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What About Me?: The Struggle for Identity in a Market-Based Society

What About Me?: The Struggle for Identity in a Market-Based Society

by Paul Verhaeghe

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According to current thinking, anyone who fails to succeed must have something wrong with them. The pressure to achieve and be happy is taking a heavy toll, resulting in a warped view of the self, disorientation, and despair. Today’s pay-for-performance mentality is turning institutions such as schools, universities, and hospitals into businesses, while


According to current thinking, anyone who fails to succeed must have something wrong with them. The pressure to achieve and be happy is taking a heavy toll, resulting in a warped view of the self, disorientation, and despair. Today’s pay-for-performance mentality is turning institutions such as schools, universities, and hospitals into businesses, while individuals are being made to think of themselves as one-person enterprises. Love is increasingly hard to find, and we struggle to lead meaningful lives. In What about Me?, Paul Verhaeghe’s main concern is how social change has led to this psychic crisis and altered the way we think about ourselves. He investigates the effects of 30 years’ acceptance of neoliberalism, free-market forces, and privatization, and the resulting relationship between our engineered society and individual identity. From his clinical experience as a psychotherapist, Verhaeghe shows the profound impact that social change is having on mental health, even to the extent of affecting the nature of the disorders from which we suffer.

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"A remarkable book … What About Me? The Struggle for Identity in a Market-Based Society is one of those books that, by making connections between apparently distinct phenomena, permits sudden new insights into what is happening to us and why." —George Monbiot, The Guardian

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What About Me?

The Struggle for Identity in a Market-Based Society

By Paul Verhaeghe, Jane Hedley-Prôle

Scribe Publications Pty Ltd

Copyright © 2012 Paul Verhaeghe
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-922072-94-8



In recent years, the discussion about identity has flared up nearly everywhere in Europe. The then princess Máxima, the wife of the Dutch crown prince, got into hot water when she made the claim, in 2007, that there was no such thing as a Dutch identity. The True Finns are the third-largest party in the Finnish parliament. Belgium is being torn apart by Flemish nationalism, and elsewhere in Europe nationalist political groups are gaining ground. There is a straightforward explanation: confrontation with different identities, in the form of immigrants and asylum-seekers, and thus confrontation with different norms and values, creates uncertainty. Identity is not the abstract quality we vaguely assume it to be: we determine our identity by placing it alongside and, increasingly, contrasting it with other possible identities.

Whereas identity used to be informed by predominantly local stereotypes (as in, Belgians versus the Dutch, or the English versus the Scots), current stereotypes have become globalised and socioeconomic: it's now the indigenous population versus ethnic minorities, 'our' Judaeo-Christian culture versus 'backward' Islam, or the 'hard-working middle classes' versus 'scroungers'.

The various stereotypes have one thing in common: they serve to make us feel superior. We are more civilised, more intelligent, work harder, and so on. In the mid-20th century, the Germans looked down on the Untermenschen, the Japanese looked down on the Chinese, the French looked down on the Maghrebis — the list is endless. Such classifications are almost always linked to external characteristics (such as skin colour, physique, and clothing), which can then be deployed in a naïve debate on integration, culminating in proposals to ban headscarves (or in imposing a 'head-rag tax', as suggested by the populist Dutch politician Geert Wilders). Conversely, if the differences aren't sufficiently visible, we fix that (by demanding the wearing of a Star of David, or the bearing of passports stating the holder's race). The importance we attach to these external characteristics is a measure of our own uncertainty: remove them, and the distinctions become practically invisible. Identity is internal.

This makes it a lot harder to study; we really want to see those differences. In the present age, when explanations for all human behaviour are sought in the interplay of genes and neurons, one might expect to look there for more light to be shed on the internal aspects of identity. As usual, we forget that this was tried a century ago, using craniometry — measuring skull circumference and capacity — to establish nice, clear distinctions between races and their identities. A taboo now lies on such research, a legacy of fascism, when Nazi scientists attempted to define 'race' along such lines. Whatever the case, the conviction that identity can be found somewhere inside us has proved to be extremely persistent.

I take a completely different view. If we want to understand the nature of identity, we need to approach it by a different route; not in the timeless depths of our genes and brains, but in the flickering screen of the outside world, which acts as a constant mirror of identity. So the best thing is to start with the equally timeless question of who we really are.

Who am I?

Gnothi seauton, know thyself. This command was inscribed above the Temple of Apollo in Delphi, whose priestess, Pythia, was famous for her prophecies. Since the days when people flocked to consult the Delphic oracle, we have never stopped looking for our own inner core. We may have replaced the priestesses and soothsayers of ancient times with psychologists and, more recently, neuroscientists, but their answers, too, remain unsatisfying. This quest reveals a curious paradox: on the one hand, we cherish the conviction that our self always existed and will always exist; at the same time, we need to consult someone else, preferably an expert, to find out what 'really' makes us tick.

