Looking Glass Self

The staging and pre-service training (PST) portions of my Peace Corps experience have been extremely busy. Since our arrival in Miami, for a short but sweet staging, we have had our plates full with discussion, group work, paperwork and individual reflection. Lucky for us, each day has been insightful and encouraging. I’ve been a part of a lot of bureaucratic/institutional trainings and they are not all like this. The Peace Corps staff we have the opportunity to work with are really special. They are passionate, qualified and energetic teachers. So, many thanks to the PC Peru staff, both within the U.S. and in-country!

Perhaps some of my favorite exercises and discussions I’ve participated in, both in staging and PST, have dealt with topics of self-identity. In staging we were instructed to construct an identity map. This is a graphic heuristic where one places themselves (their name) in the middle of a sheet of paper. Growing outwards from the center are additional lines all connected to more bubbles. The idea is to fill these bubbles with aspects or characteristics that construct their identity. Once completed, an identity map’s true potency is revealed, elucidating the intersectionality and complexity of one’s identity.


When we completed this exercise in staging, we had a blank sheet of paper and plenty of room to list out the myriad elements that coalesce to construct our identity. My identity map consisted of things like (in no important order): vegan/veggie, bi-lingual, spiritual, mid-twenties, extrovert, master’s student, coach, American, soccer player, rock climber, white, younger brother, symbolically ethnic, son, upper class, heterosexual, male, skier, poet, mindful, community developer and good listener. These were all things, at the time, that resonated with the identity I held and was projecting. We then were instructed to share these maps with a partner, and talk about which facets of our identity we thought were going to be easy to maintain during our service in Peru and which we were going to struggle with. I was glad to have a thoughtful conversation with a fellow trainee, Joe, who helped me unpack a bit more the complexities embedded within a person identity.

Today in PST, during a discussion about diversity, we were instructed to construct another identity map. I remember thinking, ‘oh, here we go again’, because after all, we were all pros with identity maps right? Enlightened, self-aware, soon-to-be Peace Core volunteers, no doubt.

Our instructor, Miryam, made it clear that she understood the fact that we already made a map in staging. Nonetheless, she wanted us to make a new one, but this time, with a few stipulations. After doling out sheets of paper, this time with only 8 bubbles in which to fill, she left us to our own creative devices; subsuming the infinite facets of our identity on one sheet of paper with 8 bubbles…

After some contemplation I provided these 8 elements of my identity (again in no important order): white, American, athlete, comedic/satirical, writer, male, observer/listener, and minority (in Peru). Already I saw a difference between the map I created in staging, and the map I currently had in my hands. After finishing the first version of our map, we then were instructed to cross out 3 of the 8 elements.  I eliminated: American, comedic/satirical, and athlete. We then were instructed to cross out two more. I chose: white, and male. Finally, with the three remaining elements, which for me were writer, observer/listener, and minority (in Peru), we were told to switch maps with a partner, and without talking, eliminate the two least important facets of each other’s identity. Much to my satisfaction, and thanks to the careful contemplation of another trainee, Lesia, the last portion of my identity standing was: observer/listener.

Seeing the evolution of my identity map was a valuable experience. One that I will more than likely repeat throughout my service. I appreciated these exercises for their ability to elucidate a few important points:

  • The Fluidity of Identity: Self-identity is highly dynamic. It changes with the context in which it exists. For me, the identity I shared in staging was different than the identity I shared in PST because of the setting. I shared more of my identity not only because I had unlimited space, but also because I identified with different elements, each with varying intensity, that construct myself.
    Just a few weeks later my identity shifted. Some elements were replicated while others were brand new or generalized into a broader concept. What I shared in PST was specific to my identity in Peru. Each element I shared had more importance now that the self had been moved to a different country. Charged with crossing out elements, my identity continued to shift. I had to contemplate which were most important, or more potent; which facets of self I wanted to preserve and which I was willing to let go. It was interesting for me to be left with observer/listener, a choice made by a fellow trainee. Which leads me to my next reflection.
  • The Looking Glass Self: How much of our identity is actually chosen by us? Are we really fully in control of the identity we project? Charles H. Cooley makes a point that perhaps we are not. Cooley contemplates the role of other people in the construction of self-identity; our family, friends, co-workers. The looking glass self is the idea that our identity, in large part, is constructed based on what other people perceive of us. By looking through the looking glass of other people, we see ourselves. Therefore, identity, or self, is the product of seeing ourselves as others do. This idea especially resonated with me because of the fact that Lesia chose for me, the last aspect of my identity. If I had given my map to Lesia right away, would she have written similar identity characteristics?
    I, in part, agree with Cooley. His thoughts on self-identity are extremely important for a lot of psychology and sociology. Our identities are no doubt constructed on the basis of what others see, as well as how the cultural context in which it is being seen. I would however, like to reserve some autonomy over the process, and believe that although parts of our identity are loaned to us from other things or people, we still get to choose and foster facets of the self that are most important to us.
  • Thoughts for Future Self: How will my identity change throughout the two years of my service? More specifically, what aspects of my identity will be reinforced throughout my service? What aspects of my identity will be left behind?