Objects and Self-Identity: What Your Possessions Say About You

Some objects are extremely valuable to you. They define your personality and values, and are even capable of weaving a thread with your past. Besides your cell phone, you probably have pieces of clothing, jewelry, or watches that have a great emotional charge.
Objects and Self-Identity: What Your Possessions Say About You
Valeria Sabater

Written and verified by the psychologist Valeria Sabater.

Last update: 21 December, 2022

Certain objects that you own make up an extension of yourself and express your identity. Just as you had your favorite toys as a child, like the teddy bear that you took everywhere with you, in adulthood, you tend to repeat this phenomenon. Maybe you even have some of these items with you now.

Clothes define your own style and way of being. Then, there’s jewelry and watches. Finally, there’s the revered cell phone. The Canadian sociologist, Erving Goffman explained that we need accessories that favor our self-presentation.

Nowadays, your electronic devices are symbols and expressions of yourself. They not only contain details of your life. You not only use them to move around the world, interact, and work. In fact, they also define your status, values, and emotional universe.

Woman smiling with mobile thinking about personality accessories
We’re all closer to certain objects that have a special symbolic meaning for us.

Objects that express your identity

You accumulate a large number of objects throughout your life. Most of them serve their purpose and pass, largely unnoticed, until you eventually discard and replace them. However, some of them become a part of your life permanently, ad infinitum.

Sometimes, they even pass from one generation to another, thus acquiring an emotional imprint of great importance. In these cases, the object in question suddenly acquires the essence of its owner’s identity. These kinds of objects project a part of who that person was, their history, memories, tastes, and desires.

As a human being, you need these kinds of objects and that link with the inert. They fulfill an instrumental and also a symbolic function. This is something that began in your childhood with toys. They were your first social-emotional objects.

It’s even been discovered that Neanderthals were already creating jewelry more than 130,000 years ago. They also had the need to create ornaments, pieces that surely also acted as the expression of their identities.

Science claims that we systematically acquire and abandon objects as our personality or group pressure varies.

You look for objects that generate rewards

The sociologist, Erving Goffman, pointed out in his book, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (1959) that objects reveal information about social subjects; that is, of ourselves. They define our lifestyle, our values, and our perspective on the world. For instance, if you choose to buy a bamboo toothbrush and not a plastic one, it reveals your commitment to the planet.

These objects also give you a series of rewards. Indeed, they’re not only instrumentally useful to you, they also have an emotional and social connotation. We only have to return to the case of the cell phone to understand this.

Certain makes and models of phones can give you a certain status. In addition, they grant you innumerable benefits, just like a computer, or even a car, can do. Consequently, the more rewards or positive reinforcements that an object brings you, the greater the bond you establish with it.

However, and here comes the curious fact, nowadays we tend to acquire and discard these items on a regular basis. In fact, the need to consume, the pressure of fashion, and planned obsolescence mean that our accessories are constantly renewed.

Social masks

Stanford University published an article in 2020 on the subject of objects and self-identity. It claimed that certain objects have a symbolic meaning. This ends up conditioning the perception we have of ourselves. In effect, certain articles act as social masks.

Think about your clothes. You only have to wear a jacket of a certain style to project a certain image to others. You need those masks, in the form of clothes, cell phones, cars, jewelry, and watches as a complement to yourself. They can change over time according to trends and your own needs.

Books, possessions that say a lot about self-identity.
People with a hoarding disorder are unable to let go of objects because they feel like a part of themselves.

The emotional attachment to certain objects

There are certain items that you’ll never throw away or part with. Some of them might’ve been bequeathed to you by relatives. Others came into your life by chance and tell a story, they’re a part of you. These are objects with which you build a permanent emotional bond.

No matter how old or worn out they are, these items from yesterday fill your present and remind you of who you are or where you come from. This is positive and enriching. After all, you’re a story yourself, and it’s normal that in your existential narrative you’re accompanied by books, shoes, watches, dolls, and even old perfume bottles that have long lost their fragrance.

However, this can become a problem if you’re unable to discard what’s no longer useful or has no real emotional meaning for you. This can develop into hoarding disorder, a condition where people are unable to part with their possessions, regardless of their real value.

As you can see, occasionally, accessories can become your worst enemy. That’s when you long to possess them and become afraid to abandon them.

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  • Spinelli, N. Is self-identity essential to objects?. Synthese 198, 1579–1595 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11229-019-02151-7
  • S Christian Wheeler (2021) Objects and self-identity. Current Opinion in Psychology. Volume 39, June 2021, Pages 6-11

The contents of Exploring Your Mind are for informational and educational purposes only. They don't replace the diagnosis, advice, or treatment of a professional. In the case of any doubt, it's best to consult a trusted specialist.