That we have an eternal, unchanging self is extremely debatable; the fact that we turn to someone else in our search for it is, by contrast, extremely plausible. Our identity is not an immutable core hidden away in the depths of our being. It is, rather, a collection of ideas that the outside world has inscribed on our bodies. Identity is a construction, and that can be proved by something closely resembling a scientific experiment: adoption. Take an Indian baby from the Rajasthan village of her birth, have her brought up in Amsterdam, and she will acquire the identity of an Amsterdammer. But if you entrust her instead to a couple from Paris, she will become a Parisienne. If, when she grows up, she goes in search of what she thinks of as her roots, she is going to be disillusioned: they simply don't exist, and in the country of her birth she's likely to find that she's just as alien as any other woman from Amsterdam or Paris. More alien, in fact, because her appearance (skin colour, hair) suggests a bond with the local people that isn't there. We must conclude from this that our psychological identity is shaped by our surroundings. If 'I' had grown up in a different culture with parents belonging to that culture, then 'I' would have been completely different.

Identity has more to do with becoming than with being, and it's a process that starts right from birth. All over the world it follows the same pattern, pointing to a genetic basis. It used to be called identification; since the discovery of mirror neurons, the preferred term is 'mirroring'. The earliest stages of this process are plain: a baby cries because of its wet nappy, and, as if by magic, Mummy appears. She makes comforting noises and asks, 'Do you need a clean nappy then?' She talks to the baby in a special, high-pitched voice, and exaggerates her facial expressions. The importance of this simple interaction, repeated in a hundred different ways, is enormous. We learn what we are feeling and, more generally, who we are, by the other showing us. And we almost all develop an intimate conviction that someone else will come and solve our problems — because that's what used to happen, right? Reaching maturity involves letting go of this conviction; yet when we're exposed to acute pain, or danger, we still spontaneously call for Mummy. Not for nothing is separation anxiety, the fear that the other person will abandon us, our oldest fear, just as the oldest punishment is to be banished from the group, to be put in the corner with one's back to the others — the didactic precursor of banishment.

Moving on from hunger and nappies, the messages from caregivers to children soon become much more complex and wide-ranging. We are told continually from our infancy what we feel, why we feel it, and how we should or shouldn't deal with these feelings. We hear that we are good or naughty, beautiful or ugly, as stubborn as Granny, or as clever as Daddy. At the same time, we're told what we can and can't do with our bodies and those of others ('Sit still for once!', 'Leave your little brother alone!', 'No, you can't have a piercing!'). All this combines to define who we are, who we should be, and who we should not be. And the point of departure is still the body, around which the other (for example, parents and society) drapes these different layers of meaning.

Described in this way, the construction of our identity sounds both simple and incredible. If that was all there was to it, we would all become what our environment dictated, and wouldn't be able to influence this process at all. And that's obviously not the case: right from the start, our identity is a balance of tensions; we are torn between the urge to merge with and the urge to distance ourselves from the other. That's because, alongside and intermingled with the initial process of identification or mirroring, there is also a second process at work: a striving for autonomy, and thus for separation from the other.

In that first process, we assimilate the messages of the other, both the positive ('You're so patient!') and the negative ('You're so slow!'), so that they become part of our identity. We become identical with them, in a very literal sense. We correspond with the message that comes from the other. Identity and identification have the same etymology, deriving from idem, Latin for 'equal'.

This contrasts with the second process — a desire to be separate, to be distant from the other, to resist and reject those messages. And this opposing urge is accompanied by a fear that the other is treading too close on our heels, perhaps even creeping under our skin and, as it were, taking us over. This fear of intrusion — meaning 'to thrust in' — is the inversion of the original separation anxiety, when we wanted to be as close to the other as possible.

Separation and the corresponding quest for autonomy are as important for our identity as identification because they allow us to develop an individuality through opposition. This process starts quite early on. Every parent is familiar with the 'terrible twos', that phase when a toddler starts to be difficult and to show its own will ('Don't want!'). It's no coincidence that this happens when he or she simultaneously discovers two new words: 'no' and 'me'. This resistance flares up again during puberty, in all its hormonal intensity, this time accompanied by the illusion of independence ('I'll decide that myself!'). At this stage, it amounts to opting for alternative constructions of the self, and thus for different identification. Identity is always the temporary product of the interplay between merging and establishing a distance.

The mirror that our environment holds up to us determines who we become. Of course, this process doesn't just happen automatically; it can only work properly if the other views us with the eye of love. It's no coincidence that the philosopher Hegel traced the origin of self-consciousness back to the gaze of the other. It is through that gaze, monitoring or loving, that we know that we exist. The word 'respect' is very important here: it literally means 'the act of looking back at', re-spicere. A child who does not grow up under a loving gaze and who experiences only indifference is cast adrift: it has no foundations on which to build. Only when a child is loved and supported can it grow up to become a stable individual. The Flemish and Dutch words for 'to love' reveal two significant aspects of this process. The former, graag zien ('to see gladly'), shows the importance of the gaze; the latter, houden van ('to hold'), the crucial nature of care.

To put it another way: we don't automatically assimilate words and ideas. For that to happen a certain relationship is needed, which comes down to a mixture of love and hate. Freud shows how those two are intertwined: we want to merge with the person we love ('I could eat you up!'), but we're also sometimes fed up with them. At such times we not only refuse to take the other's lead, but we actively reject them ('You make me sick!').

