Staying True To You
Renowned psychologist, Erik Erikson, pioneered identity research. He contended that individuals develop identities by using those in the immediate vicinity as a mirror of the self. People carefully observe the reaction and response elicited by behavior. Before the digital age, people interacted with far fewer people. Relationship building happened face-to-face. Fewer people had influence and or the ability to shape another person’s identity in a significant way.
Let’s examine some of the biological imperatives of humans, we need certain things for not only survival, but to perpetuate the species. We require food and shelter, and to protect against animals and other groups, people formed communities. Communities enable people to “specialize” and spend time working for overall common interests. Identity is essential when group-forming, today, this is equivalent to friendship/clique building. In the past, not assimilating meant that an individual was isolated and relatively defenseless. Even in modern society, as social creatures, humans possess an innate desire to “fit in.”
So how does technology play a role in the shaping of identity? Thomas Hughes combined the social science concepts of social determinism and technological determinism. He believed that initially a society controls how technology is used and developed, but over time, as the technology becomes more universal and important, the technology shapes society. As society evolves, we as individuals evolve.
Now, at increasingly younger ages, technological devices expedite the rate at which children become aware of how others perceive them. This new digital space provides a place in which individuals experiment with crafting identity. Today, mobile technologies essentially function as extensions of our physical selves. In 2015, The Washington Times reported that teens spend nearly nine hours each day consuming some type of media. The formative adolescent years are critical when developing both self and identity. Even if we ignore the missed social capital, it’s difficult to fully measure the impact on identity. People spend hours meticulously curating online personas in an attempt to create a highlight reel of their lives.
The Law of Parsimony, a scientific principle that when applied to the decision-making process, explains that humans prefer the path of least resistance and thus, make the simplest choices. This default setting influences our daily actions and in large part dictates mindless habitual patterns. Consequently, our intrinsic auto-pilot behavior, when paired with our desire to be liked, naturally translates into conformity without regard to self.
Social media elicits both a physiological pleasure and an experiential pleasure. Research shows a correlation between social media feedback and the release of dopamine. We naturally seek dopamine, it motivates us to both learn and survive. Experiencing pleasure when “friends” like and give positive feedback affirms social media behavior. For some people, living in this contrived space might seem preferable to living in the real world. Technology accelerates a blurring of the line between self and identity.
So how is the self separate from identity? The self exists in the absence of others, the self is the fundamental you. The self does not include things that change, the physical body, possessions or thoughts. In the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali addresses the five afflictions (kleshas) that hinder and or prevent enlightenment. The first two afflictions directly apply to self. An obscured perception of reality (avidya), allows an individual to live his or her life in a false reality. False-identification (asmita), allows for the creation of an ego which protects self-image. So, back to identity for a moment, this is what we present to the world. The more interaction with different people, the more we shape ourselves to find acceptance. Now, with social media, we interact with hundreds maybe even thousands of people each day. An online profile portrays the best you, or how you wish to be perceived by others.
Ideally, we should experience self-contained contentment and happiness should exist without others approval or acknowledgement. Social media, an escapist outlet, transforms into a perceived reality, avidya. Psychologists even share some common ground with yogis. Dr. Lisa Machoian wrote about how our society, media, parents, peers, etc. shape an adolescent’s perception of self. Conforming to the societal construct of attractiveness, likability and worth become primary motives for behavior. This conformity leads to identity creation for the purpose of “fitting in,” thus affecting/afflicting the true self.
So what’s the mediation correlation? We all engage in a continuous internal dialogue. Usually, the meaning and emotional association of each thought triggers the next thought. Buddhists, Hindus and yogis describe this process as samskara. Samskaras are mental and emotional patterns, which can become grooves in the mind, that eventually over time, make thoughts flow in the same direction. We create personal samskaras from memories, these feelings can automatically drive us to react in the same way over and over again. Many people unknowingly allow samskaras to significantly shape their identity.
In meditation we disrupt the conscious and subconscious progression of thoughts and emotions by shifting our focus to a new object of attention; a mantra, our breath, an image, etc. Meditation is one of the best ways to loosen the tight hold you may have on your ego-driven identity and ultimately connect to your true self. When we create various identities we place ourselves in a box, which limits our actual potential. Meditation allows you to see yourself for who you really are and facilitates non-attachment, so when you begin to lift the layers of your identity you no longer feel attached to them. We can use meditation to insulate our selves from the increasing amount of external influences in this digital era.
 Erikson, Erik. Childhood and Society. W.W. Norton & Co, 1950.
 Hughes, Thomas P. Networks of Power: Electrification in Western Society 1880-1930. Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993.
 Chayko, Mary. Superconnected: The Internet, Digital Media, and the Techno-Social Life. Sage, 2017.
 Tsukayama, Hayley. “Teens Spend Nearly Nine Hours Every Day Consuming Media.” The Washington Post, 3, Nov. 2015.
 Weinschenk, Susan. “Why We’re All Addicted to Texts, Twitter and Google.” Psychology Today. 12 September 2012.
 Machoian, Lisa. The Disappearing Girl: Learning the Language of Teenage Depression. Plume, 2005.