Pilgrims who went to the oracle of Delphi in ancient Greece to have their future foretold or to ask for advice, could read these words above the entrance: ‘Know thyself.’ That was the motto for the whole procedure. The oracle’s answers were intended to get the enquirer to reflect on themselves and to literally achieve self-consciousness. They were to recognise their own individuality. At the time, that was not something people normally thought about. Today, we are the architects of our own lives. We make our lives. In olden times, life made people. Life was hard. Many illnesses meant certain death, as did extended droughts. For the longest time in human history, simply surviving was the priority, not recreating yourself and your own life again and again.
Imagine travelling back in time and asking the people about self-actualisation. No-one would know what you meant. And you wouldn’t have to travel back to the Stone Age or ancient times. Even 30 years ago, many people would not have understood the word. With its apparently unlimited opportunities, the age of globalisation and digitisation allows us to develop and re-invent ourselves constantly. That gives us great freedom, as everyone can escape from unpleasant structures and shape their lives to their own visions. The opportunity to lead a life that makes you happy and is meaningful is closely related to this. The other side of the coin can be stress and frustration from endless searching, trying, rejecting and starting over. We turn individuality into a life’s work.
Today, over 2000 years after the pilgrimages to the Oracle of Delphi, this question may be more relevant than ever. In the 17th century, French philosopher René Descartes famously wrote “I think, therefore I am.” Whether we actually are is no longer the big question. Nobody doubts their own existence any more. The question for mankind in the 21st century is more like: “What do I have inside me and how can I develop myself?” Or, in other words: What am I and what could I be tomorrow? A few years ago, philosopher Richard David Precht summed it up well in his bestseller “Who am I – and if so, how many”.
We were about one year old when we slowly started to understand that we individuals. In the first months of our lives, we cannot distinguish ourselves from the world around us. When we were hungry, the feeling overwhelmed us. It was so strong that the whole world around us consisted solely of hunger. Everything was focused on satisfying that hunger. We got something to eat and were happy. And so the whole world was happy too. At that time, there was no difference between ‘us’ and ‘the others’. Over time, we came to understand that we are part of a network, that Mom and Dad are individuals too, who might give us some chocolate if we smile. Or if only one of the two reacts with chocolate. We learned to make a distinction and we understood that our needs are not the needs of the world. However, that was also a major shock. We came to understand that we are actually alone, that we need help and are dependent. Psychoanalysts assume that precisely this early childhood experience is an important driver of our development as individuals. We developed the urge to progress, to better cope with the demands of the world.
When we were roughly two years old, we looked in the mirror and recognised ourselves. We saw ourselves there, and maybe Mom, Dad or the family dog standing beside us. This mirror test, as it is known in psychology, reveals whether someone is aware of themselves or not. Psychologists generally paint a spot on the child’s face. If they look at the mirror and try to wipe away the spot on their face, not their reflection, they pass the test. That means the child has a concept of itself, self-awareness. Interestingly, some animals also pass this test, such as monkeys, elephants and magpies. The conclusion is that not only humans have a consciousness, animals can see themselves as individuals, too. By the way, your family dog would not pass the test. However, that should not be interpreted as a lack of self-awareness. Dogs are more likely to perceive their environment by smell rather than visually, which is why the test is not fair for them.
In the history of science, there have been many attempts to explain why people are what they are. Genes played a major role. Some even attempted to explain humans as a whole in all of their complexity through their genes. So genes were blamed for a person’s propensity to lie or particularly high self-confidence. Behaviourism, which had its heyday in the 1950s, takes the other side of the coin. It assumed that our behaviour was a result of our upbringing, and therefore learned. John B. Watson, one of the most important representatives of this psychological movement, reportedly said: “Give me a dozen healthy children and I can turn them into anything I want.” Today, we assume that genetic factors and environmental influences have an equal impact on what a person is. This perspective is based, among other things, on studies of identical twins who grew up together or separately.
That means that our origin is not an inevitable destiny, can develop ourselves. The genetic blueprint is more of a framework – we have some influence on where we end up. In 1897, shouts of joy could be heard from the offices of Scotland Yard. From then on, criminals would have a much harder time. For the first time ever, detectives convicted a criminal based on his fingerprints. The individual lines and patterns makes them a unique attribute of a person; no two are the same. Even identical twins have different fingerprints.
The term digital fingerprint has been in use for several years. This refers to the traces we leave when we surf the web. The individual pattern of clicks, how often we visit certain sites and what we buy online is becoming a coveted marketing tool. Companies spend a lot of money to understand our individuality. Complicated logarithms struggle to calculate our future needs before we even know we have them, to show us adverts tailored perfectly to our wants and needs. Individualisation is the watchword.
