The Relationship between the Embodied Self and the Virtual Self

Numerous discussions have been had regarding the constitution of the self, whether or not there is a single self or numerous selves integrated into one; whether or not the self is created or discovered; and whether or not the self emerges from the psyche or the physical. These dichotomies although well-grounded need not necessarily be made. The integration of one or all of these dichotomies may better serve to answer questions regarding the self. Of particular interest in this paper will be the last of the dichotomies enumerated: the emergence of the self from either the mind or the body.

Trends have gradually moved toward the grounding of theories in embodied characteristics of persons. However, there is still no clear establishment of the interaction of the body with the self. This point may better be illustrated by discussing several views on narratives of the self.

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Vollmer (2005, p.189-191) discusses Dennet’s view on the role of the biological in the construction of the self. Dennet believed that the construction of the self was not a conscious process engaged in by individuals.  In fact, he held that the biological self was a mere means of collecting information about portions of the world and thus served to produce limits as to the building blocks of the created self.

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However, the boundaries thus created by the body are discharged as the actual process of creation did not involve conscious actions. Thus the information gathered from the actual world became irrelevant as the same did not determine the created self. This separation of the body from the self results to a weak constitution of the self as the self becomes mere fiction of the mind. An account of the self must be based on more than just creative potentials. The self must be based on information that can be observed outside of itself or it must draw from sources other than the simple fact of its creation.

In a similar yet markedly distinct view, Schaffer (1992, p.26) stated that the dominant account of the self in psychology determines the self as a concrete mental entity. Thus it is determined that there is only one self and that it is directly observable by the person to whom the self is attributed. It is further viewed that the self is relatively stable through time and therefore unchanging.

Although Schafer believed that the self was observable through individual experiences, it was not advocated that the self was something “out there” and to be discovered by the individual after much searching and reflection. Rather, it could be said that the observable nature of the self depended largely on the reflection of the self by its creator, or the person to whom the self was attributed. It is interesting to note that although Schafer believed in the existence of only one self which is constant through time, it is permitted that a person may create multiple narratives of this one self.

It could be seen from the above views that Schafer advocated a realistic view on the self in that the self was influenced by the physical. It cannot be said however that Schafer was a complete realist as his realistic leanings depended greatly on the self being created by a person. Thus it is only the process of creation that ties down the self to a physical form, the body; for each body constitutes just one person and it is this constituted person that has the power to create selves. Without the body then the power to create selves is extinguished. However, the actual creation of the self is not dependent on any physical characteristics a person may hold, nor is it determined by the constitution of the body. Schafer’s view is similar to Dennet’s in that the body is perceived as a boundary-maker with regards to a self that is created.

However, in Dennet’s view the creation is largely unconscious while Schafer held that the self was a concrete result of a mental process. Schafer held that the self is a narrative of the creator of representations of perceived traits, thus these same traits may be creations of the mind and not necessarily dictated by the body. In Schafer’s perspective then, the body in relation to the self is merely a vehicle for housing the ability to create. It is not then essential nor does it necessarily influence the evolving definitions of the self. In fact whereas there is one person per body there may be multiple selves to each person. However, unlike Dennet, Schafer maintained that without the body there could be no self.

Schechtman (1996, 94-97) approached the matter of embodiment from a different perspective. In Schechtman’s narrative of the self, the self is constructed through the integration of past mental and bodily events, particularly those events which the individual appropriates as his or her own. Thus, the self and the individual’s basic identity is composed of past events which the individual has included in his or her self-narrative. Thus, those events experienced yet not included in the self-narrative do not form part of the individual self.

For Schechtman then, the self lies outside the narration itself as these narrations are based on actual experiences. The process of selection Schechtman employs limits the extent to which the self is defined. It is not the body which limits the definition rather it is the importance of the events that the body experiences which serves to delineate boundaries.

It is only those experiences which significantly move the person which are retained and labeled as his or her own, thus comprising the self. The body then, its functions, experiences and ability to experience, significantly determine the characteristics of the narrative self. It is the characteristics of the body which ultimately lead to a definition of the self and the formulation of the individual’s identity. The self then is not only limited by the body but it is brought into existence by the same.

