When identity is unstable life can feel as if you are staring through a mirror wondering what the “other side” means ?
Like Alice who questions the world on the other side of the mirror’s reflection – before stepping through and entering an alternative world; our concept of self is greatly developed from infancy through our interpersonal interactions and mirrored back through society. Suggesting that we have a tendency to understand ourselves through our understanding of how others see and judge us; this is thought to be how we develop and understand our own identity.
As a child we learn how our crying, smiling and silence elicits a response from our caregivers, this forms our first mirroring and understanding of how we are perceived and responded to. This continues throughout our interactions and learning.
“The thing that moves us to pride or shame is not the mere mechanical reflection of ourselves, but an imputed sentiment, the imagined effect of this reflection upon another’s mind.”
(The looking-glass self is a social psychological concept introduced by Charles Horton Cooley in 1902 (McIntyre 2006). The term “looking glass self” was coined by Cooley in his work, Human Nature and the Social Order in 1902.)
There are three main components that comprise the looking-glass self
(Yeung, et al. 2003).
We imagine how we must appear to others.
We imagine and react to what we feel their judgement of that appearance must be.
We develop our self through the judgements of others.
As a person who has Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) – identity is something which has always been an issue for me and so many other sufferers. My entire life seems to have been an identity crisis and it is one of the 9 traits you have to have in order to be diagnosed with BPD.
The specific issues which concern the stability of self in BPD sufferers is exhibited in:
Fragmentation – Which is in no way as dominating or persistent in BPD as it is in Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID), however it still causes many issues. BPD can make it so you have adaptive personalities depending on who you are with and what scenario you are in – which to some extent most people do. BPD however causes this to be such separate fragmentations of the self that it is disturbing for us – the sufferers, to a degree it damages our personal relationships, careers, idea of self, family life and integration into society. It also affects our memories and association to people and places as our identities can separate what is dear to one “personality/self” over the other.
Boundary confusion – Also known as boundary dissolution is the failure to recognise the psychological distinctiveness of individuals or a confusion of their interpersonal roles. Boundaries are believed to be established in childhood within the family setting, when roles are clarified such as who is the parent and who is the child, with a flexibility to create close bonds and also have a separateness allowing you to build your “self”.
Kenji Kameguchi (1996) likens boundaries to a
“membrane” that surrounds each individual and subsystem in the family. Like the membrane around a cell, boundaries need to be firm enough to ensure the integrity of the cell and yet permeable enough to allow communication between cells. Overly rigid boundaries might constrict family relationships and limit family members’ access to one another (e.g., “children should be seen and not heard”), whereas overly permeable or blurred boundaries might lead to confusion between the generations (e.g., “who is the parent and who is the child?”
Lack of cohesion and continuity of the self across situations and life history – Most individuals who have secure identities do so because they remember themselves as the same individual they have always been. Noticing the changes one experiences with age, experience and gained knowledge, developing their core identity through life’s stages. BPD doesn’t allow for this due to the fragmented self which has been present throughout our lives, causing perceived gaps of identity knowledge and incompatible memories. Timelines become confusing when remembering what past events mean in regards to identity.
“I don’t know who I am”
“I don’t know what I want”
“I don’t know how I should handle this situation”
These questions seem harmless to most – however when you have BPD these questions are so confusing that emotional stability is compromised and becomes dangerous if we are not supported or receiving some kind of treatment. These questions are second nature and the answers come to mind with a certain amount of ease when you do not suffer from psychological identity issues – something taken for granted by most.
When you have BPD you are seen by different people as polar opposites at different points in your life or even at the same time, such as myself; I am seen by many in my life as a self righteous, egocentric, judgemental, scary, aggressive, rude person. However I am also seen by many as an inspiration, kind, loving, empathetic, polite, selfless person. Many people without BPD may encounter this kind of reaction from certain people, contradicting what makes you, you. This doesn’t phase well adjusted stable personalities as they know who they are and realise they are probably a combination of things to different people due to differing interactions and other peoples personalities. With BPD this causes self annihilation, an instability of emotions and further fragmentation and less awareness of the self.
