Symbolic Self Completion and the drive for social acknowledgement.
Have you ever come across the person who feels the need to tell you about their latest interest with such ferocity it feels like they are trying to recruit you? Of course you have. We all have. If we are honest with ourselves, chances are we’ve been a version of this person at some stage.
What you are experiencing in these moments is a person engaging in what Robert Wickland and Peter Gollswitzer termed Symbolic Self-Completion. In simple terms symbolic self completion involves someone self defining as something (musician, bilingual, intellectual, artistic, vegan) and then engaging the use of indicators identifiable by others as progress or achievement of this self definition. For example, wishing to be identified as an intellectual so seeking a job that others would identify as the realm of the intellectual, or completing a degree in a field identifiable as an intellectual pursuit.
All this seems in the realm of normal human behaviour. The interesting part about the Symbolic Self Completer is their behaviour involves actively attempting to influence others (positioning self as expert), and repeated discussion of their own performance in their chosen area with others. Even more interesting is that the less experience, success or confidence the person has in their chosen area of self definition, the more inclined they are to try to influence others. Basically, less competence = louder yelling of your point.
People are so incredibly fascinating.
We do all engage in this behaviour on a continuum of harmless play with identifiers to raging obsessives. The rampant materialism of our society makes it very easy for us to find identifiers we can use to sell a preferred version of ourselves to others. But what makes the Symbolic Self Completer different and so very intriguing, is that they often take it to the level of self definition without the actual backup. In the words of Wickland and Gollwitzer:
‘A central observation to be made about the human, within the context of a notion of self-completion, is that very central flaws in the person’s training or performance are “covered over” by what we shall call self-symbolizing behaviors. It also follows from the idea…that a person who currently possesses numerous, durable indicators of competence is unlikely to engage in self-symbolizing actions’
The real intellectual knows they are intellectually gifted, and doesn’t need you to confirm this for them. The musician who is a genuinely competent musician knows this to be true and doesn’t require others to call them a musician to feel this about themselves. The Symbolic Self Completer does not feel confident in their self definition until it is socially recognised. The definition is reliant on external input.
People engaged in Symbolic Self Completion thrive in the current world. A world where we love nothing more than the entertainer and wait until the last minute to ask if they are really qualified to talk on a topic, if we bother asking at all. As long as they say all the right things in a way that makes sense to us we go along for the ride. We respond all too quickly to the loudest voice in the room and reward it with the acknowledgement it seeks.
But they are socially defined. At the core of their being is a sense of lacking that they try to fill with an externally controlled identity. This is insecurity in action. And if they are unable to convince others of their competence in one field, or they do not get the success they wanted, they will abandon it for another. I bet you can think of at least one person in your social realm who is guilty of jumping from one intense focus to another. They are the ones always on the look out for a way to impress and influence. Knowing they can do something isn’t enough, they need you to know they know it too.
Worse though is when they find success. There they dig into this successful self definition in a way that reduces their ability to grow in behavioural competence, causes intensity in expression that is exclusionary and allows them to develop a level of social rigidity that limits their interpersonal relationships. Or, in other words, they become extremely annoying to all but those who share their area of self definition, and occasionally even to those people as well.
The identity of the Symbolic Self Completer is entirely dependent on social recognition. In this day and age the tendency to prioritise the ways others view us over our own internalised sense of self is leading to an undeniable rise in this curious human behaviour. With the capacity of the Symbolic Self- Completer to now get online and find a community who can reward their efforts without exposure to the reality of their existence there are also less checks and balances in place to mediate the intensity once success is found.
When Wickland and Gollwitzer wrote their book way back in 1982 they had no idea of the world that was coming. As with all great psychological concepts it has not only stood the test of time, but has now found itself in a world rife with examples they could only have dreamed of 37 years ago.