32 Self Awareness and Identity Development

Self-Awareness and Identity Development

In the Temple of Apollo at Delphi, the ancient Greeks inscribed the words: “Know thy self .” For at least 2,500 years, and probably longer, human beings have pondered the meaning of the ancient aphorism. Over the past century, psychological scientists have joined the effort. They have formulated many theories and tested countless hypotheses that speak to the central question of human selfhood: How does a person know who he or she is? How does this develop from infancy through adolescence?

The ancient Greeks seemed to realize that the self is inherently reflexive—it reflects back on itself. In the disarmingly simple idea made famous by the great psychologist William James (1892/1963), the self is what happens when “I” reflects back upon “Me.” The self is both the “I” and the “Me”—it is the knower, and it is what the knower knows when the knower reflects upon itself. When you look back at yourself, what do you see? When you look inside, what do you find? Moreover, when you try to change your self in some way, what is it that you are trying to change? The philosopher Charles Taylor (1989) describes the self as a reflexive project. In modern life, Taylor agues, we often try to manage, discipline, refine, improve, or develop the self.

We work on our selves, as we might work on any other interesting project. But what exactly is it that we work on?

Imagine for a moment that you have decided to improve yourself. You might, say, go on a diet to improve your appearance. Or you might decide to be nicer to your mother, in order to improve that important social role. Or maybe the problem is at work—you need to find a better job or go back to school to prepare for a different career. Perhaps you just need to work harder. Or get organized. Or recommit yourself to religion. Or maybe the key is to begin thinking about your whole life story in a completely different way, in a way that you hope will bring you more happiness, fulfillment, peace, or excitement.

Although there are many different ways you might reflect upon and try to improve the self, it turns out that many, if not most, of them fall roughly into three broad psychological categories (McAdams & Cox, 2010). The “I” may encounter the “Me” as (a) a social actor, (b) a motivated agent, or (c) an autobiographical author. (68)

The Social Actor

In some ways people are just like actors on stage. We play roles and follow scripts every day.

Shakespeare tapped into a deep truth about human nature when he famously wrote, “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.” He was wrong about the “merely,” however, for there is nothing more important for human adaptation than the manner in which we perform our roles as actors in the everyday theatre of social life. What Shakespeare may have sensed but could not have fully understood is that human beings evolved to live in social groups. Beginning with Darwin (1872/1965) and running through contemporary conceptions of human evolution, scientists have portrayed human nature as profoundly social (Wilson, 2012). For a few million years, Homo sapiens and their evolutionary forerunners have survived and flourished by virtue of their ability to live and work together in complex social groups, cooperating with each other to solve problems and overcome threats and competing with each other in the face of limited resources. As social animals, human beings strive to get along and get ahead in the presence of each other (Hogan, 1982). Evolution has prepared us to care deeply about social acceptance and social status, for those unfortunate individuals who do not get along well in social groups or who fail to attain a requisite status among their peers have typically been severely compromised when it comes to survival and reproduction.

It makes consummate evolutionary sense, therefore, that the human “I” should apprehend the “Me” first and foremost as asocial actor .

For human beings, the sense of the self as a social actor begins to emerge around the age of 18 months. Numerous studies have shown that by the time they reach their second birthday most toddlers recognize themselves in mirrors and other reflecting devices (Lewis & Brooks-Gunn, 1979; Rochat, 2003). What they see is an embodied actor who moves through space and time. Many children begin to use words such as “me” and “mine” in the second year of life, suggesting that the “I” now has linguistic labels that can be applied reflexively to itself: I call myself “me.” Around the same time, children also begin to express social emotions such as embarrassment, shame, guilt, and pride (Tangney, Stuewig, & Mashek, 2007). These emotions tell the social actor how well he or she is performing in the group. When I do things that win the approval of others, I feel proud of myself. When I fail in the presence of others, I may feel embarrassment or shame. When I violate a social rule, I may experience guilt, which may motivate me to make amends. (68)

“I” and “Me”

Many of the classic psychological theories of human selfhood point to the second year of life as a key developmental period. For example, Freud (1923/1961) and his followers in the psychoanalytic tradition traced the emergence of an autonomous ego back to the second year. Freud used the term “ego” (in German das Ich , which also translates into “the I”) to refer to an executive self in the personality. Erikson (1963) argued that experiences of trust and interpersonal attachment in the first year of life help to consolidate the autonomy of the ego in the second. Coming from a more sociological perspective, Mead (1934) suggested that the “I” comes to know the “Me” through reflection, which may begin quite literally with mirrors but later involves the reflected appraisals of others. I come to know who I am as a social actor, Mead argued, by noting how other people in my social world react to my performances. In the development of the self as a social actor, other people function like mirrors—they reflect who I am back to me.

