Kelsey Hamilton, who blogs at Musings of a Mad Woman, recently wrote a post asking why society views bipolar disorder as a joke. As evidence of society’s view of bipolar disorder she alludes to media fascination with such  bipolar casualties as Amy Winehouse. Kelsey also mentions movies such as Silver Linings Playbook that provide a humorous take on characters with mood disorders. Elsewhere, there’s plenty of humor directed at bipolar disorder and other mental health conditions; consider this Pinterest page, for example.

Why is there a fascination with bipolar disorder, depression, OCD, ADHD, and other mental health conditions? There isn’t a similar fascination with physical disorders such as diabetes or arthritis. Kelsey mentions one possible explanation for this preoccupation, namely the suspicion that these conditions aren’t real disorders. Possibly that contributes, but there are probably other factors that also play a role. One such factor might be our fear that bipolar disorder represents something that is wrong (or might go wrong) with us.

We all have doubts about ourselves. Psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Marti Horowitz describes us as having desired self-schemas and feared self-schemas. Our desired self-schemas are who we want to be; our feared self-schemas are who we are afraid we are. Each of us have our own individual fears about who we might be–an incompetent bumbler, a greedy ingrate, an emotional cripple. I suspect that some feared selves are common to all of us because they relate to larger societal messages about what sort of people we are supposed to be. I wonder whether the two most serious forms of mental illness–schizophrenia and bipolar disorder–besides being actual disorders that afflict millions, are manifestations of fears that we are not the selves we ought to be.

Here’s a vast oversimplification: over the past four hundred years, the two most important intellectual developments affecting how we view ourselves were 1) the  Age of Reason beginning with modern science and culminating in the 18th century Enlightenment and 2) Romanticism, a reaction to the Age of Reason emphasizing emotion and nature. Each of these is, as philosopher Charles Taylor described in his dense and detailed book Sources of the Self, highly influential in shaping our identities, filtering down by means of popular culture even to those people who don’t read books and have never heard of the Enlightenment or Romanticism.

So, what sort of self did the Enlightenment encourage? An independent self capable of carefully observing the world as would a scientist. An eminently rational self that reasons dispassionately and is free of bias.

What would be the feared self of someone pursuing the enlightenment ideal? A self characterized by ignorance and superstition, incapable of careful observation. A self unable to think rationally or objectively because it is beset by massive biases.

What would an extreme version of this feared self look like? A person with schizophrenia, whose hallucinations prevent any sort of accurate observation and whose delusions so bias thinking that rational or objective thought is impossible. (Actually, most people with schizophrenia are rational most of the time; I’m speaking here of lay perceptions, not reality.)

The Romantic Self: Looking Deep Within. Portrait of Romantic Poet Adam Mickiewicz by Walenty Wankowicz

The Romantic Self: Looking Deep Within. Portrait of Romantic Poet Adam Mickiewicz by Walenty Wankowicz

And how about Romanticism, what is the desired self according to that system? A self that experiences and expresses strong emotions, and sees deeply into reality as a result. A self that benefits from relying on imagination and intuition. An artistic self that is authentic and true to one’s inner nature.

What would be the feared self of a Romantic? A self in which emotions, rather than being a sure guide to truth, mislead the person. A self whose internal gaze sees chaos and confusion rather than one’s authentic nature. A self in which imagination misfires and intuition misleads..

And what would be an extreme version of this feared self? A person with bipolar disorder, prone to episodes of extreme emotion–mania and depression–that distort rather than reveal the truth about oneself, conjuring up fantasies of grandiosity or nightmares of extreme inadequacy. (Again, this is the popular perception, not the lived everyday experience of most people with bipolar disorder.)

So, this may be what fascinates us about schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. Perhaps they represent our feared selves, the flip side of the desired selves that the Enlightenment and Romanticism tell us we should be. I’ve noticed that over the past forty years or so we’ve become progressively less fascinated with schizophrenia and more fascinated with bipolar disorder. Maybe we are less concerned than we used to be with achieving the Enlightenment ideal, but more concerned with being good Romantics. That change may or may not be for the good, but it’s the world in which we find ourselves.

I’m interested in life story—the story that each of us constructs out of the circumstances and events of our life and that reveals who we are—or at least who we think we are. Psychologist Dan McAdams claims that we each develop a coherent life story in late adolescence or early adulthood and that story provides us with a sense of identity. In my life story, I am the protagonist. As with any story, each person’s life story has a setting, a plot, themes, and character development. The story we construct is selective: we don’t try to include everything we’ve done or experienced, but instead select carefully those that we think open a window on who we are (or imagine ourselves to be).