“who do I believe – me or me or you”
In truth – at times I feel as if my identity is a game of guess who; or that this confused dissociated state is in fact a malevolent monster controlling and interchanging me – to torture me.
Friends, family and people who have crossed my path along the way will have no idea to a certain extent that these different identities exist within me or at different times in my life. The ones who remember are those who I have split, those who got to meet the protective identity, the no empathy, unforgiving, hateful identity – who has kept me alive in times of pure distress. These people have gone from being idealised to then being devalued and thrown away. The hardest part is being aware of this, of others being more aware of this – knowing I can rip you off the pedestal in which I created for you at any time just because you reveal to me that you are in fact human and fallible.
Sometimes the mirror reflects back that no one really knows me, so in turn I can’t know myself – which then brings about the depersonalisation and not feeling as if I exist at all.
The looking glass is the perfect metaphor for how this feels – knowing one reflection is in one world and another in the next. Feeling unreal or full of identities fighting to be seen or wanting to hide. Not knowing when in front of the mirror – who will reflect back.
Hiester, M.”Who’s the parent and who’s the child: generational boundary dissolution between mothers and their children.” paper presented at the biennial meeting of the society for research in child development, Indianapolis,1995.
Yeung, King-To, and Martin, John Levi. “The Looking Glass Self: An Empirical Test and Elaboration.” Social Forces 81, no. 3 (2003): 843–879.
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Are there two worlds, one physical and one mental?
Can we experience both with a conscious awareness?
What is introspection and how does one use it?
These questions were “in my mind” when creating this piece of art, as a student of philosophy and psychology the idea and practice of introspection – caused me to introspectively ponder the dualism of my body and mind, my consciousness of the physical self and the internal self.
Is my perception of what is thought in my mind governed by my external experiences?
Introspection is a process that generates, or is aimed at generating, knowledge, judgements, or beliefs about:
mental events, states, or processes, and not about affairs outside one’s mind,
or beliefs about one’s own mind only and no one else’s,
about one’s currently ongoing mental life only; or, alternatively (or perhaps in addition) immediately past (or even future) mental life, within a certain narrow temporal window.
Introspection is considered to be the process of “looking inward”, self analysis to understand and know ones self better. In fact this idea was what caused psychology and the theory of mind to branch out from philosophy with Wilhelm Wundt analysing the workings of the mind in a more structured way, with the emphasis being on objective measurement and control hence why he is considered the father of psychology.
“Nothing is in the intellect that was not first in the senses, except the intellect itself.”
We do not continuously introspect and it is not an automatic occurrence such as breathing, it is a reflective task on one’s own internal mental state – not unconscious, as we are aware of this monitoring and analysis. Introspection is comprised of attitudes and conscious experiences; our beliefs, desires and intentions as well as emotions and sensory experiences.
How do we know our own minds?
It is our first person access which privileges us with the awareness of self – how can we be wrong about our own internal perspective. Other minds can not know other minds, it is an exclusive “way in” which only ourselves are attendees with unshared knowledge. However being aware of your own inner workings does not mean one can truly know our own minds with authority; as they are small internal universes with expanses of undiscovered planets and solar systems.
Is there nothing that we can know about our minds with authority?
The only philosophy which can be responsibly practised in face of despair is the attempt to contemplate all things from the standpoint of redemption. Knowledge has no light but that shed on the world by redemption: all else is reconstruction, mere technique.
Introspection is considered by most to be a short lived state, some suggest from “The Inner Sense” view that our minds operate like a scanning machine which monitors certain thoughts and sensations.
“The word introspection need hardly be defined – it means, of course, the looking into our own minds and reporting what we there discover.” (William James, Principles of Psychology. Cambridge, MA: Harvard 1890/1981, p. 85)
Is self knowledge achieved solely by introspection?
Many philosophers an psychologists have claimed that the only way we can determine our own mind is from the observations of our own behaviour; the way we determine others is no different to ourselves. Gilbert Ryle argued that our first person experience of our own mental states is due to the fact we can not leave ourselves, we are always present within ourselves – as ourselves.
