Have you ever wondered where your sense of self comes from or how you got to be the person you think you are?
The source of your self is obvious if you take the time to think about it. Trouble is, though, most of us don’t think about it and simply assume we are our own person with a unique set of values, beliefs, fears and desires. However, that assumption is far from being anything like the truth.
The process of turning a newborn into a functioning human within a family group is known as enculturation or social induction, and we are all both recipients and instigators of what that process entails.
Humans are born helpless. Unlike the offspring of other mammals, human children go through a long period of dependence on their parents – we are talking years here, as human children tend to stay part of their birth family unit into their early adult years.
There are some things, like bodily functions, that are determined by our biology but most of what becoming a functioning human entails is learnt through observation and imitation. We learn how to be human by watching and copying what our parents and siblings do. We learn to talk through people talking to us and encouraging us to keep making certain sounds when we repeat words back to them.
Think about all the interactions you’ve ever had with an infant as they developed into a toddler and recall all the encouragement you gave them as they learnt to walk and talk. That’s how the process works.
The process doesn’t stop once a child can walk and talk. It continues on through schooling and higher education, through faith communities, through the messages delivered by the media and everyday interactions with people in the workplace, the home and the wider community. In fact, the process never stops.
There is always someone or some group telling us how to be members of our culture. If you’re a member of a religious group, there is always someone telling you what to believe and how to live your life. Advertisers keep telling us what we should and shouldn’t desire. The media are always telling us about what’s going on in the world and who and what we should believe and fear. With the advent of social media we’re also dealing with an onslaught of messages from paid influencers trying to get us to spend our money in certain ways or believe in their conspiracies.
Every culture has specific rules for how to live a good life and stories about how the world works. That’s just the way things are. There is nothing wrong with enculturation. In fact, there is no other way of learning how to be a human.
When we’re born, we’re like brand new computers. Enculturation is simply the process used to load the operating system we need to become functional. We all start off with a basic operating system that is continually upgraded as we grow and develop the skills to process more complex tasks.
Our parents and teachers pass on what they’ve learnt about being members of the group they belong to. In that way, we get to learn the behavioural norms that help us fit in, get along with others, and make our contribution to the ongoing survival of the group.
The process of enculturation means that everyone in our group ends up basically believing the same things and conforming to the same behavioural norms. As we grow up we become, in the main, docile, law-abiding citizens according to the norms of our society. And, all societies, all cultures, have ways of dealing with those individuals who choose not to play by the norms that range from peer pressure, to punishment, to excommunication. Consequently, most of us choose to conform because we want to belong.
Now, here’s the scary bit. Who’s talking when you say something? Whose thinking those thoughts drifting through your mind?
Our automatic answer to each of those questions is me, of course. But, is that true?
Have you ever had the experience, that I certainly have, of realizing what you just said or thought was exactly what your father or mother or one of your teachers used to say? How about realizing you have turned into a clone of one of your parents and are acting just like they did or still do?
I’ve even had the sensation of feeling that was my father acting through me when I’ve done something exactly the way he did things when he was alive. But, it gets worse.
Whose desires are you wanting? Whose fears are you entertaining? Whose beliefs are you guiding your life by? Whose arguments are you voicing during those conversations you’re having with your friends about the state of the world or who you should vote for?
Unless you’ve taken the time to examine the cultural messages you were exposed to as you were growing up, and continue to absorb from your surroundings, most of what you say, think, desire and fear is nothing more than an expression of your enculturation.
We believe what we’ve been told by the authority figures of our culture. We repeat the views of social and political commentators as if they were our own. We desire what advertisers or influencers tell us to desire and we fear what and who they tell us to be afraid of.
Unless you undertake what James Hollis calls an examined life, the self you think you are is little more than an expression of your cultural norms. In other words, you’re just one of a herd of people who look like you, dress like you, and think like you.
A bit disappointing, when you think about it, but it’s not the full story of becoming who you are and finding your voice.
Social induction is an essential process. It’s how we learn to be human within our cultural context. It’s how we develop the persona required to interact with others – but it’s only the first half of the journey.
Once you have a persona, and most of us have a fairly rounded persona by midlife, it’s time to find out who you really are and decide what is and isn’t true for you. It’s time to question everything, and make your own way in the world according to who you really are and not according to what those around you told you to be. That’s how you find your voice – the voice of your authentic self.
Taking responsibility for your life and finding your voice is what I call conscious living, and you can read my insights into doing that in: My Life Is My Responsibility: Insights for Conscious Living.
Featured image from photo by Brooke Cagle used under Unsplash licence.