Life stories aren’t static, of course. The person I thought I was at age 20 is not the person I now think I am. That means that I tell a much different story about myself now than I did then. Of course, we experience our lives as continuous, and thus tend to think we are the same persons we were decades ago, though on reflection it is evident that we’ve changed a lot.

This is a picture of me taken sometime in the late '60s.

This is a picture of me taken sometime in the late ’60s.

In thinking about how life stories change over the decades, I decided to try to reconstruct what I would have said about my life around the time I became a novice adult. Here’s how I think I would have told my life story the summer of 1968, when I was 20.

“I grew up in the west side of Grand Rapids, Michigan. My parents are Dutch American, though there wasn’t much emphasis on our Dutch heritage, except in the area of religion. The Dutch immigrants to West Michigan were part of the Reformed tradition, and I was sent to Christian schools that taught Bible and religion along with more traditional academic subjects. I think I received a much better education than I would have had I gone to public schools. As a result I think of myself as better able than the average adult to analyze and contribute to understanding and solving important societal problems.

“I’m the oldest of three children in my family. My dad is an accountant and my mom is a housewife. Though I think my mom is too controlling sometimes and my dad can be wishy-washy, on the whole I have no complaints. My parents aren’t wealthy, but seem to be a little better off than the parents of most of the other kids I know. A big part of our family history is the swimming pool my parents had built in their backyard about ten years ago. I love swimming, and have been on high school or college swim teams for most of the last five years. It’s been good discipline for me, and has given me a place to belong.

“My parents have been able to pay private college tuition for me. I attend Calvin College, the college associated with the denomination that my parents belong to. I don’t belong to the denomination, since I’m rather skeptical about its teachings. For a while I doubted there was a God. I’ve decided that there must be one; it seems to me that human nature could only be as it is if there were some sort of divinity that made us. Still, I don’t think that anybody has a handle on who God is. Last semester I wrote a paper about the inadequacy of the Reformed views of free will and election. My prof commented that I was a real skeptic, which I took as a compliment. I do go to church services and find some sermons to be interesting, so I haven’t given up completely on religion.

“My parents and their friends are pretty conservative politically, and I started out that way. In junior high, one of my favorite teachers talked a lot about the danger of Communism. I became quite concerned about the Communist menace, and, under the influence of that teacher, was persuaded for a time that the John Birch Society had the right idea about defending our country. By the end of high school, I had changed my mind, and am now much more liberal than anybody in my family. The Viet Nam war had quite a bit to do with my changed perspective. I just don’t believe that it matters all that much to us if a little country far away is democratic or Communist. I think that the counter-culture provides a good critique of American pride, greed, and the like. Hopefully, the society will change as we young people get older and start having more influence! I’m rather proud of myself for thinking independently about social issues.

“Though I feel pretty good about my intelligence and capacity to think, I am not very confident socially. I have some good friends, but lots of people my age won’t have anything to do with me. Unfortunately, most females are included in that category! I do understand their reactions; I’m just too awkward and uncomfortable socially. Sometimes I walk in a room of people, sit down, and say nothing, knowing full well that I should say something but not knowing what to say. It’s a real problem. I’m getting better, though. I plan to live in the dorms rather than in my parents’ house next semester, and I think that will help. One of the benefits of being an introvert is that I am quite comfortable with my own company. I read a lot, and enjoy the world that I enter when I am immersed  in a book.

“As for the future, I don’t know what I’m going to do. I’m majoring in history, which I really enjoy, but I don’t know what I want to do with it. I’ve got a while to decide, though. On the whole, life is good and I’m proud of myself for what I’ve accomplished so far. I work hard at my studies and have worked part-time and summer jobs, so I’m not just letting my parents take care of me. Working at a produce warehouse weekends and summers has taught me a lot about how working class adults live, and that’s broadened my perspective.”

That’s who I was the summer before my junior year in college, as best as I can reconstruct it. It’s remarkable how I changed in the years that followed. Within two years, I was a Christian convert; within three, I was married; and within four I entered graduate school in psychology. A few months ago, I wrote a  five sentence life story as a way of trying to conceptualize my identity as concisely as I could. That story looks a lot different from the one above. At the same time, there are several areas of continuity—my introversion, interest in reading, and politics, for example.