Is self knowledge an epistemic phenomenon?
There have been many claims that self knowledge is infallible and that we are omniscient about our own mental states; that upon being in a particular state of mind and knowing this to be happening, is sufficient evidence that there is self knowledge of this state. However does this ring true; or are we really “all knowing” and in charge of our own faculties enough at all times to be omniscient about our mental states?
“I think therefore I am – je pense, donc je suis – Cogito ergo sum”
Descartes’ Cogito ergo sum argument (Descartes 1641/1895), is the proposition which demonstrates that if you (the thinker) is paying close attention to your own thoughts, that not even a “powerful evil genius” who is able to control your thoughts and deceive you – can not mislead you into doubting your ability to think and therefore confirms you existence as a thinking individual.
In 1641, Descartes published (in Latin) Meditations on first philosophy in which he referred to the proposition, though not explicitly as “cogito ergo sum” in Meditation II: (Latin:) hoc pronuntiatum: ego sum, ego existo,[c] quoties a me profertur, vel mente concipitur, necessario esse verum. (English:) this proposition: I am, I exist, whenever it is uttered from me, or conceived by the mind, necessarily is true.
Introspection literally means “looking within” in its description it illustrates a metaphor which expresses the split between the “inner” world and the “external” world. There is an opposite view called the “Transparency View” which suggests that by looking outwardly, into the state of the world we determine our own thoughts – by “looking through” the transparent (introspective) mental states we posses, reflecting what it is like to have an experience with mind-independent objects.
What is “the ghost in the machine”?
The phrase was introduced in Ryle’s book The Concept of Mind (1949) and was a criticism of the Dualism theories within philosophy especially from Descartes. Ryle rejected the idea that mental states are separate to physical states, referring to this idea and distinction between mind and matter as “the ghost in the machine”, his main criticism being that logically – mind and matter are not within the same categories:
“it represents the facts of mental life as if they belonged to one logical type/category, when they actually belong to another. The dogma is therefore a philosopher’s myth.”
A category mistake is the mistake of assigning something to a category to which it does not belong or misrepresenting the category to which something belongs. For Ryle this means that the term “mind” and other terms which refer to mental states are often categorised inadequately; treating the “mind” as a thing, an object or even an entity. When it could be believed that physical processes are mechanical, whereas mental ones are “para-mechanical”.
Ryle believed that there was a dogmatic “official doctrine” which leads to unchallenged views to their own detriment:
There is a doctrine about the nature and place of the mind which is prevalent among theorists, to which most philosophers, psychologists and religious teachers subscribe with minor reservations. Although they admit certain theoretical difficulties in it, they tend to assume that these can be overcome without serious modifications being made to the architecture of the theory…. [the doctrine states that] with the doubtful exceptions of the mentally-incompetent and infants-in-arms, every human being has both a body and a mind. … The body and the mind are ordinarily harnessed together, but after the death of the body the mind may continue to exist and function.
(Ryle, Gilbert, The Concept of Mind (1949); The University of Chicago Press edition, Chicago, 2002, p 11)
The difference between Descartes and Ryle is the “inner” or “outer” view of the mind. Are we a ghost in the machine or are our mental states dispositions, to engage in bodily activity?
For me neither of these view points are adequate enough to explain the concept of mind and introspection, however they draw light on further questions to be asked in order to find more answers.
Introspection is a tool none the less which our minds use in order to ponder ourselves from our conscious thoughts, beliefs and judgements (whether external to us through behaviour or internal to us in a dualistic sense). It is our secret window which allows us private access into our internal selves (which no other can experience) .
[It is] impossible for any one to perceive, without perceiving that he does perceive. When we see, hear, smell, taste, feel, meditate, or will any thing, we know that we do so.
(Locke 1689/1975 II.27.ix)
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However which way I say these three words they are always a lie. Not a vicious deceitful lie, but a lie which serves me well whilst simultaneously crushing me emotionally; with each utterance. This little sentence has become a habitual response to the question:
How are you?