Another realist, McAdams (1998, p.56), defined the self as not something which we are but rather it is something we do. It was argued that the fundamental nature of the self was the process of changing, integrating, unifying, and synthesizing dissimilar elements. Therefore, the self is not a static object; rather it is an entire process. It is the process of developing which creates a person’s identity. McAdams then describes a narrative of the self which is not created but rather discovered. As the process creates the self, the individual is only left to describe the process thus allowing others to experience the self that has been uncovered. Vollmer shares in this view:

My present self is not something that I remember, or something that appears in some story. It is something I perceive or experience introspectively. And what I am aware of as my self in perception and inner experience are my own mental and bodily actions, which are constantly changing. What I am is a verb, an activity, not some (partly) finalized structure like a story. (Vollmer 2005, p.204)

Our bodies then provide the manner by which change is experienced and it is this change which allows for the constitution of the self. Shilling would argue that it is the body which enables persons to interact with the world around them (Shilling 2005, p.212). Without or bodies our selves would not be able to transcend the symbolic realm and become active participants in societal order. Absent this participation, growth would be severely impaired and the sources of creativity for individual narrations would be lost.

The body then serves as a boundary to the extent of the self. It is the manner by which a person is able to receive and transmit information and it is the vehicle for experience which determines the facts enabling constitution of individual identity. Not only is the body a limitation but it is a means. The body enables the individual to experience change and to effect the same. The significant changes that an individual undergoes and those which he or she appropriates as his or her own thus become the building blocks of the self.

Finally, the body is a mode of expressing the self. With the body, the individual enables the interaction with others permitting the sharing of narratives of the self. With the body, third persons are able to experience the narrative self of one individual. This experience allows for the concurrence or disagreement from others regarding an individual’s perceived self. Ignatow (2007, p. 119) supported this with a discussion on homo duplex social theories which view the body as a source, location, and means of cultural representation thus focusing on individuals’ emotional, embodied, lived experiences.

The embodiment of the self then serves to enable the deployment of self narratives. Self narratives being projected perceptions of the self, this same relationship between the embodied self and the narrative self applies to the relationship of the embodied self with the virtual self. The virtual self is also a projection of the self. The virtual is an ontological category, it is real but not actual; it is present only in instances of becoming (Echard 2006, p.8). The virtual self then is quite similar to the narrative of the self as championed by McAdams. It is not unlike the actual narrative self which is constantly changing and constantly becoming.

Furthermore, virtual space in itself is a venue for narration of selves. Thus, it is also held that the embodiment of the self serves to define boundaries for the deployment of the virtual self as at the same time it fuels the virtual self with the needed characteristics to complete the same. Without the store of knowledge that the embodied self contains, virtual selves would not be fleshed out over technological media. It is also consequent that without the embodiment of the self, no further growth would be possible and the act of becoming and the process of changing ceases.

The interest generated by virtual selves is due to the fact that unlike ordinary interaction, virtual interaction does not occur face-to-face.  The Internet has been considered as a space for the coming together of people or a venue for social interaction (Mantovani 2001, p. 50) where persons pursue affiliation, support, and affirmation (Sproull & Faraj 1997, p. 38). What is of interest however is the fact that over the internet, “physical appearance and visual cues are not present and not an influential factor (McKenna & Bargh 2000, p.60).”

Physical make-up as used herein should not be confused with the previous discussion on the embodiment of the self as such embodiment did not touch on physical appearance in terms of attractiveness or as an aspect of social desirability. The non-disclosure of physical make-up of the latter description however gives participants the ability to generate virtual selves often dissimilar to their own offline self. It has been shown that people who are less satisfied with their offline selves are strongly motivated to engage in online communities and construct virtual selves (Baumeister 1998, p. 704).

The internet presents a means to find acceptance and social approval through a representation of the self which is detached from personal characteristics which might be deemed socially undesirable. Whether the computer mediated communication (CMC) be by means of text or text and visual agents, the allure of the power to create an entirely different self is strong. CMC users are given the ability to create projections of themselves that disclose as much of their actual selves as they wish or to alter their actual selves completely if that be the case desired.

However, the ability to create a self that is more ideal has been found to have direct effects on the psychological well-being of individuals. Self discrepancy theory suggests that psychological well being is closely related to the discrepancy between the actual self, the self outside of the internet, and the ideal self, the desired self so often portrayed in CMCs (Higgins 1987, 324). In fact, Higgins (1987, 324) found that a large discrepancy between actual and ideal selves is associated with high levels of depression and lower levels of self-esteem. It is thus not a simple matter of presenting one’s self as one would desire to be perceived.

