Personal Identity – on being full of hot air…

“From a symbolic interactionist perspective, the self’s Achilles’ heel is the constant possibility of losing trust and self-confidence.   We are blown-up balloons and it is always possible for the air to come out….It’s [an] emperor-has-no-clothes problem.  Culture in general, selves in particular, are based on ‘hot air’ – shared belief.” (Wiley, 2003, p507).

EmperorOne night after my family went to bed, I began my homework. While sifting through journal articles, the above quote jumped out at me.  In light of recent affairs, it forced me to stop and think. At this point in life, I’m working hard to overcome old patterns and “get unstuck”.  In addition to working on a Master’s degree, I’m trying to pay off some debt, and lose weight.   As I work on accomplishing these goals, (and overcome a few old vices), I hope to maximize my efforts with a bit of radical self-responsibility.   The idea that my hard work could yield another hamster-wheel experience frightens me.   For this reason, I’ve worked hard to understand the underlying patterns in my life.  What I’ve discovered is the solution (and its problem), aren’t so much about what I’m looking at but how I’m choosing to looking at it…

….You see, underlying these goals is a desire to understand the full breadth of possibility for who “I am”.  I find my personal development thus far has been fraught with poor decision-making and happenstance, as I’ve struggled to balance the responsibilities of work and family.  The person I am now is a byproduct of a needs-based reaction to the pragmatic details of daily life.   I’ve become the embodiment of adaptive responses to others self-perceived opinions and needs.

Entering the “Hall of Mirrors”….

Wiley’s (2003) description of identity as a self-fulfilling prophecy in the above quote, summarizes a personal life lesson.  It is for this reason I feel this insight is worth examining more closely.  According to the DSM-5 manual, identity can be thought of as an “experience of oneself as unique with clear boundaries between self and others” (American Psychiatric Association, 2013, p823).  Psychiatrist Ronald Laing, makes a point of noting that identity has both subjective and objective components (Laing, 1960).  From a subjective vantage point identity is a collectivity of beliefs and perceptions about oneself.  At the same time, in order to form an identity, an objective reality is required that can act as a contextual mirror within which we can view ourselves (Wiley, 2003). As I stop and consider this conceptualization of identity from a personal perspective, a vivid hall-of mirrors presents itself.  On the one hand, as I review my experiences with critical “others”, I am forced to face divergent, (and often conflicting), distorted images of myself.  For example, the “me” I am known as to my kids and husband varies substantially from how my childhood bullies or coworkers might perceive me.  A view of this hall-of-mirrors becomes a confusing “flustercuck” when I try to sift through my role in things.  It is at this point that Wiley’s (2003) hot-air notion comes to play.  I’ve become what I believe I am and often confuse the byproducts of my identity construction, as evidence of it.  Allow me to explain…

The Achilles Heel of Identity….

“The usual sense of the self as being who we ‘really are’ and as being continuous and consistent over time seems to be an illusory construction of imprecise awareness….We are not who, or even what we thought we were. What we take to be our real self is merely an illusory construct” (Wedding & Corsini, 2013, p467).

Since identity construction is based on a system of belief, it exists as a self-fulfilling prophecy.  In an effort to define this concept Robert Merton, (1948) quotes Thomas Theorem which states: “If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences.” (p193).  He then notes that self-fulfilling prophecies are based on “a false definition of the situation” (Merton, 1948, p145).  It is only by acting upon this erroneous definition that it becomes true. In other words, beliefs exist as cause.  In contrast, what we understand as evidence of who we are is often best conceived as a byproduct of our beliefs.  With this in mind, Wiley (2003) notes: “If people define themselves as real, they are real in their consequences” (p506-507).  This causes me to question the reality within which I’ve come to understand myself.  Am I as I am, because this is me?  Or is this me, only because it has been believed into being? What if I had chosen otherwise?

It is with these questions in mind, that it is possible to insert a “ray of hope” into the conversation.  If identity is a belief system that acts as a self-fulfilling prophecy why not choose otherwise?  After all, if we are full of hot air, why not fill up our balloons with more of what we desire to experience?

Concluding Remarks

I caught the video below on one late sleepless night. In this video, a young man discusses insights gained in the aftermath of a life-changing injury. Having cared for individuals like him in my life, I can recall intimate conversations on this very subject matter. A person can’t help but leave an experience like this with a renewed perspective of life…


American Psychiatric Association (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Washington, D.C: Author.
Laing, R.D. (1960). The divided self.  New York: Random House
Merton, R. K. (1948). The self-fulfilling prophecy. The Antioch Review, 193-210.
Wedding, D. & Corsini, R. (2013). Current Psychotherapies. (9th ed.). Belmont, CA: Cengage Learning
Wiley, N. (2003). The Self as Self‐Fulfilling Prophecy. Symbolic Interaction26(4), 501-513.

Share This: