Self-support presumes a definition of self that may not be immediately obvious and in the healthy individual is never stagnant. The English language offers five words that mean the same thing. The first is ‘I.’ Trying to define what is meant by it is difficult. An infant is aware of a certain boundary, but determining what is on each side takes many months. Initially even toes are puzzling and mother can be an insoluble dilemma.
Most infants use simple perceptual tests for inclusion. If it tastes good, it belongs. Initially, it is not only a case of taking in what is nurturant, but also of matching what is in doubt against an internal standard. Cold milk may be rejected, while warm thumbs are not. Later more willful, more intentional discriminations are employed. After a while we expand the descriptions. “I’m a boy,“ and not a girl is an early distinction, but the task is ongoing. The process of I-statement is the differentiating of individuals from other objects, persons, ideas, and desires which are not ours.
The second is ‘me.’ Here the outside world may be seen as impinging on the boundary. Sometimes this takes the form of threats, sometimes opportunity. What is different is that the active agent is perceived as outside; the individual reacts. When he perceives opportunity, he may respond with acceptance. ‘Who wants some?’ “Me.” When he perceives a threat, he seeks security in isolation. “Stay away from me.”
‘My’ is acquisition for claiming a domain of I-space. Thus my arm becomes my book, my mother, my room, my friend, my allowance, even my bedtime. Here the process is the integration of objects, persons, ideas, etc., within the definition of ‘I’. It is the first statement of possession. “I am using it,” becomes “I have it.”
The task is complicated, however, with the inclusion of other people, for these may become capricious. Or so it seems. Not only may they leave or threaten to leave, but they may dispute whose “my” it is.
To prevent this, the boundary can be hardened into a statement of exclusive possession, “mine,” that is, ownership. As a statement ‘mine’ seeks security in stability and continuity. It is about containing, retaining, and remaining. It is self-support.
Some time during maturation an unusual and powerful transformation occurs. Just how is not clear. Perhaps it is the strengthening of the boundary relative to others and differentiation from them. Perhaps it is the desire for continuity and recognition. Perhaps it is just a chance encounter with a mirror. Whatever the cue, a strange and dynamic question is formulated. The individual asks, ‘Who am I?’
This is a quantum leap, an instantaneous, qualitative illumination. It announces the awakening to consciousness. It poses a riddle whose answer is a lifetime. It ushers in the fifth and final phase of self-determination: ‘myself.’
Abraham Maslow constructs a hierarchy of needs that summarizes the growth and development of human beings. Each pyramidal step is additional to and supported by all preceding steps. First there are the basic needs: touch, food, sleep, oxygen and the like. Then comes security needs, including a sense of fairness. Next, belonging, and self-esteem including status, prestige, and mastery. The final step is self-actualization, which encompasses both self-knowledge and self-expression. I am struck by a rough parallel in the development of language to express self-concept.
George Herbert Mead in Mind, Self, and Society uses this approach, though my conceptualizations are significantly different from his.
As ‘I,’ the active agent, is to ‘my’, ‘me’ the respondent is to ‘mine.’
Personality and Motivation, 1954.
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