Figure and Ground: A Problem With Identity

We tend to define our identity as much by who we are not as by who we are. But can you ever know yourself by always looking at others?

Figure and Ground: Are You Looking at Me?
Figure and Ground: Are You Looking at Me?

Without others to compare ourselves to, most people find it hard to define their own identity. It seems that we need others to become coherent as ourselves. Comparing ourselves to others, however, has huge drawbacks. It creates artificial separations – dividing lines that do not actually exist – between groups of people that prevent them from interacting freely and justly.

The ‘us vs. them’ effect is especially strong in cultural identity. And as soon as a group comes under pressure (even perceived pressure) our cultural defense mechanisms create emotional reactions that directly trigger very basic instinctual reactions such as fear, disgust, anger, and hate.

Setting ourselves off from others not just leads to separation, but also to a perception of superiority and stratification between groups. Everyone seems to believe their own group – for no other reason that it’s their group – must be superior to any other group. No actual evidence is needed to support this belief. Experiments have shown that simply by giving people randomly assigned markers (such as colored armbands, or different t-shirts) people will tend to segregate and start feeling there is something unique and superior about the group they are part of.

Since comparisons are never complete they can be very selective and dangerously so. People can always find ways of filtering out some of the other group’s strengths and amplifying some of their weaknesses to justify their own group’s superiority.

In addition to creating an unwarranted – but emotionally very satisfying – sense of superiority over ‘other’ people, this also makes us blind to our own true nature: our own strengths and weaknesses, functions and dysfunctions alike. By drawing conclusions about ourselves based on incomplete and twisted comparisons with others we do not actually learn much about ourselves. Even when we try to be unbiased and fair, we don’t learn as much about ourselves by comparing us to others as we would by looking in the mirror and honestly examining ourselves.

Only when we stop measuring ourself against others, and come to accept ourself for who we are – at the same time accepting others for who they are – may we hope to peel away our blinders, rid ourselves of reality distorting filters and dial-down our biases and preconceptions.

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