For the lesser means to achieve the same characteristics offline lead to frustration in the individual. The answer then emerges that in order to gain greater satisfaction from the projection of virtual selves; the actual-ideal discrepancy should be minimized. This can be done through the projection of a virtual self that is closer to one’s actual self or it may be accomplished through the gradual adopting in actuality the characteristics endowed upon the ideal virtual self.

Turkle (1995, p. 180) defining the Internet as a significant social laboratory for experimenting with the constructions and reconstructions of the self examined the effect of these reconstructions on individuals. His case study with an individual involved in CMC illustrates the case of an individual who significantly closed the gap between his actual and ideal selves. His case study looked at multi-user domains and their capacity to allow users to construct and reconstruct numerous selves online:

MUDs allow Gordon more than one weekend, one character, or one game to work on a given issue. He is able to play at being various selves for weeks, months, indeed years on end. When a particular character outlives its psychological usefulness, Gordon discards it and creates a new one. For Gordon, playing on MUDs has enabled a continual process of creation and recreation. The game has heightened his sense of his self as a work in progress. He talks about his real self as starting to pick up bits and pieces from his characters. Turkle (1995, p. 190)

Gordon has learned through online interaction what he could not learn offline. Gordon demonstrates the positive effect of accurate analysis of self-projection online. As Gordon began to grasp the virtuality not just of his projected online self but also the virtuality of his actual self, he became more aware of the fact that it was not only the online self that he could change. With the successful integration of desired characteristics into his own actual self, Gordon’s satisfaction rose and his ability for introspection became even keener.

For individuals who are psychologically and socially disadvantaged, CMC may serve as a tool for learning and subjective analysis. Online, individuals are able to discard their social stigmas and role-play at being somebody completely different. It has been shown that CMC gives individuals the opportunity to interact with others thus enabling them to learn emotionally and socially from others (Bessière, Kiesler, & Seay 2006). The internet thus emerges as a significant venue for otherwise excluded persons to be able to learn social practices. Otherwise neglected individuals find companionship and interaction through CMC providing them an opportunity not only to project and express an ideal self but also to learn from the same.

Although the ideal self may not be an accurate representation of the actual self, the interaction that occurs between this virtual self and other virtual selves online is quite real. The reality of the interaction allows socially held-back individuals to draw insights from his or her chosen online role. However, without the application of insights learned to life offline, the individual might only meet frustration and further decline in self-esteem. Such a decline in self-esteem would only serve to increase his or her inhibition from interacting with others offline. Thus, the successful integration of the different characteristics is encouraged.

Therefore, the internet serves as a means of accurately assessing the ideal self. Through engagement in CMC, individuals are given the opportunity to experiment on what is socially acceptable and what is not. Furthermore, socially inhibited individuals are given avenues of self-expression where they may not fear criticism. Certainly times are changing and even the internet is becoming a venue for social exclusion, however this does not detract from its value as a venue for otherwise introverted or excluded individuals. The internet serves as a venue for interaction mediated by technology and computers.

Communication in the internet takes away the face-to-face aspect of communication thus emboldening others to disclose more of themselves and to engage in interpersonal interaction. Furthermore it has been shown that although the virtual self is an ideal self, its basic characteristics are still grounded on the actual self. This actual self cannot be detached from the physical self, thus its referral as the embodied self. It is the body which allows experiential change and continuing processes of self-creation. The virtual self, cannot therefore exist without an embodied self, not only because it is the body which allows interaction with others or locomotion of ideas but also because it is the embodied self which determines what is ideal.

Without the embodied self and its ever-changing nature, the virtual self would itself be static and losing its ability to create and recreate. The body serves to allow the deployment of the self just as the embodied self serves to deploy the virtual self. However, the relationship between actual and virtual self is not a one-way mechanism. For as the virtual self grows and develops in online communities so the embodied self is exposed to characteristics and experiences which would enable it to improve upon itself.


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Vollmer, F 2005, ‘The Narrative Self’, Journal for Theory of Social Behaviour, vol. 35, no. 2, pp.189-205.

Updated: Apr 13, 2021
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The Relationship between the Embodied Self and the Virtual Self. (2017, Mar 24). Retrieved from

The Relationship between the Embodied Self and the Virtual Self essay
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