If we introspect our experience of what it feels like to be me, we might say we are experiencing our inner self. What is this definition of me made of? Is it a collection of preferences, accomplishments and attributes? How do I know who I am?
Most experts who have made a study of people’s descriptions of this experience give a significant weight to an individual’s early experience with caregivers. This experience is formative in two ways: first of all, the caregiver has an idea of who we are and conveys that to us. For example, it may be that my parents thought I was shy buy intelligent. That idea of me gets conveyed in many small gestures and statements over time and I come to accept it. The second way a self is formed by early experience is that we see how caregivers respond to us. This gives us a reflection of who we are. For example, if my caregiver is always worrying about me, I come to believe I am somehow damaged or wounded.
One of the difficulties in understanding ourselves is sorting out how much of what we believe to be true of us is a result of what we were told or shown and how much is truly generated from our own inner motivations. Is it possible to even have a self that is not defined by our experiences with other people?
In addition to our caregivers in our early life, we are continuously experiencing the responses of the people around us–people who are significant to us and people who are not–and these responses give us more and more information about who we are. As we go through the world, our understanding of our inner self is shaped and molded on top of the assumptions we have been making from early life.
We cannot expect to understand ourselves separated from our experiences, but we also have to add to that understanding an appreciation of how we have chosen to respond to them. While each person is certainly molded by experience, there is also an internal choice about how to succeed in the world as we understand it. That internal choice comes from a core sense of ourselves that is uniquely our own. It is deeply impacted by what we experienced early in our lives, to be sure, but can it be completely explained by that early experience?