Disclaimer: This series is about identity/the self in life’s various spheres and through a Western lens. You are all of these things. You are pieces and you are the whole. You are a system, biologically and otherwise. You cannot change a part of you without changing the entirety of the system. Now, let’s break it apart.
Vocabulary to note:
Self-Concept is a cognitive process in that it is simply describing what you are (think: mindful practice of describing your environment without judgement).
Self-Esteem includes your emotional evaluations/judgements
Let’s explore this aspect of your life using some guiding questions.
How do you value family?
Is family important to you? How do you define family? Depending on the pocket of society you’re in, family can have a broad definition. I’m referring to ‘family-of-origin’ here, as well as family that is created from a romantic relationship. There’s a good chance if you don’t value your family-of-origin very highly, you may highly value your chosen family. It’s pretty human to want to feel connected to a group of people. You may ask yourself, is it important for you to be around your family? This sounds like the same question as the first one, but family can be important to you, and it may be difficult to be around them. This presents an internal conflict and possibly some role confusion: family is theoretically important to you, but you do not agree with them. This could spur you to find a chosen family.
How is your self-esteem when it comes to family?
Ok, well this is complicated. Often, the source of self-esteem difficulties comes from relational issues in your family-of-origin. Do you feel like you barely have your head above water when around your family? Do you feel like you’re doing much better than your family? Maybe, in childhood, you received messages that to fit into your family, you had to ‘be’ a certain way, and you consistently are not perceived as that way. You may grow to feel like an outsider when it comes to family and therefore possibly feel badly about yourself in relation to family. You could marry and continue to feel like you don’t fit in-- even in the family that you created! Because you have a schema in your head that you are ‘less than’ when it comes to family. This is merging into self-concept.
What is your self-concept around family?
Continuing with the above example, your self-concept is that you don’t belong in a family because you’re too different. Your self-esteem is low due to messages you received when you were younger. There is some judgement in the sentence, “I am supposed to be family-less,” however, it isn’t particularly evaluative. We can take the other route. Maybe you grew up in a family with 7 siblings who were never separated, and even though you’re getting older and four of your siblings passed away, tragically, you hold onto the “part of a large family” self-concept.
What value do you place on yourself when it comes to family?
The value you place on yourself in relation to your family is typically related to self-esteem since self-esteem is so linked to childhood. If you feel that you, as the youngest brother, is not important to your family, you probably have some things to work out around trauma in your childhood. Maybe you are now a father, and do not place a high value on the role of father in families, but outside of this, value family very highly. Here we find another therapy worthy internal conflict. You may find yourself staying out late, feeling isolated, etc… because you don’t value yourself in your family, although you may value yourself in other realms in your life.
What level of satisfaction does your family bring? How is it related to your self-concept/self-esteem?
If you highly value both family and your role in your family and your self-esteem around family is high, you are most likely satisfied with family life and your identity therein. If you value family highly, but feel like you are less-than when it comes to family and conceptualize yourself as an outsider, you are most likely unfulfilled by family and your identity. Alternatively, you may value your self-concept of an ‘outsider,’ and find satisfaction in being fiercely independent. In which case, this trait is ego syntonic-- acceptable to the self, and therefore, little conflict arises.
How did you learn your point of view about family?
Often we learn our points of view about different things from our family. So, you most likely learned your point of view about family from your family-of-origin. If your parents were never around and you never heard them talking about the importance of family, you may not feel family is very important. Contrarily, you may have grown up in a family that didn’t value family, but you went over to your friend’s house three times per week in elementary school and they had an incredibly close-knit family. This could totally change your perspective of family. Now, you believe family to be very important and you could have this conflict that there’s some kind of a deficit in you because your family-of-origin does not hold the same value. You grow up, constantly searching for family. It’s complicated! Your perspective on family could have come from many places.
How can you manage mixed feelings, continue to raise awareness, and incorporate insight?
In this little thought experiment thus far, many conflicts have arisen. Traditionally, in psychotherapy, one’s family of origin is often considered the root cause of conflict and/or mixed feelings. Managing mixed feelings around family can be very difficult because they are often internalized and become mixed feelings about your core self; your identity. This is an area where therapy is really very useful. However, any expressive activity may be helpful in raising awareness and managing conflict-- journaling, creating art, talking to a friend. The more aware you are of your values, the history of your perspective about family, and your self-esteem around family, the better chance you have of incorporating insight.
We’ll continue this exploration in a similar format next week!