Who are we really?

Ever since I started collecting quotes, I have this thing for the ones that “aren’t easy”, which means they are phrased in a way that you really have to dig deep to see what it all means. This quote by the sociologist Charles Cooley is one of them:

I am not who I think I am; I am not who you think I am; I am who I think you think I am”

Charles Cooley

What a profound quote that is, right? So what does it actually mean?

As a whole, the quote captures in a brilliant way the complexity that we face when we dare to embark on the so called “journey of self”. So, what does the first chunk mean?: When we begin to question who we are, we may first look at how we perceive ourselves. Because many people tell us “Just be your true self”, we begin to wonder: What really is our “true self?”. In the chapter “Who Is ‘I’?” from his book “Who Am I and If So How Many?” (I read the german version), Richard David Precht shared some interesting ideas: First of all, he compiled the results of many years of brain research. All of the researchers found that there is no “I-center”. Not that big of a shock right? That would’ve been quite a disappointement if the long-standing search of philosophers for the ‘I’, was finished by saying “Here you have it, the ‘I'”! Precht also shared the propositions of Ernst Mach (“the I is not an unchangeable, distinct, sharply limited entity”) and David Hume (the I is “a composition of sensations”), discussing their weaks and strengths. He comes to the final conclusion that humans don’t have a ‘core’ or true self, that one could determine for sure. Instead, he says, “we have an iridescent, multi-layered and multiperspective ‘I'”. After all, the findings of the brain research didn’t show that there was no I at all, but rather that it is a complex mechanism that we are only beginning to understand. I can only agree because it is the fascination and wonder that makes the journey of self so interesting.

Let’s look at the second chunk: “I am not who you think I am”. This seems obvious, because on any number of occasions, mostly in our young adolescent years, we find ourselves being put in boxes by other people. Very often these are classmates you only see a few hours a day and who don’t know that much about you. When you are a rather quiet person, they are quick to judge you as “arrogant” and when you are very intelligent and great at school, they characterize you as “the nerd” or “the teacher’s pet”. Psychology calls these “stereotypes” and defines them as “a set of cognitive generealizations about the qualities and characteristics of the members of a group or social category” (American Psychological Association). On the one hand, these generalizations are actually a good thing because they simplify the processing of information and reduce cognitive overload in our brain. On the other hand, the flipside of stereotypes and labels is that they also lead to the misperception of individuals because they simply aren’t accurate for every individual assigned with that expectation. So do we create our sense of self by ourselves? Charley Cooley says “No”. He gives us the understanding that our self concept isn’t build in solitude, but rather within social settings, calling this the “looking glass self”. Cooley’s idea proposes that “individuals develop their concept of self by observing how they are perceived by others” (Lesley University). This is an interesting sociological approach which begs the question: “Is our sense of self really as independent from others as we thought it was?”

This question seems to be answered in the last chunk of the quote. It functions as a direct follow-up for the second one. This shows that other people’s perceptions have an important influence to your sense of self. Each person in your life, mostly the ones closest to you, shape you in their own way and become part of your identity. creating many selves, that all reflect parts of you, some more than others. What’s important is that you don’t let anyone decide which (one of your) self/selves you are. That you don’t make your self-worth dependent on what others say. Just because you are told you are “xyz” doesn’t mean that it actually reflects who you are at the core. You still have a choice what to believe and what not. I like to see it like Bianca Piper: “No matter what label is thrown your way, only you can define yourself.” (The Duff, 2015). And who knows, maybe you get to know a complete new part of your self one day, which you haven’t met before: “The key [is] to know that you could always somehow find a way to reinvent yourself again” (Still Me, Jojo Moyes).

There is one final note I’d like to make: When I first came across this quote by Charles Cooley, there was a little extra part at the end: “So who am I?” You can see that this is a clear incentive for the reader to actively and continuously question their sense of self, apart from their social identity and current idea of self. Because the search of self never really ends. It is a beautiful everlasting journey that can give you profound insights about your psyche and subconscious. The first step, which is usually the hardest, is the acceptance of not knowing who you are (yet): “I know that I know nothing” (Sokrates). This is the first step to the inquiry of the truth that is within you. The first step to awakening.

How do you do that? What started my journey of self and spirituality was meditation. It is not only a tool to become more aware of your surroundings, but also your inner world. It doesn’t happen all at once. As a another step, I also really recommend to watch at least the first Samadhi Movie “Maya – The Illusion Of Self”. There are three of them in total but definitely watch the first one. “The inner world is where the revolution must first take place” is one of my favorite quotes from the movie. So what do you say? Do you dare to take the red pill?

Title picture:
– “Der Wanderer über dem Nebelmeer” (Caspar David Friedrich, 1818)

My sources:
– Precht, R. (2007). Wer bin ich – und wenn ja, wie viele? Eine philosophische Reise. München: Wilhelm Goldmann
Verlag, pp.62 – 73.
-> Reminder: Because I read the German version and don’t own the English one, I translated the quotes I used myself.
APA Dictionary of Psychology. [online] Available at: <https://dictionary.apa.org/> [Accessed 4 August 2022].
– Lesley.edu. (2022). Perception Is Reality: The Looking-Glass Self | Lesley University. [online] Available at: <https://lesley.edu/article/perception-is-reality-the-looking-glass-self> [Accessed 4 August 2022].
– Schmidt, D. (2017). Samadhi – The Illusion Of The Self. Available at: <https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=Bw9zSMsKcwk> [Accessed 4 August 2022].

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