants.
This is an illustration of how identity works. In one flash, all of the officer’s self-assured control leaves him, and he is reduced to the helplessness of a baby. The police officer’s identity of courage is not real; he is not confident underneath his tough image which crumbles during a dangerous unexpected encounter.
Like the police officer, illusions of who we think we are — and who we claim to be — evaporate like smoke. Our true Identity is obscured and ignored to make way for our made-up image-the way we want others to see us.
How we define ourselves
In defining our image, we take all the things that appeal to us in the world to create how we want to see ourselves. We set out to make ourselves visible in the world so our images are reflected back to us through the desire of others.
We can try to define our identity according to how we want to be seen — by others and by ourselves — but this is an incomplete view of what true identity really represents because often the things we find appealing reveal what we feel is missing in our own lives.(1)
Image is so important to us because we all want to belong to something meaningful, desirable and important. The precisely fashioned images we show others are supposed proof of our value.
Since image is largely derived from the world around us, it may be helpful to note a few of the most powerful influences that pressure us. Influences shape our beliefs and ultimately what we truly value; what we value is a reflection of what is in our hearts.
Feeling the peer pressure
Peer pressure has a tremendous effect on all of us. Have you ever had a teacher or friend that had a positive and profound influence upon you? They probably influenced your values, which affected the image you portrayed and in turn impacted your lifestyle.
A study in the 1960s reveals the powerful influence of peer pressure cannot be ignored. Stanley Milgram, a psychologist at Yale University, conducted experiments attempting to prove the immense power of influence exerted through peer pressure and authority.
"Although controversial by today’s ethical standards, the experiments revealed a dark side of human nature: many subjects were quite willing to obey an authority even if such obedience meant inflicting severe pain on another person.
Even though the experiments were themselves a deception (that is, the electric shocks the subjects ‘administered’ to the victims were not real, and the ‘victims’ were pretending to feel pain as part of the experiment), many of the subjects suffered considerable trauma to discover that they had the capacity within themselves — in obedience to authority and peer pressure — to inflict such torture." (2)
The experiment illustrates that we really are no’t always consciously aware of how much influence those around us actually exert on us. Although another’s influence may not be presented as an authority, they can still have a tremendous effect on us.
In response to the influence of others, we image ourselves in a way that we think is appealing and desirable to our peers; we tend to want to "fall into line" because of our desire for acceptance. A self image created with the objective of pleasing others is unreliable and ultimately a hollow and disappointing endeavor because the opinion of others is always shifting and approval is fleeting.
Bombarded with media messages
Popular media is another influence worth exploring. Countless ideas of what image we should adopt to improve ourselves and bring true happiness are constantly coming at us through television, computers or radio.
Constructing our identity has become a requirement in our modern Western society where we are constantly facing choices of identity and lifestyle.(3) We have seen various ways in which popular ideas about "self" in society have changed, so that identity is seen today as more fluid and transformable than ever before.
Consider how popular media has contributed to the change of our traditional gender roles. One text traces shifting gender ideals like this:
"The traditional view of a woman as a housewife or low-status worker has been kick-boxed out of the picture by the feisty, successful ‘girl power’ icons. Meanwhile the masculine ideals of absolute toughness, stubborn self-reliance and emotional silence have been shaken by a new emphasis on men’s emotions, need for advice, and the problems of masculinity." (4)
Whether you believe the media is a reflection of changing societal values, or a leading force disposing of traditional social roles and values, media disseminates an enormous number of messages suggesting "better" forms of self-expression, gender, sexuality, and lifestyle. Although the public has its own robust and diverse set of feelings on subjects of gender, sexuality and lifestyle, the media uses seductive and proven methods of persuasion and represents a constant bombardment of image advice.
Even if we disagree with the images in our minds, they still can play on our emotions; the frequency of exposure to media suggestion can wear on even the most grounded person.
Peer and media influence are clearly not the only forces which may pressure us, but we are exposed to them every day, whether they be negative, positive, truthful, or fraudulent. These influences can be unreliable and inconsistent at best. As one text reminds us, "As long as you derive your identity from the world around you, you have to be concerned about losing it." (5)
Our attempts to define and image ourselves are a reaction to a deeper need within — the need to satisfy an intense yearning deep inside every human being, a need for purpose and belonging. The problem of defining our identity from exterior influences is they are unreliable; even seeking definition from within ourselves can be unreliable with our fluctuating emotions and confidence.
Matthew Palmer is a recent business grad who talks to himself a lot (he finds he has a lot in common with himself) and loves The Simpsons.
- "Identity and Loneliness" A guide to Psychology and its Practice. Retrieved August 28, 2003.
- Gauntlett, David (2002), Media, Gender and Identity: An Introduction, Routledge, London and New York.
- "Identity and Loneliness"