One of my elderly neighbors, who I will call John, has a degenerative neurological disorder. It has dramatically affected his speech and his ability to walk. His wife confided in me that he really doesn’t like to see people who knew him “before”—and as residents in their home for 45 years, that means many people in our community haven’t been able to see much of John.
Not only has John been struggling with the effects of this disease, but he has been struggling with his sense of self. It is clear from his wife’s observations that he does not want his current condition to change the way people think of him. John’s wife regularly recounts that he was an avid hiker and loved to ride his bike and go camping before this illness, helping to shape others’ perceptions of John. This, unfortunately, has contributed to his sense of isolation.
As George Herbert Mead teaches us, the way we view our identity and ourselves is rooted in the social context. This means that our sense of self is something we negotiate with how we think others perceive us. It doesn’t mean we simply adopt the sense of identity that others may project onto us. Instead, we might take these perceptions into account, even if that means constructing an identity in opposition to how we think others might see us.