Some people who come across self-positioning ask: why is it about your ‘self’? Isn’t that selfish, self-interested, self-absorbed? Shouldn’t we be thinking about others, outward-looking, rather than concentrating on ourselves?
The main point to make in answer to this question is: unless we are sure and confident about ourselves, it is hard to know how best to relate to others. Self-positioning is about being clear who we are, because if other people are confused about us, they can be uncertain how to relate to us. If we are unsure, or our views and actions swing from one thing to another, it can be hard for us to feel secure in ourselves.

The second point about the importance of our ‘self’ is that our own ‘self’ is created by interaction with other people, so our self certainly is outward-looking, because it mirrors all the reactions that other people make to us.
What is a ‘self’? There are two aspects of personal identity: one aspect is inside us, a personal consciousness of ourselves as a human being. The second aspect is a social identity: how we build this up through relationships with others. Our self is a debate that we have in our minds between how we see ourselves and how other people see us.

We cannot know how other people see us, except by how they react to us. They might say things to us about how they see us: ‘Oh you’re so well-organised’. Perhaps you are proud of how well-organised you are, or perhaps you know you shoved all the disorganisation into that cupboard over there and nobody has found you out yet. It you’re proud, this statement confirms your view of yourself, and perhaps might make you feel good. If you are a hidden disorganised person, this compliment might make you insecure or anxious in case you are found out. Or, you might be confirmed in your feeling that you can fool all of the people all of the time.

Self and identity
Thinking about the word ‘identity’ for a minute, we can see it is connected to ideas like ‘identical’. It means thinking how we are the same as other people or the concepts that we hold in our minds about human characteristics. And one of the consequences of this is that we sometimes like to think of our identity as continuous: as consistent over time.

So our ‘self’ is us as we have come to know our characteristics over time. We are optimistic, a ‘cup-half-full’ person. Or pessimistic: all our cups are half empty. We are affectionate, or grumpy. We like to keep a picture of the world and other people and of ourselves in relation to it and those others. So our self very much depends on that picture, of ourselves and others. The philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre said that of course this means that we are always outside of the world and other people, because our self-consciousness means that we have this picture of ourselves and the rest of the world and other people who are ‘not-us’.
In turn, this means that we are forced to react to the ‘not-us’, and we try to maintain some consistency in the self that does the reacting, so that the other people know what we are and how to react to us, and we know what they are and how we react to them. This is so that we can trust and be trusted in the everyday human round.

Self-positioning provides use with opportunities (oppis) to learn about how we react to the world and the people around us. This helps us think about ourselves, because we can study our reactions. We can see how we reacted to that picture or those questions or that idea in the oppi for the day.

In this way, self-positioning exercises our self-creation: we can try a little bit of learning about ourselves every day. Not a lot, not too demanding, but it will help us see our ‘self’ better, and that will help us be consistent in our interactions with others.

Self and others
So our identify, our ‘self’, comes from a continuous sense of the self that we can see and understand and improve how we see it, interacting with how other people are responding to their perceptions of that self. By watching how they react, we can see better how we are presenting ourselves. By seeing how they are, we can feed back to them how we see them, and they can correct or confirm that by how they react.

These relationships get firmed up into social roles and into continuing social relationships. We watch how our mothers and fathers performed that social role. Some of the time we say: ‘Now I’m a parent, I’m not going to do that…’ or we might feel: ‘I want to be just like my wonderful father was’. We learn about what important social roles consist of, by modelling, or distancing ourselves from how we see others behaving.

We put together all the ways we see a social role being performed, and the whole picture is shared between people and then affects how the whole of society sees that social role. So we see how doctors behave or ministers of religion and we discuss in many different social relationships what we think a good and bad doctor or minister is. This allows us all the build up a picture of how society should work. And it allows us to think through how we make our own judgments about the right and wrong thing to do.

So understanding out self, and the self of others around us really does help us to live with ther people and in our society, as it is. It also helps us to have aspirations for how we think that society should be.

Author's Bio: 

Dr Malcolm Payne is a leading educator and writer in social work and end-of-life care, emeritus, honorary or visiting professor at universities in the UK, Poland and Finland. He is the author of many books and professional and research publications in health and social work. Among his recent books are: The Creative Arts in Palliative Care (edited with Nigel Hartley) Philadelphia/London Jessica Kingsley; Humanistic Social Work: Core Principles in Practice Chicago: Lyceum/Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan and Social Work in End-of-Life and Palliative Care (with Margaret Reith) Chicago: Lyceum/Bristol, UK: Policy Press.