What Do You Mean By I?

What Do You Mean By I?

At the Happiness and Its Causes Conference there were many captivating speakers and topics, but one that was particularly thought provoking for me was Jean Twenge’s talk about narcissism. During it she presented her research that US University students have become increasingly more narcissistic over time. In early 80s 17% of the respondents who completed the Narcissistic Personality Inventory (NPI) were deemed narcissistic, compared to 30% in the late 2000s.


One sentence she said in particular that struck me is that self-belief is not an indicator of success. Fortunately, she followed it up by differentiating between self-esteem and self-efficacy. Here are some definitions, so that we’re all operating under the same lexicon:

  • Self-confidence refers to people’s belief in self – their abilities and capabilities, characteristics and other qualities.
  • Self-esteem, on the other hand, refers to how they view themselves relative to others in their society.
  • Self-efficacy is the belief that you can successfully accomplish a particular task; it is always task-specific. (For example, I might say I have high self-efficacy in writing.)

Sometimes people come to me with low self-confidence, but clutching firmly to the idea that believing in themselves and caring for themselves will make them narcissistic. This is a mistake. Unfortunately the only place that conveys this message adequately is the airline industry: please put your oxygen mask on first before helping others with theirs. That’s what self-love is about—putting your mask on first so that you can better serve others.

This is why so many psychological research studies are rubbish! Assessments like the NPI are overly simplistic and don’t do justice to richness of the human experience. They cannot possibly, because you’re often trapped between two choices, neither which accurately describe you. For example:

I like to have authority over other people.
I don’t mind following orders.

C. I like to self-direct, regardless of if anyone is following.

I am assertive.
I wish I were more assertive.

C. I am assertive in some contexts and not so assertive in others, depending my self-efficacy in that context.

I am no better or worse than most people.
I think I am a special person.

C. Both, equally.

I could go on and on. This is the core of why I didn’t pursue a PhD. I don’t even enjoy taking inventories half the time, so why would I want to administer them and spend hours making meaning from the data? What sense of knowing of the self can a participant experience after completing an inventory like this? Hardly any, I reckon.

Anyway, all of that was an elaborate prelude to my real point. What do you mean by I?

It occurs to me that my I has always included others, namely my tribe. When I was younger, it was my family and besties (i.e. the family I chose). Part of this has to do with the way I was raised. Right from when I was a child my Mom had a “what’s mine is yours” approach to parenting. As a teen, I was the only one of all my friends who didn’t have chores or an allowance. In the mornings before school my Mom would always just ask me if I needed any money and then give me however much I requested. Some may say that she spoiled me, but I know that what she really taught me was how to give.

At university my sense of self expanded even further. I went from being a well-known and appreciated leader within the Leadership Training Institute in high school, to one amongst many exceptional thinkers and do-ers at Oberlin, my prestigious little liberal arts college in Ohio.  When someone would celebrate an achievement there (and good golly did Obies achieve some amazing things!) I would celebrate with them. Their achievements were absolutely mine too, because they were my tribe, afterall. I think this is how I developed an adaptive sense of self. Instead of feeling insecure or inadequate that I was surrounded by brilliance everywhere I turned, I knew in my core their brilliance is a reflection of my own. An achievement for one is an achievement for all. That guy who built a car that ran on biofuel my freshman year? Yeah, that was me. The award winning environmental studies center? I was part of that. Charles Martin Hall’s discovery of aluminum in 1886? Also me. The students involved with the Abolitionist movement? They’re just earlier versions of me. I feel connected to every Obie, past, present, and future because their tribe is mine too. In psychology we call that in-group bias.

When I began practicing Jivamukti yoga 3 years ago, my in-group bias began to extend even further to include all beings everywhere. With the realisation that cows and hens now fit under the umbrella of self, I could no longer participate in the consumption of cheese and eggs. The motivation that underlies my actions is identical to every other human: we’ll all avoid cognitive dissonance at all costs. The tactic many people use is to sever their self—allowing “I” to be associated with their physical form alone. That was far more unthinkable to me than becoming vegan, so I went vegan. It enables me to maintain the high self-esteem I’ve always enjoyed by allowing myself to celebrate in the achievements of others.

This isn’t as glorious as it sounds, because I’m not one sided about it. When a politician makes a decision that I don’t consciously think is prudent, I feel sadness because I know that on some level, part of me made that decision too. But this enables me to feel greater empathy for those in all positions, so I’m ok with it. I’d much prefer that than the alternative: allow me to end where you/he/she/ze begins. I believe I am no more me than I am you. This, I later learned, is what is known as collective consciousness.

It means knowing I am thatThat is earth, cosmos, and every molecule in between. It’s a yogic understanding of the inextricably intertwined union of all beings. I am all beings everywhere. And in my eyes, you are too.

Psychology uses nominalisations to keep the intellect occupied. Hence the birth of the Diagnostic Statistical Manual (DSM). Categorising people is an intellectual activity, and I have no interest in that. I know that consciousness (where intellect lives) is just the tip of the iceberg. I’m far more interested in the mass that lays out of sight, just beneath the water line. That’s where our true power lays. In that space—the space that you may not have explored yet—that’s where intrinsic brilliance lives within us all. And that’s where we know we’re all one.

“At the core of your being, you already are all that you seek.”

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