Research has shown that when young children begin to make attributions about themselves, they start simple (Harter, 2006). At age 4, Jessica knows that she has dark hair, knows that she lives in a white house, and describes herself to others in terms of simple behavioral traits . She may say that she is “nice,” or “helpful,” or that she is “a good girl most of the time.” By the time, she is in fifth grade (age 10), Jessica sees herself in more complex ways, attributing traits to the self such as “honest,” “moody,” “outgoing,” “shy,” “hard-working,” “smart,” “good at math but not gym class,” or “nice except when I am around my annoying brother.” By late childhood and early adolescence, the personality traits that people attribute to themselves, as well as those attributed to them by others, tend to correlate with each other in ways that conform to a well-established taxonomy of five broad trait domains, repeatedly derived in studies of adult personality and often called the Big Five (Roberts, Wood, & Caspi, 2008):

  • Extraversion
  • Neuroticism
  • Agreeableness
  • Conscientiousness
  • Openness to experience

By late childhood, moreover, self-conceptions will likely also include important social roles: “I am a good student,” “I am the oldest daughter,” or “I am a good friend to Sarah.” (68)


Traits and roles, and variations on these notions, are the main currency of the self as social actor (McAdams & Cox, 2010). Trait terms capture perceived consistencies in social performance. They convey what I reflexively perceive to be my overall acting style, based in part on how I think others see me as an actor in many different social situations. Roles capture the quality, as I perceive it, of important structured relationships in my life. Taken together, traits and roles make up the main features of my social reputation, as I apprehend it in my own mind (Hogan, 1982).

If you have ever tried hard to change yourself, you may have taken aim at your social reputation, targeting your central traits or your social roles. Maybe you woke up one day and decided that you must become a more optimistic and emotionally upbeat person. Taking into consideration the reflected appraisals of others, you realized that even your friends seem to avoid you because you bring them down. In addition, it feels bad to feel so bad all the time: Wouldn’t it be better to feel good, to have more energy and hope? In the language of traits, you have decided to “work on” your “neuroticism.” Or maybe instead, your problem is the trait of “conscientiousness”: You are undisciplined and don’t work hard enough, so you resolve to make changes in that area. Self-improvement efforts such as these—aimed at changing one’s traits to become a more effective social actor—are sometimes successful, but they are very hard—kind of like dieting. Research suggests that broad traits tend to be stubborn, resistant to change, even with the aid of psychotherapy. However, people often have more success working directly on their social roles. To become a more effective social actor, you may want to take aim at the important roles you play in life. What can I do to become a better son or daughter? How can I find new and meaningful roles to perform at work, or in my family, or among my friends, or in my church and community? By doing concrete things that enrich your performances in important social roles, you may begin to see yourself in a new light, and others will notice the change, too. Social actors hold the potential to transform their performances across the human life course. Each time you walk out on stage, you have a chance to start anew. (68)

The Motivated Agent

Whether we are talking literally about the theatrical stage or more figuratively, as I do in this module, about the everyday social environment for human behavior, observers can never fully know what is in the actor’s head, no matter how closely they watch. We can see actors act, but we cannot know for sure what they want or what they value , unless they tell us straightaway. As a social actor, a person may come across as friendly and compassionate, or cynical and mean-spirited, but in neither case can we infer their motivations from their traits or their roles. What does the friendly person want? What is the cynical father trying to achieve? Many broad psychological theories of the self prioritize the motivational qualities of human behavior—the inner needs, wants, desires, goals, values, plans, programs, fears, and aversions that seem to give behavior its direction and purpose (Bandura, 1989; Deci & Ryan, 1991; Markus & Nurius, 1986). These kinds of theories explicitly conceive of the self as a motivated agent .

