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“I” and “Me”: Balancing Self-Perception and External Influences

Man looking at reflection in water.

“Don’t take things personally”

Have you ever stopped to ponder the meaning behind the phrase, “Don’t take things personally”? For most of my life, I accepted this advice from caring friends or family members without truly understanding the implications of such a statement. It wasn’t until my first year of college that I began to reflect on the profound complexity of what it means to take something personally. As a freshman, I was inspired by the seemingly endless social potential of meeting people and experiencing exciting things. I endeavored to extend my social circle, explore the various parts of campus, and participate in the many organizations and clubs that comprised the campus community. With this zeal for social opportunities, I began to realize the implications of such a way of life. The more time I spent interacting with others, the more I associated my own value with their perceptions of me. At first, it was exciting to feel appreciated and valued, but throughout the year, I gradually lost sight of myself in the eyes of others. 

The “I” and the “Me”

During this same year, I took a sociology course that included work from an American philosopher named George Herbert Mead. His work centered on distinguishing between the “I” and the “Me”, and upon learning of this distinction, I began to fervently research the concept. I learned that there’s a mechanism inside of us that allows for a dissociation between “I” and “me”. The “I” is the initiator of action and gives an individual a sense of freedom and spontaneity. In turn, the “me” is created as a result of self-reflection and observation. When you think of yourself as “me”, it follows that this aspect of your identity is also observable by the rest of society. Everyone you come into contact with views the “me” aspect of your identity. From this vantage point, there are two potential types of “me” to consider: the “me” that you see and the “me” that others see.

I quickly realized that this concept could be applied to my own life, and I was inspired to analyze the ways in which I could help myself by recontextualizing how I viewed myself. I resolved to focus on the distinction between the two types of “me”: the personal “me” and the social “me”. My identity was constantly evolving and adapting to the projected responses and judgments of others around me. I perceived myself through a new lens that was clouded by external influences. I took things so personally that I began to alter my own perceptions of myself. As a result of social conditioning, I placed great importance on the ways in which my internalized “me” was failing to meet the standard set upon my social “me”. 

I attempted to take self-inventory and questioned whether this version of myself was merely an attempt to mirror the projections of others’ beliefs and ideals. Furthermore, I wondered if this version of “me” had any consistent characteristics or if it was constantly adapting to meet externalized expectations? 

Finding Balance

Towards the end of my freshman year, I circled back to my original question regarding the meaning behind the phrase “Don’t take things personally”. I then understood that I had overlooked the basic principle behind this piece of advice. I had taken things so personally that I began to alter my own sense of self, and as a result, I had mirrored parts of my internal world to match the external world. At that moment I truly understood the importance of maintaining a distinction between the internalized “me” and externalized “me” and creating a proper balance between these two aspects. 

 From this understanding, I still acknowledge the importance of my social experiences in shaping me into who I am today, but I also remember to take thoughtful inventory each day in order to remain true to myself. This realignment of my daily thoughts and actions requires a great degree of patience and understanding, but from my personal experience, I more fully understand the liberation and benefit that comes with not taking things personally.

Delaney Falskin photo

Hey I’m Delaney! I’m a junior at UCLA studying Psychology, and I am extremely passionate about raising awareness for the importance of mental health. I believe that fostering a community of mutual support can profoundly help to reduce stigma and encourage daily focus on mental well-being.

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