Over the past few years I retired from full-time work and am spending most of my time staying with my parents, helping them. Thus, as in early adulthood, I’m currently in a period of accelerated change. As I see it, I am not so much remaking myself as being remade. I view this process as redemptive, as the work of God. That’s a view that the 20-year-old me would never have held. I’m grateful for who I was; more, for who I am; still more, for who I will be.

As has been widely reported, the Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year for 2013 is “selfie.” The Oxford folks helpfully provide a definition: a selfie is “a photograph that one has taken of oneself, typically one taken with a smartphone or webcam and uploaded to a social media website.” Facebook posts are teeming with selfies. Even an old guy like me who hardly ever posts on Facebook or its many cousins has taken a few of them. Celebrity selfies have a huge following, with whole websites devoted to the latest self-made images of the stars (the accompanying pictures of Justin Beiber and Hilary Duff come from http://celeb-selfies.com/.

Justin-Bieber-2013-selfieHilary-Duff-selfie

The coronation of “selfie” as word of the year resulted in a blizzard of cultural analysis. Jennifer O’Connell huffs that the selfie is symptomatic of our ever-increasing narcissism. Navneet Alang responds to the narcissism charge by noting that humans have long sought to document their activities; the only thing that is new is how public that documentary process has become. Rachel Simmons regards selfies as a form of self-affirmation and thus beneficial for a prime group of selfie practitioners, teenage girls. And Noah Berlatsky faults other commenters for claiming that all selfies have the same meaning; in his view, selfies are works of art, and each conveys its own unique message.

Besides thinking about what selfies reveal about the selves of those who take and post them, it is useful to consider how taking selfies shapes the self. In the article cited above, Navneet Alang touches on that question. Here’s what he says:

“Now that so many more people have access to a space to put their identities out there, it may seem like people have suddenly become self-involved, when in fact, all it means is that there is a new more potent medium and shape for an old social fact.
“The selfie is thus a symbol of a slightly shifting sense of self, one that is more aware of how we always function in at least two modes at once, the private and the public, the internal and the external.”

Perhaps the change in awareness has a greater impact than Alang thinks. “Self-consciousness” is the term that social psychologists use to refer to the habitual tendency to be self-aware (the material on self-consciousness that follows are drawn from Steven Franzoi’s Social Psychology, 6th ed.). There are two types of self-consciousness: private self consciousness, the tendency to be aware of private aspects of the self, and public self-consciousness, the tendency to be aware of publically displayed personal features. These traits are distinct, so that a person can be low on both, high on both, or a mixture of the two. Taking a selfie seems to foster public self-awareness, and taking lots of them probably fosters a more habitual state of public self-consciousness (that’s my surmise; Franzoi doesn’t address selfies). Even if taking selfies doesn’t diminish private self-consciousness (whether it does or not is a research question) those who take and post lots of them may develop the characteristics that have been found to be associated with high private self-consciousness. According to Franzoi, these include greater concern about how others view oneself, more conformity to social norms, more concern about one’s physical appearance, and a greater tendency to withdraw from embarrassing situations.

If selfies and other social media phenomena shape the 21st-century self, what direction might that self take? To the extent that these phenomena increase public self-consciousness, it seems that the self might evolve towards being highly aware of its public face, anxious about how that face is perceived, concerned about being physically attractive, averse to bucking group standards, and more isolated. Given these possibilities, I don’t think I’ll be taking and posting many selfies. Since I’m on the subject, though, I’ve posted below one of the few selfies I’ve taken, photographed (the old-fashioned way, with camera and tripod) in St. Paul’s Covent Garden, London.

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The Script and Will.i.am.  Photo credit musicvideoclothes.com

The Script and Will.i.am. Photo credit musicvideoclothes.com

I have been listening more to songs on the radio than I did for, say, the last 30 years—a product of driving back and forth between Michigan and North Carolina every month.  One song that was in heavy play until about a month ago was “Hall of Fame,” by The Script in collaboration with Will.i.am.  Here are some of the lyrics (downloaded from directlyrics.com):

Yeah, You could be the greatest
You can be the best
You can be the king kong banging on your chest

You could beat the world
You could beat the war
You could talk to God, go banging on his door

You can throw your hands up
You can be the clock
You can move a mountain
You can break rocks
You can be a master
Don’t wait for luck
Dedicate yourself and you can find yourself

Rather grand praise, isn’t it?  Can everyone really be the greatest?  Can everyone be the best?  How many of us really can beat the world?  We may want those things, but they don’t accurately describe most of our lives.

Many of us also want fame.   A recent survey in the UK found that 54% of 16-year-olds want to be famous some day. The chorus of Hall of Fame suggests they can be:

Standing in the hall of fame
And the world’s gonna know your name
Cause you burn with the brightest flame
And the world’s gonna know your name
And you’ll be on the walls of the hall of fame

I found an interview with Danny O’Donoghue of The Script in which he explains the thinking behind the song.  The song was intended to be a reality check for those who think fame will be easy to achieve.  He indicates that in conversations with kids “they just say ‘I want to be famous’ for doing what? ‘For being on the telly’. So we are just saying put the f***ing work in because you have actually do something for people to recognise you like that.”  So the implication is that everyone can be famous, but first they must put in the hard work needed for success.  The video for the song reinforces that point; interspersed with footage of The Script and Will.i.am performing there are scenes of a young man training to be a boxer and a young woman training to be a ballerina.  Their parents tell them they won’t succeed, but they work hard (scenes of being pummeled while boxing, falling to the floor in a tutu-ed heap, etc.) and eventually gain acclaim for their endeavors.

To be fair to O’Donoghue, he doesn’t tell anyone to try to be famous.  In fact he says “the song is really about the silent people that you don’t hear about everyday in the papers but work hard.“

What does all of this imply about how we see ourselves?   For one thing, the claim that everyone can succeed with enough effort makes for a self-image that ignores differences in potential.  We can’t all be good at everything we try, even if we give it our best.  The belief that hard work is the only thing standing between me and success results in an inflated sense of my capacity and in disappointment with the world for, inexplicably, not rewarding my efforts.  More and more, teachers are confronted with students who earn poor grades, then protest, “But I tried really hard,” as if that should have guaranteed an A.

The preoccupation with fame also has implications for the self.  Fame-seekers are focused on how others react to them.  They put all their energies into creating an externally appealing self, and in consequence neglect the interior.  The focus is on self-presentation, not self-development.  The result can be described as a Christmas ornament self—it glitters on the outside, but the inside is hollow.  This, then, is a popular 21st Century version of the self—looking good, but empty on the inside.

One topic that I’ve had particular interest in has been how our selves are shaped by culture, particularly how cultural developments are changing our sense of self.  I’m planning to write more about that topic; this will be the first in a series of posts about 21st Century selves.

Question-mark-faceFirst, a word about what I mean by the term “self.”  William James gave a decent definition when he wrote that “[A] man’s self is the sum total of all that he can call his, not only his body and his psychic powers, but his clothes, and his house, his wife and children, his ancestors and friends, his reputation and works, his land and horses, and yacht and bank account.”  We have self concepts—ideas about who we are.  We also have self-awareness—we reflect on who we are and recognize that we are separate from others.  Finally, we engage in self-presentation—intentionally presenting ourselves in a particular way to others.

Here are a few things I’ve written about cultural influences on self-concept, self-awareness, or self-presentation.   In The Facebook Self I described a friend who, as she goes about her day, often reflects on how she will write on Facebook about what she’s done.  I noted that social media have intensified our use of self-presentation strategies and have made what we present to others more central to ourselves than ever before.  I noted that, as we reveal less to others, our self concept is likely to become more constricted.  At the extreme, we end up thinking that we are nothing more than the selves we present to others.

In another post about social media, I wrote in Facebook, Depression, and Community about the association between heavy Facebook use and increased levels of depression.  I looked at how social media profiles are designed to be clever rather than genuine, and asked whether authenticity and community are possible on Facebook.

In Anxiety and Meritocracy, I looked at the effects that the American belief that the hardworking and talented will be the most successful have on our self-evaluation.  I described Maura Kelly’s argument that we are likely to blame ourselves and see ourselves as having little worth if we make poor decisions or don’t achieve at a high level.   I suggested that the high levels of anxiety characteristic of our society are due to our selves constantly being threatened by the negative self-evaluation that results from less-than-stellar achievement.

Finally, my last post was about substance abuse in privileged youth as being related to a lack of character development.  I cited Liz Kulze’s comment that those who have been protected and coddled fail to develop an adequate sense of self.  Such thinly developed selves seem particularly prevalent among young white males from wealthy homes.

So, that’s a summary of what I’ve written so far.  I hope to make more posts about 21st Century selves in the coming weeks.  I welcome any thoughts that you the reader have about how changes in culture are affecting the selves that we construct.