To be an agent is to act with direction and purpose, to move forward into the future in pursuit of self-chosen and valued goals. In a sense, human beings are agents even as infants, for babies can surely act in goal-directed ways. By age 1 year, moreover, infants show a strong preference for observing and imitating the goal-directed, intentional behavior of others, rather than random behaviors (Woodward, 2009). Still, it is one thing to act in goal-directed ways; it is quite another for the I to know itself (the Me) as an intentional and purposeful force who moves forward in life in pursuit of self-chosen goals, values, and other desired end states. In order to do so, the person must first realize that people indeed have desires and goals in their minds and that these inner desires and goals motivate (initiate, energize, put into motion) their behavior. According to a strong line of research in developmental psychology, attaining this kind of understanding means acquiring a theory of mind (Wellman, 1993), which occurs for most children by the age of 4. Once a child understands that other people’s behavior is often motivated by inner desires and goals, it is a small step to apprehend the self in similar terms. (68)

The Motivated Agent (Continued)

Building on theory of mind and other cognitive and social developments, children begin to construct the self as a motivated agent in the elementary school years, layered over their still-developing sense of themselves as social actors. Theory and research on what developmental psychologists call the age 5-to-7 shift converge to suggest that children become more planful, intentional, and systematic in their pursuit of valued goals during this time (Sameroff & Haith, 1996). Schooling reinforces the shift in that teachers and curricula place increasing demands on students to work hard, adhere to schedules, focus on goals, and achieve success in particular, well-defined task domains. Their relative success in achieving their most cherished goals, furthermore, goes a long way in determining children’s self-esteem (Robins, Tracy, & Trzesniewski, 2008). Motivated agents feel good about themselves to the extent they believe that they are making good progress in achieving their goals and advancing their most important values.

Goals and values become even more important for the self in adolescence, as teenagers begin to confront what Erikson (1963) famously termed the developmental challenge of identity. For adolescents and young adults, establishing a psychologically efficacious identity involves exploring different options with respect to life goals, values, vocations, and intimate relationships and eventually committing to a motivational and ideological agenda for adult life—an integrated and realistic sense of what I want and value in life and how I plan to achieve it (Kroger & Marcia, 2011). Committing oneself to an integrated suite of life goals and values is perhaps the greatest achievement for the self as motivated agent. Establishing an adult identity has implications, as well, for how a person moves through life as a social actor, entailing new role commitments and, perhaps, a changing understanding of one’s basic dispositional traits. According to Erikson, however, identity achievement is always provisional, for adults continue to work on their identities as they move into midlife and beyond, often relinquishing old goals in favor of new ones, investing themselves in new projects and making new plans, exploring new relationships, and shifting their priorities in response to changing life circumstances (Freund & Riediger, 2006; Josselson, 1996).

There is a sense whereby any time you try to change yourself, you are assuming the role of a motivated agent. After all, to strive to change something is inherently what an agent does. However, what particular feature of selfhood you try to change may correspond to your self as actor, agent, or author, or some combination. When you try to change your traits or roles, you take aim at the social actor. By contrast, when you try to change your values or life goals, you are focusing on yourself as a motivated agent. Adolescence and young adulthood are periods in the human life course when many of us focus attention on our values and life goals. Perhaps you grew up as a traditional Catholic, but now in college you believe that the values inculcated in your childhood no longer function so well for you. You no longer believe in the central tenets of the Catholic Church, say, and are now working to replace your old values with new ones. Or maybe you still want to be Catholic, but you feel that your new take on faith requires a different kind of personal ideology. In the realm of the motivated agent, moreover, changing values can influence life goals. If your new value system prioritizes alleviating the suffering of others, you may decide to pursue a degree in social work, or to become a public interest lawyer, or to live a simpler life that prioritizes people over material wealth. A great deal of the identity work we do in adolescence and young adulthood is about values and goals, as we strive to articulate a personal vision or dream for what we hope to accomplish in the future. (68)

The Autobiographical Author

Even as the “I” continues to develop a sense of the “Me” as both a social actor and a motivated agent, a third standpoint for selfhood gradually emerges in the adolescent and early-adult years. The third perspective is a response to Erikson’s (1963) challenge of identity. According to Erikson, developing an identity involves more than the exploration of and commitment to life goals and values (the self as motivated agent), and more than committing to new roles and re-evaluating old traits (the self as social actor). It also involves achieving a sense of temporal continuity in life—a reflexive understanding ofhow I have come to be the person I am becoming , or put differently, how my past self has developed into my present self, and how my present self will, in turn, develop into an envisioned future self. In his analysis of identity formation in the life of the 15th-century Protestant reformer Martin Luther, Erikson (1958) describes the culmination of a young adult’s search for identity in this way:

