Navigating our identity is cumbersome. We are asked a number of questions at a young age that are meant to define us: are you a boy or a girl? How old are you? What do you want to be when you grow up? Where do you live? These questions, and our answers to these questions, undeniably stay with us throughout our lives, no matter how hard we try to define ourselves in alternative ways. But we really shouldn’t be shying away from these questions, because they actually do help define who we are, and help us form our identity. Understanding ourselves as male or female, does not necessarily mean that we have to adhere to societal constructs of what makes someone male or female, but it does help us understand who we are, from a baseline perspective, without which we could not grow and develop. What we will be discussing here is the importance of where we live and the culture that surrounds us.
Where you live is very important for your sense of self. It helps define your socio-economic status, the culture in which you developed, and even your political leanings. How can something as simple as your address define who you are, and have such a significant impact on almost all aspects of your life?
Let us start with the easiest, and most obvious aspect – your socio-economic status. The city in which you live helps define this status, which depends on job availability and accessibility. If you reside in a small town where there are not a great number of job opportunities; there is not a lot of job security, and little to no room for advancement. This lack of security will motivate you to stay in a job where you feel stressed, unmotivated, and exhausted from the amount of effort you exert, and the lack of acknowledgement you receive. There is little to no reciprocity in these kinds of careers. You feel stressed because of a lack of recognition for a job well done, and stressed because the only time you are recognized is when you have made a mistake that damages the company. These positions offer you no room for advancement because your role is to make the company significant amounts of money, while you receive little to no recognition and less than a living wage. This begins a constant cycle of struggling to make enough money to manage your life, feeling stuck in a dead-end job, and feeling no motivation. All of these things combine so you feel stressed constantly, which not only puts strain on you and your mental health, but makes it difficult to have fulfilling relationships because you tend to lash out at others. This may come across as selfish because your needs are not being fulfilled, therefore, you are constantly thinking about your needs and wants and how to fulfill them. Further, you find little to no time for yourself, and you do not have the luxury of an emotional outlet, whether that be a hobby, or a health resource such as a therapist, massage therapist, mindfulness exercises or the like.
On the other hand, those who are in a bigger city tend to have more job opportunities with more room for advancement. It is easy to see that these kinds of positions are the stark opposite of what has just been outlined above. People in these positions feel more at ease, because they are recognized for a job well done, have the opportunity to make more of a contribution, and are offered above a living wage. This leaves these individuals feeling more fulfilled; all of their basic needs have been met, and they have more time to fulfill their relationships, and themselves, through hobbies that they can afford (time and money wise), and emotional outlets. These individuals are more likely to feel a sense of pride, success, and self-esteem than those in lower paying jobs, with no advancement opportunities.
It is easy to see how your socio-economic status contributes to your sense of self. Maslow declared that based on the hierarchy of needs, we are unable to advance beyond our basic needs should they not be met (Maslow, 1943, 1954, 1962).
Here we can see that those in lower socio-economic status groups will be struggling between levels 1 and 2 almost constantly (please refer to figure 1). As you can see, levels 3 and 4 (love/belonging and esteem) are very difficult to achieve should there be other stressors keeping you from advancing. If you are unable to make enough money to buy food, and pay rent, you will be stressed, and more than likely have feelings of worthlessness. These feelings will ruminate, causing somatic symptoms to develop, and individuals to lose sleep. This loss of sleep will cause the individual to become more stressed, which will reflect in every aspect of their lives. They will find it difficult to communicate effectively with others, ultimately pushing others away (including their family and friends) making it difficult to maintain and foster current relationships. This will contribute to a persons feeling of worthlessness, which will lower their self-esteem. We can see how important our socio-economic status is in fostering our sense of self.
Our culture is another significant component in the development of our selves. Heine states that our human activity is wrapped up in cultural meanings; all of our actions and decisions are shaped by our culture (Heine, 2010). There are profound cultural differences things such as the need for self-esteem, approach-avoidance motivations, and perceptions of fairness, (Heine, 2010). Our behaviour is strongly linked to our identity – how we act, the activities we participate in, and who we associate with helps us form our sense of self. Should we be more likely to participate in sports, we will see ourselves as more athletic and we will seek out these sorts of activities. Should we be more likely to attend art galleries, paint, and write we will see ourselves as more artistic and participate in these sorts of activities in the future. The culture in which we live helps us determine the activities we will participate in. although I would like to declare that I am an artist, and I was born with an artist’s soul destined to be attracted to painting and writing; I do not believe this is the case. Perhaps my parents fostered this love in me and to some degree it was innate, but I have been motivated by my culture. Living in Ottawa there was a number of opportunities to foster this part of my self. For instance, there are a number of art galleries, my university has an excellent art history program, and there are a number of businesses which display local art. This undoubtedly motivated me to perform well. In fact there were a number of opportunities to test out new artistic mediums – painting, modeling, poetry, essays. The culture I was living in motivated me, and contributed to my understanding of my self as an artist.
This occurred in more ways than one. It was not simply that the opportunities were there, although that plays a large role, it was also the acceptance and admiration of art in all its forms. As a culture, we admire artists, and their ability to create – these feelings of acceptance and appreciation contribute to our esteem (referring back to Maslow’s hierarchy), as well as our ability to form relationships. As artists we are social creatures, drawn to people and nature, and motivated by the beauty that we see. This culture of acceptance helps us in our understanding of our selves. This does not only apply to artists. It is true for athletes, musicians, doctors, poets – anyone and everyone is influenced by their culture, especially in understanding their self.
If the culture in which we live helps define our sense of self, why is our attachments to hometown felt much more strongly? I believe that this is because we not only form a better understanding of our selves through our culture, but it also makes us feel more connected and rooted. Erich Fromm (Fromm, 1997) postulated eight basic human needs, two of which are rootedness and relatedness. In fact, all eight can be attributed to how connected we feel to our hometowns, but for brevity’s sake, we will focus solely on rootedness and relatedness. Our feelings of rootedness are established early on in our hometowns, and are difficult to sever. We form an intimate bond with the people in our communities, the activities our hometowns offer us, and the culture. We are like trees growing roots, forming bonds and relationships outside of the security of our family unit. This is significant in relation to our selves. We are safe and protected inside our family unit, and to find the same safety and protection outside of our family is just as imperative – because it demonstrates to us that we are able to form important bonds, and that we are able to survive on our own. This rootedness is very closely linked to our relatedness, especially when it comes to forming bonds with other people. When we form bonds with other people in our hometowns, our connection to the actual city grows even stronger. We feel a sense of belonging, and this contributes to our self-esteem, (which, if you remember from figure 1, is essential to our developing self).
What happens when we break up with a city that has been so significant in our development? We do not break down completely, we do not shatter into fragments of our former self, but we do, undoubtedly, become fragmented. A large part of our sense of self, our identity, is this city, this culture into which we have taken root. We have developed in relation to this particular city – we have found who we are in these streets, these trees, and the faces of all the people. To leave is to say goodbye to a part of who you are. That is not to say that we are no longer the person this city helped us become. No, we are still who we have come to know ourselves as, but it is the same as leaving your parent’s home and living on your own for the first time. Just as your parents home acts as a safety, a place to escape to and be your true self, so too is this city.
When we leave, we are severing ties that have been nurtured for years, ties that may never fully break. We will always feel connected to our hometowns, and I think we will always feel a small yearning to be back where we feel we belong the most. It’s where we felt our safest, our most free to express who we are, our most accepted. So when we break up with our city, we are saying goodbye to all of these things. When we move on to the next city, we will try to make the same bonds as we did before, but it will be more difficult. Because when you uproot a tree, its roots don’t grow the same as before.
Fromm, Erich. (1997). On Being Human. London: Continuum.
Heine, S. J. (2010). Cultural Psychology. Handbook of Social Psychology. John Wiley & Sons Inc. chp 37. Pp. 1423-1464.
Heine, S. J., Lehman, D. R., Markus, H. R., & Kitayama, S. (1999). Is there a universal need for positive self – regard? Psychological Review, 106, 766 – 794.
Henrich, J., Boyd, R., Bowles, S., Camerer, C., Fehr, E., Gintis, H., et al. (2005). “Economic man ” in cross – cultural perspective: Behavioral experiments in 15 small- scale societies. Behavioral & Brain Sciences, 28, 795 – 855.
Jung, C.G. (1969). Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious [sic], Collected Works of C.G. Jung, Volume 9 (Part 1), Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.ISBN 978-0-691-09761-9
Lee, A. Y., Aaker, J. L., & Gardner, W. L. (2000). The pleasures and pains of distinct self – construals: The role of interdependence in regulatory focus. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 78, 1122 – 1134.
 When I refer to hometowns, I am not simply referring to a place in which you grew up. I am also referring to the place in which you felt most at home in, the place in which you identify most strongly with.
 The eight basic needs are: relatedness, transcendence, rootedness, sense of identity, frame of orientation, excitation and stimulation, unity and effectiveness.