These two fundamental tendencies would seem to be typical of every living being: we want to be part of the greater whole, and at the same time we long for independence. As far back as the fifth century BC, the Greek philosopher Empedocles wrote of two elemental powers that held universal sway: Philia, Love, and Neikos, Strife. Freud saw these as two primal urges: the life instinct, Eros, which seeks to dissolve in love, and the death drive, Thanatos, which aggressively seeks separation. Sameness and difference, in other words.

What about me?

The latter drive, the urge for autonomy, is nowadays regarded as a desirable, even necessary characteristic. Dependence is spineless; you must make your mark, stand up for yourself, do your own thing. Whenever I lecture on identity and mirroring, my listeners invariably protest. I have a self, don't I? I'm different from my brother, even though we had the same upbringing. I'm not at all like my colleague, yet we grew up in the same culture. How do you explain that? And what about heredity? What about genes? Why don't you talk about that? Surely our brains determine who we are?

Leaving aside for a moment the inherent contradiction in these two arguments ('I am original and make my own choices' versus 'I am the product of my brain and genes'), I shall first examine the current conviction that genes and the brain determine practically everything about us, including who we are. There can be no doubt that the human brain is the most typical feature of Homo sapiens. One of its main characteristics is neuroplasticity — that is, the ability to alter in response to certain environmental factors. This trait has greatly contributed to humanity's success as a species: put us in just about any environment, and our ability to adapt will enable us to survive. Studies show that the brain is far from 'finished' at birth; it still needs to develop in many ways, with environmental factors playing a decisive role in this process.

If we apply this to psychological identity, it seems logical that the brain structures which are largely in place at birth (the hardware) determine the process whereby our identity (the software) is built up. Without mirror neurons, identification can't take place, but what is mirrored depends on our environment. Moreover, that environment has a very demonstrable effect on the physical development of the brain, which goes on for years after birth. Your brain is important for your identity, but its content is provided by the outside world.

The only correct scientific conclusion is that we are the product of constant interaction between our brains — or, more broadly, our starter kit of genes, neurons, and hormones — and our environment. And, right from birth, it's very hard to distinguish the contribution made by nature from that of nurture. Even brain structures can be modified by external factors. In the final analysis, claims such as 'we are our brains' mean the same thing as 'we are the product of interaction between body and environment', but that's somewhat too nuanced a concept for this day and age.

In a previous book, I discussed the current tendency to ascribe everything to physiological causes, with the emphasis on genes and the brain. It offers a handy excuse in the event that we go off the rails — it succeeds the 'unhappy childhood' argument as a way of excusing deviant behaviour. Such excuses are indeed all too easily made, but this should not prevent us from posing a different question: why is it that now, apparently more than ever, we so very much want to be absolved of blame? In other words, why, as soon as something goes wrong, do we somehow feel accused? I shall come back to this later, when I discuss the modern myth of the perfectible individual, with the crushing responsibility that this implies.

So 'we are our brains' doesn't entirely exclude external influence, but what about our genes? Our environment can't change them, except on an evolutionary timescale, which takes centuries at the very least. Here, too, the scientific picture is much more nuanced than people tend to think. External factors can, for instance, affect gene expression — a field known as epigenetics. Moreover, the link between genes and behaviour is extremely complex, though you'd never guess this from the newspapers. Hardly a day goes by without a jubilant announcement suggesting a direct connection between genes and traits or conditions ('Gene for autism finally discovered!'). One gene gives you brown eyes; another, blonde hair; and yet another, schizophrenia — they are a hand of cards that determine your luck. In reality, things are somewhat less clear-cut. And when it comes to complex phenomena, a more-or-less direct causality — in, say, the case of eye colour — is completely lacking.

Take that most studied of psychiatric disorders, schizophrenia. Current thinking is that it has a hereditary component involving a combination of at least ten genes. The presence of that combination increases the risk of this severe psychiatric disorder by 15–20 per cent; the rest is down to external factors, one of the most important of which is being born in and growing up in a big city.

Applying this to our identity, I believe that genes can be seen as the hardware that determines and limits our software; the specific content of that software is another issue. As far as identity is concerned, the most important factor in the genetic hardware is, without doubt, language, which typifies human beings. We know that the ability to acquire language is innate, but interaction and imitation are crucial: children who grow up in isolation do not learn to speak. The language a child learns depends entirely on its environment. Moreover, the specific nature of that language (each having untranslatable concepts, from Weltanschauung to joie de vivre) and the way that language is used in the family in which a child grows up will strongly colour its thinking, including the way the child thinks about itself. Take the fact that various non-Western languages have no equivalent for the word 'individual' or 'personality': this ensures a completely different context when growing up and acquiring an identity.


Excerpted from What About Me? by Paul Verhaeghe, Jane Hedley-Prôle. Copyright © 2012 Paul Verhaeghe. Excerpted by permission of Scribe Publications Pty Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Paul Verhaeghe is a senior professor at Ghent University and is the chair of the department for psychoanalysis and counseling psychology. He has published eight books, including Love in a Time of Loneliness.

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