We experience individualisations in many areas of our everyday lives. Previously, when telephones rang, they all had a typical telephone sound. Today, every smartphone owner can choose anything from a whistle to the latest Lady Gaga hit as their ringtone. And if the pre-installed ringtones aren’t enough, you can simply download more. And we can even set specific melodies for certain names in our telephone books. That you know right away if it is worth running to your phone in the next room, or you can just let it ring out.
Changes in TV consumption also highlight the power of individualisation. In the 80s, there were just a few stations, the choice was limited. Thomas Gottschalk hosted “Wetten, dass...?” (a German TV show on which the British “You Bet” and the short-lived “Wanna Bet” in the USA were based on) every few weeks, the whole family gathered in front of the TV set when they were on. It offered something for everyone. Michael Jackson performed for the younger members of the audience, and entertainer Rudi Carrell sang for the older people. If you didn’t like everything, you just accepted it and waited for the next act.
Our tolerance levels have decreased since then. Speciality shows and channels, where everything is to the viewer’s taste, where no-one has to compromise, have won through: music channels, women’s channels, shopping channels, news channels and what seems like another 1000 channels that we an now choose from. We are offered what market researchers believe befits our own individuality around the clock. Nobody has to wait until something they like comes on. We have become our own heads of programming, and can put together our very own TV and radio line-ups thanks to on-demand TV, Netflix, Amazon Prime, Spotify, mp3 players and many other methods, and consume them whenever we want. That also gives us a lot of responsibility; if we are bored, it is our own fault. If we do not feel entertained, we made the wrong choice. And if we do consume something wrong, we missed something right. There’s even a special term for the phenomenon: FOMO – fear of missing out.
Missing out is perhaps the greatest problem of individualisation, as there something better could have slipped through our fingers at any time. And not just something better, maybe someone better. The price of individuality is constant comparison. On one hand, we are more likely to find true love in a sea of potential partners, as the greater choice should increase the probability of finding a match. However, many worry whether they have made the right choice, or not quite the right one. Maybe you need a relationship upgrade? Among all those seeking a partner, there must be somebody who is just as great as the person you chose, but without that one annoying quirk?
Relationships rarely break down because people are not a match, but because they assume that there is a better match for their own individuality out there. Or because they feel that the relationship is causing them to sacrifice part of their individuality. Compromises are often seen as a sign that something is going wrong, as a dampener on your own self-actualisation. A simple jam experiment shows that a wide selection doesn’t make us happy at all. Participants were given the choice of selecting a jar from a small or large range of different types. After that, they were asked how satisfied they were with their decision. The people with less choice were happier. That may seem strange at first glance, as we are always led to believe that variety in supermarkets is something positive. When faced with a wide selection, people often wonder whether they should have chosen something else. Would I have preferred a different jam? Can you see the similarities between this experiment and choosing a partner?
Today, children can be planned, we don’t have to let nature surprise us. You can decide to have children between two meetings, and stop taking the pill or using condoms. In nine months time, you’ll have completed that important work project, and that would be a good time to stop. You can start again when things get busy.
In times past, we needed children as workers and security for our old age, today they are more likely to be emotional partners to their parents and give meaning to their parents’ lives. Subconsciously, they can become extensions of us, an addition to our biographies. Our expectations of them are twofold: On the one hand, they are part of our own self-actualisation, and on the other, we want them to find their own selves from a young age. We invest a lot of time and money to promote individuality. The changes are most evident in how we treat them: raising children is increasingly becoming a relationship. For centuries, or maybe even millennia, we expected them to be obedient, the anti-authoritarian upbringing starting in the 1970s fostered individuality and independence. Be unique, not just good! Children were seen and heard, not just in family environments, but also by market researchers and companies. Their individuality and individual preferences inspire entire industries, from food to toys and clothes, right up to education and media services.
Our self-image is derived from many channels. They are the parts of the puzzle that make up our identity.
As we humans are social creatures, it is natural that others play a role in this process. They are like a mirror for us. How they react to us and judge us has an influence on how we see ourselves. People who get a lot of positive feedback will see themselves differently to someone who is bullied. And of course we think about ourselves. We mix real experiences, subjective appraisals and the knowledge of our own interests, passions and talents.
Story-telling is a third, source for our self-image, which also plays an important role. We talk about ourselves all the time. Even if we don’t want to believe it, we generally develop a common theme. In doing so, we create an identity that seems appropriate to us. Humans feel a need for congruence in their lives, for lives without major gaps and glitches. That can cause us to distort our memories retrospectively. For example, people can have the impression that they have always been a fan of big cities, even though they have long dreamed of living in a village. We smooth out any “bumps” in own selves through narration. If we ever get fired, we will probably view it as a learning experience years later. It took us to where we are now. It was a challenge that made us grow and become the people we are today. The associated irritation, worries and fears we experienced at the time are suppressed when we look back.