“To be adult means among other things to see one’s own life in continuous perspective, both in retrospect and prospect. By accepting some definition of who he is, usually on the basis of a function in an economy, a place in the sequence of generations, and a status in the structure of society, the adult is able to selectively reconstruct his past in such a way that, step for step, it seems to have planned him, or better, he seems to have planned it . In this sense, psychologically we do choose our parents, our family history, and the history of our kings, heroes, and gods. By making them our own, we maneuver ourselves into the inner position of proprietors, of creators.” —(Erickson, 1958, pp. 111-112; emphasis added).

In this rich passage, Erikson intimates that the development of a mature identity in young adulthood involves the “I’s” ability to construct a retrospective and prospective story about the “Me” (McAdams, 1985). In their efforts to find a meaningful identity for life, young men and women begin “to selectively reconstruct” their past, as Erikson wrote, and imagine their future to create an integrative life story, or what psychologists today often call a narrative identity. A narrative identity is an internalized and evolving story of the self that reconstructs the past and anticipates the future in such a way as to provide a person’s life with some degree of unity, meaning, and purpose over time (McAdams, 2008; McLean, Pasupathi, & Pals, 2007). The self typically becomes an autobiographical author in the early-adult years, a way of being that is layered over the motivated agent, which is layered over the social actor. In order to provide life with the sense of temporal continuity and deep meaning that Erikson believed identity should confer, we must author a personalized life story that integrates our understanding of who we once were, who we are today, and who we may become in the future. The story helps to explain, for the author and for the author’s world, why the social actor does what it does and why the motivated agent wants what it wants, and how the person as a whole has developed over time, from the past’s reconstructed beginning to the future’s imagined ending. (68)

The Autobiographical Author (Continued)

By the time children are 5 or 6 years of age, they can tell well-formed stories about personal events in their lives (Fivush, 2011). By the end of childhood, they usually have a good sense of what a typical biography contains and how it is sequenced, from birth to death (Thomsen & Bernsten, 2008). But it is not until adolescence, research shows, that human beings express advanced storytelling skills and what psychologists call autobiographical reasoning (Habermas & Bluck, 2000; McLean & Fournier, 2008). In autobiographical reasoning, a narrator is able to derive substantive conclusions about the self from analyzing his or her own personal experiences. Adolescents may develop the ability to string together events into causal chains and inductively derive general themes about life from a sequence of chapters and scenes (Habermas & de Silveira, 2008). For example, a 16-year-old may be able to explain to herself and to others how childhood experiences in her family have shaped her vocation in life. Her parents were divorced when she was 5 years old, the teenager recalls, and this caused a great deal of stress in her family. Her mother often seemed anxious and depressed, but she (the now-teenager when she was a little girl—the story’s protagonist) often tried to cheer her mother up, and her efforts seemed to work. In more recent years, the teenager notes that her friends often come to her with their boyfriend problems. She seems to be very adept at giving advice about love and relationships, which stems, the teenager now believes, from her early experiences with her mother. Carrying this causal narrative forward, the teenager now thinks that she would like to be a marriage counselor when she grows up.

Young people often “try on” many variations of identities to see which best fits their private sense of themselves. Unlike children, then, adolescents can tell a full and convincing story about an entire human life, or at least a prominent line of causation within a full life, explaining continuity and change in the story’s protagonist over time. Once the cognitive skills are in place, young people seek interpersonal opportunities to share and refine their developing sense of themselves as storytellers (the I) who tell stories about themselves (the Me). Adolescents and young adults author a narrative sense of the self by telling stories about their experiences to other people, monitoring the feedback they receive from the stories, editing their stories in light of the feedback, gaining new experiences and telling stories about those, and on and on, as selves create stories that, in turn, create new selves (McLean et al., 2007). Gradually, in fits and starts, through conversation and introspection, the “I” develops a convincing and coherent narrative about the “Me.” (68)


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