Developing a Sense of Self

Judith M. Bardwick, Ph.D.


Goals can be divided into those that gratify the self and those that serve relationships.  Traditionally, men learned their role was to satisfy ambition which also served to create status for and support their family.  The traditional role for women was to nurture and be the bulwark of relationships.  Thus men were socialized to pursue “Me” goals and women to meet “Us” needs.

The pendulum of social values always swings in 180-degree arcs.  Values and priorities rarely change in baby steps; instead, they reverse.  Feminism gained strength swiftly in the 1960s and 70s because educated women had grown up assuming their right to a career and a life that would fulfill their needs and priorities.  In other words, their experiences and education had taught them that, like men, they had a right to gratify “Me” goals.  But once married, and especially once they became mothers, they found themselves submerged in the domestic world of “Us”.   Feminism flourished, even among women who declared they were not feminists because the movement passionately articulated women’s right to “Me” commitmentsBy the mid-1970s, in ever-increasing numbers, women turned to education and careers to make it happen.

An unexpected byproduct of men’s, especially educated and professional men’s current longer-term unemployment, is their discovery of the pleasures of hands-on parenting.  Unlike women’s experiences with the Feminist Movement, men’s discovery of the rich satisfactions that can be gained in the nurturing “Us” aspects of life have been gained by them largely as individuals – from involuntary unemployment or divorce – and as such, it hasn’t received much notice in the media.  But just look around the supermarket, an airport, a park…and see the number of men who are actively taking care of their children, especially very young children.  It is important to observe that men continue to take the “Me” parts of life for granted and have added “Us” activities as a major source of gratification.

Successful lives achieve a balance between “Me” and “Us”.   While focusing solely on creating home as a haven against turmoil and disappointment is psychologically understandable, for most educated GenX and Boomer women it will not be a wise life choice.  To the extent that professional women continue to embrace domesticity and leave careers even if only for a decade, they may well find it difficult to return.  The longer you are out of the professional labor force the scarier and harder it is to return.  A fractional commitment to your career is a whole lot better than none.

Of equal importance, career women who leave the labor force entirely may be jeopardizing their ability to gratify the “Me” aspects of life.  It is as psychologically dangerous to live through your children as it is to live through your spouse or partner.  This, in fact, was one of the key realities that drove the Feminist Movement of the 1960s and 70s.

People who seek to gratify only the “Me” in life, run the danger of lifelong narcissism, skirting only the surface of relationships, missing out on the richness of life when it is fully engaged.. When caregivers gratify only the “Us” in life, over time they often come to feel Self-less, abused and taken for granted.

While it’s easiest to develop a sense of Self in one’s own work, developing a healthy and strong sense of Self doesn’t have to involve success in the labor force.  What’s needed is an honest answer to the question, What do I want to do?  Developing “Me” involves identifying goals and activities that interest you that you care about and which might be a source of fulfillment for you.  Then you have to pursue those goals and engage in those activities without feeling Self-ish.

While “Me” and “Us” appear to be in conflict they are actually interdependent and mental health requires that we gratify both aspects of our commitments.  Psychological well being requires that we develop a strong sense of Self.  We each have the responsibility of developing a healthy “Me” for our own sakes and for the wellbeing of those we’re close to.  A strong sense of Self is the basis of healthy interdependence, the capacity to develop and sustain important relationships.  Without a psychologically healthy “Me” there cannot be a psychologically healthy “Us”.




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