In this piece Nathan Palmer shows us how the common phrase, “I can’t believe what I did last night“ what will people think of me?” illustrates two separate sides of our sense of self.
We’ve all been there. Laying in bed, staring at the ceiling, anxiously reviewing each moment from the night before. Replaying the scenes over and over hoping to find some way to frame our actions so that we can save face. “I can’t believe what I did last night,” the voice inside our heads chastises us, “what will people think of me?” While in that moment we may not be able to see it, the source of our anguish stems from the two sides of our self.
Separating Our I From Our Me
The sociologist George Herbert Mead ( 2015) argued that our sense of self is not something we are born with, but rather it is something created by interacting with others. At birth we have no sense of self; we have no ability to distinguish ourselves from those around us. Our parents and other caregivers teach us that we have a name and act as if we are a unique person, distinct from the rest of society. After enough social interaction and time for our brains to cognitively develop, we learn to see ourselves as a person that is a part of a community, but separate from it. This is what Mead called our I.
A person’s I is the part of their sense of self that is the active doer in the moment. For instance, at this very moment, I am sitting in my office looking at my computer screen with my fingers dancing across my keyboard as I watch these words appear before me. With an I a person can perceive the world around them from behind their eyes, but nothing more beyond that. Even with a fully developed I we cannot yet understand how others see us.
“You can’t see me!” My two-year-old shouted at me with her hands covering her eyes. My little girl had developed her sense of I. She knew that she had a perspective on the world, but she hadn’t yet learned that everyone else had a perspective on the world as well. Therefore, when she covered her eyes, she concluded that the entire universe had also gone dark.
Eight years old now, my daughter understands that other people see the world from a perspective that is different from hers. She understands that others can see her and will judge her actions. Before she acts, she takes into consideration what her parents, friends, and teachers will think of her. For Mead, this would be evidence that my daughter has developed he me.
Our me is the sense of our self that we gain from interacting with others. If I am who I perceive myself as, then me is who I think others perceive me as.
How Our I Can Damage Our Me
Now that we understand Mead’s theory, let’s take another look at our original statement: “I can’t believe what I did last night: what will people think of me?” Here, our internal monolog is wrestling with how the actions of our I in the moment last night, will affect other’s perceptions of us (aka our me). In these scenarios, we fear that our I has irrevocably damaged our me.
While everyone has said or done something they later regretted, alcohol often plays a role in many of these, “what will people think of me” mornings. This makes sense if we think about how drinking alcohol affects our behavior. When we drink too much, our brain functioning is altered and our inhibitions are lowered [Dubowski 1980]. But, what exactly are inhibitions?
From a sociological point of view, our inhibitions are a form of social control. When sober, we inhibit or restrain ourselves from doing things that we’d enjoy, but would have social consequences. In other words, our inhibitions are society’s controlling influence on our behavior. When a person drinks too much, they indulge their I without a care in the world for how their me will be affected.
While we say, “I can’t believe what I did last night: what will people think of me?” to a sociologist’s ear that phrase sounds like, “I can’t believe that I indulged my individual desires last night: how will this change others perceptions of me?”
- Describe the differences between Mead’s I and me and give an example (not discussed in this article) of how our I can affect our me.
- If our me is the version of ourselves that we perceive from the interactions we have with others, then what happens if someone is bad at picking up social cues? For instance, what happens if someone believes that everyone around them thinks they are ____, but in reality everyone thinks the opposite?
- How do we shape others perceptions of us, or put another way, how do we influence the me we see in the eyes of those around us?
- If you were stranded on an island all by yourself, would you have inhibitions? Would you restrain yourself from indulging your individual wants and desires? What does this tell us about the connection between inhibitions and society?
- Dubowski, Kurt M. 1980. “Alcohol Determination in the Clinical Laboratory.” American Journal of Clinical Pathology 74(5):747–50.
- Mead, George Herbert. 2015. Mind, Self, and Society: The Definitive Edition. Annotated edition. edited by H. Joas, D. R. Huebner, and C. W. Morris. Chicago ; London: University Of Chicago Press.
For the rest of this article, I’ll italicize the words I and me whenever I am referring to Mead’s concepts of the same name. That way we won’t confuse Mead’s concepts for the general meaning of both words. ↩
I hope this goes without saying but, drinking alcohol or lowering your inhibitions in any other way does not justify or excuse any harmful behavior you may engage in. ↩