Culture’s three-way mirror

In our Cultural Psychology class with Sir Jon Diestro in De La Salle University-Manila, we studied about the three divisions of the self in relation to culture. No, this isn’t the usual Freudian id (child), ego (adult), superego (parent) divisions of the self that have been popular for a century now. This time, we have the private self, the public self, and the collective self.

These divisions are fairly easy to understand. The private self is the core of your identity or personality. It points to your true self, free from any societal or peer influences. Perhaps you have desires, aspirations, or preferences in life that other people may or may not know. Your private self would think, “Who cares? This is me. Who I am is none of anyone else’s business.”

The public self is the self you show others. It is your PR self, so to speak. It is the self that interacts with and adjusts itself according to other people, with groups of fellow human beings, with what you perceive to be the proper conduct when you’re dealing with personalities other than yourself. Think of it as a kind of role you play, a role you adjust into. Even when you’re with your closest friends or even your family, for example, you aren’t totally yourself because you are indeed playing a role that you have grown into over the years. In high school or PR terms, this would be your “image.”

Finally, the collective self comprises the duties we perform for the betterment of society or whatever our in-group is. If you’re a parent, you’re usually expected to provide for your family or to take care of your children. If you’re a doctor, you take care of the sick. If you’re a teacher, you make sure the ones who are enrolled in your class learn what they need to learn. If you’re a farmer, you have to ensure that your produce is of top quality so that people would be able to eat properly.

From what I’ve learned in this class, a person achieves fulfillment if there isn’t that much difference among these three selves. The job of the person is to make his private, public, and collective self meld into each other well, like members of a three-man band. You are happiest when your public self doesn’t stray too far from your true private self, and when the role you play in society is in congruence with your identity. On the other hand, you become unhappy when these three selves are in conflict with one another.

Let’s say that your private self is a gentle being. You love life and you usually want to deal with things in a non-confronting way. But if you become part of a group that values and respects aggressiveness (like in politics), you need to learn and exhibit some aggressive traits to survive or to cope with your external environment. Your personality might not even be suited for politics but familial expectations might have forced you to enter that world to fulfill your expected role. When this happens, an intrapersonal crisis occurs. You might even get confused as to who you really are and who you are supposed to be.

Now, I admit that achieving harmony among these three selves isn’t all that easy. Even if you work hard to get the job you want or to be the person you really are no matter who you’re with, your environment won’t always cooperate with you. In a given week, it’s almost impossible to just be with the people you’re comfortable with, or to do tasks at work that you are only interested in. Let’s face it. There are a lot of jerks out there whom you have to get along with to achieve a sort of external harmony. And refusing to do some tasks that you don’t enjoy will be unfair to your workmates who might have to shoulder the additional burden simply because you refused to carry it yourself.

Moreover, you do have to carry out some duties for society to work as smoothly as possible. By now, I think a lot of us are familiar with what happens if a person doesn’t do what he’s supposed to do in society. A politician who is only concerned about his illegal “earnings” make the people under his governance suffer. A teacher who doesn’t take his job seriously compromises the future of his students. A doctor who’s only in it for the money but who neglects to practice medicine properly endanger his patients’ lives. Obviously, we have to make some sacrifices in terms of our private self for a greater good.

But even if it might be impossible to achieve a total congruence among your three selves, I do believe that the difference among them shouldn’t be that significant. You are most effective in terms of helping other people if you are doing what you are really born or called to do. And you have the best friendships if what you show other people is closest to who you really are.

That’s the challenge of being an adult. I guess this is where the ego, the part that controls your urges and your moralistic conscience, comes in. We have to learn how to put our ‘selves’ together so that we are most fufilled and yet also functional in a larger interpersonal scope. That is what I am also trying to learn, myself.

I hope things get better and easier for us as we go along.

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