Which is a very common occurrence, most people do not divulge their entire life story when asked how they are, it is just an extension to how we greet one another, a politeness (especially in England) to reply:
I am fine, thank you. And how are you?
However when you are really asked this question by a close member of your family, your partner, a close friend or even your therapist and you still only ever say:
I am fine.
Well this kind of situation is what I am talking about and is what this art piece represents. This is about how self preservation means losing part of your identity, emotionally but more importantly the denial of your present state. Never allowing your armour to be compromised, focusing on other peoples problems and absorbing them, when asked about yourself you divert conversations as if they were on-coming traffic; as if your life depends on it – because it does.
The majority of the time I do not look “sick”, I have mainly unseen illnesses and my most debilitating of ailments is completely invisible to the eye. As well as this many people do not “believe” in mental illness or recognise certain neurological conditions, saying things such as:
It’s all in your head!
It’s mind over matter.
You don’t look sick.
These statements are very unhelpful and also redundant in this context. Saying it is all in ones head is a correct statement, mental illness is in our encasement’s which we call heads, in our brains – our minds. It is not in our legs, nor our arms, it is very much a head thing. However saying it to someone as a dismissive statement is not a logical statement as it suggests that your mental illness or neurological condition should not be “in your head”. Suggesting that it maybe make believe or a lie to gain sympathy (which if you are a person who suffers from mental illness you will know this is an insult as there is no sympathy granted to the mentally ill, instead it is stigmatised). As for “you don’t look sick” this one is nothing more than an ignorant judgement, looking at someone with just ones eyes and not a full body CT scanner (which also can not see everything) there is no way to determine someones health or disability status.
Due to all this added conjecture to this particular scenario , it is not hard to understand why the “I am fine” mantra is a fail safe for so many. You get tired of explaining yourself, defending your diagnosis and dealing with people saying things like:
I don’t really believe in mental illness.
Mental illness is a conspiracy to control and label us.
Mental illness is just mental weakness.
So the simple solution is to pretend that you are fine, that you do not need help, that you are not “weak” or “dangerous”, for every mental illness denier there is another person who believes we should all be locked up and not trusted due to the stigmatisation and misinformation on both the mentally ill and those with criminal intent.
This may be the simplest of solutions but it comes at a cost to most. You see there is only a finite amount of space in ones emotional storage unit and the continuous throwing anything and everything that you wish to hide in there can mean that you reach a time you can’t shut the door anymore, let alone lock it. This can lead to you bursting and spilling out onto everything around you or it can mean you just implode – self detonate.
Truthfully for me it is a constant battle inside my head, of not wanting to alienate people or scare people with my overwhelming emotional instability and behavioural abnormalities – having to remain stoic by being the person who people come to, the provider, the rescuer. Against letting it all out, a completely “no shits given” attitude, a liberating freedom of being able to just be me, all parts of me at all levels of intensity. This of course is very black and white and a thought process due to my borderline personality disorder, the middle ground does not tend to exist in my world, it sometimes appears but rarely when experiencing high emotions. To pass off the “strong” persona I have to use the “I am fine” line a lot, which is a kind of middle ground, at least it is when one is trying to manage social boundaries and interpersonal relationships – which to me are like alien concepts that cause feelings of being an outsider.
There have been times in my past when “I am fine” was a defence mechanism as I was in denial about my illnesses and wished to hide the entire idea from myself, blaming my emotions and behaviours on alcohol, drugs and being a “bitch”, that crazy girl thing was easy to flip and present myself to the world as a “bad” person in my twenties – so I stuck to it. People even liked this persona, some celebrated it by telling me they loved my “fuck you attitude” and loved to see me being abusive to others or violent. If the other side, the vulnerable side – was presented (which was me during my teens, from 11 yrs to 20 yrs old) people looked at me as an emotional drain, a liability, dangerous, scary, I became an undesirable human. At these times of no control self harm, suicide attempts, eating disorders, psychosis, machiavellianism, disinhibition and an emotional sensitivity that was never-ending was my way of life. I learnt valuable lessons on survival and how to mimic other humans as a visiting entity from the planet “strange”, using manipulation to gain friends and taking on other identities which were visible to me as ideals, I could be the most popular person in the room or the most disliked, this was not up to my audience or friends, this was up to me and my chameleon like personality. The important thing is I have forgiven myself for being this way, knowing now this was and still is a neurological condition and a perfectly OK way to survive when you have only ever known trauma.
Now that I am in my thirties things have got to a point that my life is more introspective and having the perspective of an “adult” allows me to look at my teens and twenties more objectively and see how and why I had to survive this way when there were no adults parenting me and keeping me safe. Being an adult in this way means that when I look back I ask different questions than I did before, such as:
Where were your parents?
How long were you left on your own?
How was it looking after yourself at such a young age?
Did you have to grow up quickly?
There is a draw back to being older however, my emotions get buried deeper, I detach more and say “I am fine” even more than ever. Wanting to be liked for me, not wanting to buy friends or manipulate them to like me, not wanting to be the extreme me who needs someone to safeguard them at all times, not wanting to be the rescuer and the “strong” one all the time. Wanting people to understand my pain more, I want and need actual medical support for my disabilities but am not at a vulnerable age anymore, so am taken less seriously. Hiding in medication and being likeable and not too intense feels like a life sentence:
But still all I can say is:
I am fine!
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Somewhere among the clouds
my mind reflects back at me
creating faces in moments
telling stories with whipped cream
floating overhead they enshroud
changing colours of our family tree
searching for every branches atonement
shadows engulf my daydreams
Somewhere among the leaves
I am laid down to rest
foliage surrounds my anatomy
craving the light from beneath
rustling below my knees
knowing I am dispossessed
with the numbness of apathy
as the earth moves underneath
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The giver of life and the carrier of the burden of death is how I see and portray my symbol of “Mother Earth”, she (unlike myself) can give life to anything and does so – with no pain relief, no support, it is simply her obligation to continue our species. With Mothering comes abandonment – for her strength is not in the nurturing it is in the facilitating of life. Feeding you when hungry or starving you when she wishes, giving you shade as well as ripping away all that comforts you.
To her life and death are justice, it a natural order or law which aligns us within the universe. Life and death obviously exist and she reminds us of this, with the scale tipping slightly lower for death – indicating how death is a consequence for living.
The devouring Mother who both produces and destroys everything is like our earth, like our solar system, our galaxy , our entire universe. However the representation of her as female is an interesting depiction, in most mythology goddesses and deities are depicted as troublesome but still have a complex persona which is shown through various symbolic personality traits, showing strength, virtue, rage, love and of course the most important of roles, the creator of life and nature. Matriarchal societies are prevalent in mythology, although they have been disputed to have ever existed in history as a female led society or civilisation. Patriarchal rule and ownership of women is the reality, making these mythological symbols even more important.
Depictions of women for most of our history as a species have been of the virgin, mother, obedient wife, whore, witch or old crone. With each woman being a one dimensional character, with no complexities or ambition. They were not even elevated as “creators of life” instead treated like cattle or a conveyor belt of babies.
Women can be anything and everything just as men can be, gender as a concept rather than a biological definition is on its way out. So these figures that we create and lift up – they must be more than just the roles assigned to us from birth, this earth needs all of us to be creators, destroyers, givers and takers. That is the essence of all existence – here today gone tomorrow, death does not discriminate even if you have the privileges that afford you a longer life, you will still die and return to the earth.
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I forgot about you – putting childish things aside,
although I would hear you at bedtime,
telling me our stories – leaving me horrified.
For what they did to us they must be evil,
or maybe they too are hurt inside,
with all this pain and upheaval,
maybe their inner child had died.
I feel you clawing at me inside my chest cavity,
weeping and screaming – asking to be set free,
is it you or I that acts with such depravity,
would you burst from within me just to be an escapee.
I shouldn’t blame you for hating me,
for I am but another bad parent,
however trying to hide from reality,
not wanting to be called aberrant.
You inhabit my mind and body,
controlling me in order to make me see,
requiring me to embody,
all that was lost at sea.
What is our inner child?
