Systems Theory and The Exploration of Individuality
How do you define yourself? Who we are extends into our past, our values and the phases of development that have constituted our evolution of self. Identity has been defined through numerous lenses, from the groups we belong to and the roles we play, to a knitting of past experiences with future aspirations. I am going to break down the way a person’s identity is constantly dynamic, as it incorporates large and small changes through time, through a systems theory lens.
Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs states that human beings’ motivations fall into three categories of increasing importance. The first and most important motive is safety, or survival. Collecting enough resources, especially to maintain a surplus, ensuring a shelter is available and, taking care of emergency health situations are all examples of what this need might look like. If a human has all of these immediate survival problems taken care of, they can then move onto slightly less urgent concerns: finding and maintaining belonging; This can be anything from family, a romantic partner, or a community. When an individual is secure in these two aspects of their life, they have the freedom to move onto self-actualization, which can be expressed more diversely than the previous two.
My theory is based off of this basic assumption that human beings are never free from some type of motivation, or forward movement towards some ideal or goal - even if it simply comes down to finding dinner for one night. If a person has found the energy to secure themselves enough food, water, clothing, and shelter to sustain themselves, and still has excess energy, they might engage with their community or group of people that they feel they have a place in. If they don’t use their excess energy to advance themselves towards their next goal, my theory is that this energy can manifest in either an addiction that distracts the person from the work that their psychological makeup needs from them (whether it be finding other human beings to relate to/combat isolation, or finding meaningful work, or reaching a personal goal) or it manifests as an illness that points to this same work.
Oftentimes, these signals are difficult to interpret without making mistakes and changing direction. We may put up resistance to a change that we know needs to be made or choose to dwell in ignorance of a motivation that is consistently expressing its needs. Some life experiences result in an overwhelming push in a totally different direction, taking a considerable amount of time to entirely adjust to.
In viewing a human being as a system, it’s helpful to look at a larger system to compare similar processes of transition. Generally speaking, the more complex, or interconnected, the system, the more resilient it is to being destroyed by stressors, environmental shifts, or disturbances. A single tree in a city block is more prone to degradation from pollution than a forest, yet both are examples of systems that function autonomously, as a gestalt of the smaller organisms that constitute them. When a forest encounters a disturbance with a significant impact, the forest will incorporate this disturbance in phases. This process usually looks something like: a period of destruction, followed by local reintegration, and finally the system completely reintegrating. The first phase involves the disturbance making its impact on the existing system, which often bleeds into the next. Local reintegration occurs when the assemblages of the forest, or species that coexist symbiotically together within the larger system, repair their relationships around the disturbance. After the assemblages have fully reincorporated themselves, the system is complete again, but relatively different from before. Systems have the ability to adapt and change constantly, in a world of flux.
For a human being, my theory will focus on the systematic changes of identity that occur when individuals find a disturbance within their self-actualization. Disturbances can originate from a person holding values, of almost equal importance, that are in conflict with each other. The disturbance may play out in quitting a job, ending a relationship, moving, and other significant changes to aspects of life that are usually constant. Oftentimes, before or after the individual has addressed the conflict in their life, they will go through a period of redefinition -- exploring, and even experimenting, with their concept of self. This may be intentional or unconscious.
Perhaps an individual is pursuing the goal of buying a newer, better house by working a job with a considerable salary, but doing something that they ethically do not agree with. Herein, we have a disturbance that may manifest in some type of illness or otherwise, indulgence in an addiction that puts this disturbance out of the person’s mind. This person will next experience the destruction of self that this disturbance is causing, as they confront more and more cognitive dissonance towards working the job that they abhor. As the person grapples for their identity, they may test their boundaries, behaving differently from what is usual for them. This may look like taking risks, interacting differently with people in their community (as well as strangers), jeopardizing what they worked very hard to achieve, adorning themselves differently/cultivating a different appearance, taking less care of their body, and otherwise testing their normal limits, so as to get a better grasp of who they are. If the structure causing the disturbance is more intricately incorporated into the system, it will be more resilient to change. For example, Jasmonic Acid is released by some plants when an animal starts to feed on it. This compound saturates the aerial parts of the plant that are exposed, deterring the animal from further consumption while also beginning to repair the damaged foliage. However, this powerful response also causes a decrease in the plant’s ability to regrow, because the plant’s stress levels are peaking. This destructive response to a disturbance, as part of the remedying process, mirrors that of a full forest’s response as well as a single human’s response to a disturbance in their life.
As the destructive phase is still playing out, the new system has already started to progress. This new system may not be very different at all from the last one, in that the system might simply out the disturbance and return to usual. In other circumstances, it may take much more time to reintegrate all the aspects of self. Think wiping out a marriage, vs ending a 1 month relationship. Identity can become rooted in the community a person finds acceptance in - especially when that community falls into the category of family.
The way you conceptualize yourself involves levels of seeing who you are as permanent in some way. Maybe you view your body as something static, that will never change -- even though you know that in enough time you will grow older and age will show in your skin and face. Perhaps you deal with mental/emotional states now that you unconsciously believe you will always have to deal with. In reality, our bodies and minds are constantly changing in discreet ways that we generally are not aware of. The environment that we live in is always changing similarly; we are a small assemblage of the environment that we exist in and we are always influencing each other, just as the small organisms that make us up work together to continually produce the relatively stable human being that we call ourselves.