There is now another factor: our self-portrayal in social media. Facebook and Instagram are spotlights on the stage of life. We use them to highlight the aspects we consider good, special or interesting and want to show. We never show our whole selves there, just excerpts, wanting – consciously or subconsciously – to create an image which will earn applause in the form of likes. We present ourselves, or portray something we want to sell as ourselves. We market ourselves as though we were our own little advertising agency. As is well known, artistic freedom is great, so we can really re-invent ourselves and have the lives we dream of online, as Pippi Longstocking would say: “I will make the world the way I want it to be.”
Searching for and developing our own individuality always involves comparisons. The globalised and digitalised world makes it easy for us to compare. The lives of our Facebook friends or celebrities becomes a benchmark that can either motivate us, or drag us down. Constant comparisons are like a black hole, devouring all positive material. For example, studies show that women are unhappier after reading women’s magazines. And that is not surprising, considering how much Photoshop goes into those magazines and how many diets are invented that all seem to scream: you’re not OK the way you are.
So the opportunities offered by individualisation have their drawbacks. This includes the phenomenon known as the ‘filter bubble’. It has become synonymous with managed individualisation in recent years. Social networks and Google show us content tailored to our profiles. This reflects our selves with all of our interests, desires, fears, visions and prejudices again and again. In this way, everyone lives in their own reality. Online comments reveal how communication between individuals is becoming increasingly uncompromising – especially for polarising subjects.
Our expectations of ourselves are immense. We are own worst critics. In times when we can become anything we want, we quickly get the impression that it is wrong not to reach for the stars. After all, we cannot pass up opportunities. Free time is considered one of the most important factors in self-actualisation. Often, it is not primarily about earning a living, it is about expressing our own nature.
Searching for options is a huge source of stress and frustration. If you want to have it all, you inevitably lose sight of a lot, sacrifices depth and often feel restless. That can also cause an identity crisis. We prematurely equate individuality and independence, and freedom from (all) commitments. However, if we have no commitments, we belong nowhere, and do not feel that we fit in anywhere. Once again, this raises the question: Who am I really?
Psychoanalysts see the strong focus on the self and the over-emphasis on self-actualisation as the expression of a deep-seated feeling of dependency and impotency. For them, the urge to self-actualise is an adaptation reaction to the subconscious attempt not to accept the requirements society makes of us. This includes having to function, perform and be successful, not being able to show any weaknesses, not being defeated, being able to sell yourself well and come across well.
More individualisation means focusing more on yourself. That inevitably means losing sight of other people around you, which can lead to more conflicts and increasing isolation. But aren’t we really most beautiful when we aren’t trying to please anyone?
Few people have the honour of having a monument built for them. And some monuments were melted down or dismantled again after just a few years. The next time you visit Frankfurt am Main or Kassel, you can contribute to your own immortality. In the Grüngürtel district of Frankfurt and at Brüder- Grimm-Platz in Kassel, there are pedestals waiting to be mounted. The “Ich-Denkmal” (Monument of Me) is a sculpture by artist Hans Traxler. It features steps the back of the pedestal, encouraging visitors to become their own monument. The information panel reads: Everyone is unique. Of course the same is true of all animals too. Record it for posterity. Here. Climb this pedestal, stop for a minute and think about who you really are. What makes you special? Why do you deserve a monument? Maybe that is the easiest way to find your individuality. You can also take a picture of this scene and post it on social networks. Look forward to your friends’ and followers’ reactions.
By the way: if you can’t make it to Frankfurt or Kassel in the foreseeable future, a chair at home will do too.
The liberties we enjoy in the Western world are the result of many historical and social developments. We cannot take them for granted, we have to protect and defend them. And maybe you can think of a few more liberties that would be desirable. We can count ourselves lucky that we as individuals have so many opportunities today. That gives us countless chances to shape our own lives and become who we want to be. We can truly see and know ourselves, as it says above the entrance to the Oracle of Delphi.
However, freedom means more than being able to choose something, it also means rejecting things, even if they appear appealing. Especially in times of excess supply, a confusing sea of potential opportunities, partners, holiday destinations, jobs, projects leisure activities etc., you must not let it drive you crazy.
21st century people must learn to make decisions and live with them. The challenge is to be satisfied with yourself and appreciate what you have (achieved) and what you are. It is OK just to be, instead of always having to become. Every one of us is unique and special, anyway.
René Träder is a freelance psychologist (M.Sc.) & journalist based in Berlin, Germany. As a journalist, he has worked primarily as a radio host for roughly 15 years. As a psychologist, he supports change processes in companies, teams and individuals in the form of workshops and coaching. His main interests include promoting creativity and innovation, change management and culturenof mistakes, communication and conflicts as well as voice and