It is the child state that exists in all of us, which never disappears – we assume as we get older this younger self vanishes, but this is illogical. Yes, we are changed over time by our experiences but do we “grow up”? Or are the ideas of childhood, adolescents and adulthood merely symbolic of societies need to compartmentalise us into accepted groups, in order to sell specific products and life style choices.
Before the 17th century childhood did not exist as a concept, in fact children were considered “incomplete adults”. However in the west, English philosopher John Locke was one of the first to describe the stage before adulthood and change the perception toward children in general. With Locke’s theory of the tabula rasa – meaning “blank slate”, he believed we as humans are born “brand new”, a mind which is a blank canvas ready to be painted on. With this he urged parents that their duty was to nurture and guide their child toward adulthood. With the rise of the middle class and puritanism within the early frameworks of capitalism – a new family ideology was formulated as an ideal for an individuals salvation and the protection of the “innocence” within children.
“brief period of sanctuary before people encounter the perils and hardships of adulthood”
However for the poor this separation between childhood and adulthood was not attainable. Industrialisation saw children as a viable workforce and rejected that a “childhood” was precious and that their innocence needed to be protected. With the separation between the poor and middle classes becoming more apparent in the late 18th century and with reform being discussed, the idea that all children needed to be protected became an important issue, from the 1830’s onward the campaign eventually led to the Factory Acts, which mitigated the exploitation of children at the workplace. From this point the notion of childhood saw a boom in children’s literature and toys, leading us to where we are now , where childhood is seen as a sate that not only exists, but that our development is fundamental to us being functional adults, with compulsory education and more and more done to protect children from harm, childhood is now rooted in our identities as a society.
So how does this all relate to our “inner child”?
This notion and brief history explained above, further illustrates that the concept of being a “grown up” is adaptable. Our inner child is part of us – it… is us. We never “grow up” we evolve as a human through life stages but our mind is our own and doesn’t get switched through each birthday, it adapts to circumstances and learns – but we don’t lose our child within.
In fact the most adult act we can take is to parent our own inner child. Because contrary to what Rousseau states, childhood can be full of perils and trauma and without the experience we gain from living through the stages, most children are not able to protect themselves from abuse, neglect or abandonment. Which means this trauma is taken on and carried into their adulthood – often causing an individual to become mentally ill.
This is caused not only by the acts of unfit parents and abusive adults around the child, but it is also due to societies need to separate each life stage in an individual – suggesting only children cry, have tantrums, are unreasonable or selfish and so on… When in fact these are general human behaviours with no age restrictions. Yes children test boundaries and display these behaviours – which are perfectly acceptable in order to navigate societal norms and etiquette. However when a child is abused emotionally, physically or both, they often do not get to have these learning experiences and testing of boundaries, leading the child to mimic adult behaviour in order to survive. Which is why later in life when the child is able to move away from their abusers and try and function in the world these behavioural traits often arise again and again, playing out the scenarios in which they were denied at the “appropriate age”.
This is not something I know due to my degree in philosophy and psychology – this is me, I am a pseudo-adult. As if my body were a ship, the captain of my vessel is at times a 4 year old me, an adolescent me or the me who sits and writes this to you all. It took a long time to understand that I was steered by different parts of myself, but once I understood this my self management became easier.
With no children of my own and being the product of bad parents – from abuse (sexual, emotional and physical) I am probably thought to be the last person who would know how to parent my 4 year old self and 15 year old self. This is arguably true – however the first steps are listening to the children who have been through trauma, we know a lot on what not to do.
The rest is love…
Vivian C. Fox, “Poor Children’s Rights in Early Modern England,” Journal of Psychohistory, Jan 1996, Vol. 23 Issue 3, pp 286–306
“The Life of the Industrial Worker in Nineteenth-Century England”. Laura Del Col, West Virginia University
Ariès, Philippe. Centuries of Childhood: A Social History of Family Life. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1962.
Brown, Marilyn R., ed. Picturing Children: Constructions of Childhood between Rousseau and Freud. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2002.
If you feel you need to explore your inner child or are already aware but need some guidance here are some helpful links: