Tues, 22nd October 2019

The Cult of Self

Text by: 

Louise Strange

Photo by: 
Mathieu Stern on Unsplash

The world is drowning in labels: astrological signs, Myers-Briggs personality types, enneagrams. Western society is being inundated by a deluge of categorizations for every facet of human experience. We even find it in the buzzwords constantly found in US media today: selfcare, personal health, focus on myself. It all comes back to this intense focus on one’s own person.

We seek so much to find the perfect categorizations of every aspect of life, yearn for the perfect combination of names that will become our own individual self: a type A, INFJ, year of the rat, Scorpio sun, Aquarius moon, Pisces rising. It is almost as if these broad generalizations of who we are, are in the end meant to become the best descriptor of an individual – as if, with enough labels, we create an eclectic enough mix that no two people have the same.

And the media never fails to deliver – every day, it feels as if a new type of classification for humanity is discovered, whether that be a shift in where the astrological signs fall, or a new, more accurate quiz that can classify more people in a more personalized manner.

But where did this acute focus come from? At what point did people begin to demand a more specific generalization for one’s own identity? Perhaps one could say it has its roots in the standards of Western, or at least US childhood – in the participation trophies, the new social medias that demand a performance of what life is meant to be like. We were raised to give a show, to be valued for our own individual actions, and in this, became slaves to this ceaseless onslaught of Buzzfeed quizzes and personality tests.

Maybe the origin lies in the cult of ownership arising from the increasing materialism of Western culture. Every aspect of life is personalised by phone cases, bumper stickers, laptop cases. Objects are turned into subjective spaces for a manifestation of our own selves – which of course presents no problem, but perhaps it feeds into the need for self-expression and self-definition.

This is also where the paradox of this cult of self lies – we are demanded to be individuals, and yet the way in which we achieve our own individualism is through broad categorizations. In choosing to labels ourselves as Sagittarii, we are deciding that our core personality can be pared down to the same as one twelfth of the human population. Or we are turning rather fluid scales, such as that of how much one enjoys the company of people, into black-and-white binaries: introvert vs. extrovert.

That isn’t to say there is no value in these broad categorizations. As with anything, generalizing can help immensely in recognizing how best to interact with a person. Perhaps not with a Buzzfeed quiz on what kind of soup you are, but for Myers-Briggs tests or enneagrams, these can help others recognize in basic terms how you respond to other people, help, or leadership. They can give pointers in what generally is a bad or good idea with friends or family.

These products of the obsession with self have left a net good, in that they make understanding other a little better. But they are still not a complete picture of the self, or the individual.

In essence, we are asking to be defined by generalizations, to find enough overlaps in the Venn diagram to create one very specific individual. But what we forget in all of these is that these tests are only telling us things that we already know about ourselves. We are asking for all these labels, when in reality, the best way of expressing who you are to somebody else is simply to be with them.