Finding Your Sense of Identity

The Cambridge dictionary defines identity as ‘who a person is or the qualities of a person that make them different to others.’

Our identity is unique, it is what sets us apart, what differentiates us from the mob.

We derive our sense of identity from a lot of things: the personal attributes we possess, the roles we undertake, the values we esteem, the activities that motivate us. 

Sometimes we encounter periods in our life when we struggle with who we are and our place in the world. It is often referred to as an ‘identity crisis.’

A loss of identity may follow all sorts of change, the breakup of a marriage, a diagnosis of a serious medical condition, the loss of a job or profession, or a failed financial investment. Such loss of identity can result in increased levels of generalized anxiety, low self-esteem, depression, a loss of self-confidence, social anxiety, isolation, and chronic loneliness.

The television coverage of the Tokyo Olympics 2020 provided an opportunity to watch the top athletes perform in their chosen discipline. Only a select few win the prize of Olympic Gold. What is not always appreciated is the dedication, discipline, and sacrifice that is needed for success. Being a celebrated Olympian requires a narrowing down of your options. It is taking on a narrow identity defined by a singular purpose. This is who I am, an Olympic athlete.

There are inherent risks in having a singular view of identity, where we choose to allow one aspect of who we are to define our lives.

Many elite athletes struggle when they are forced to retire whether due to illness, or injury, or loss of form, or age-related issues. They no longer command the same public adulation and are denied the recognition and rewards associated with success. There is often confusion and uncertainty about where to look for a ‘new’ identity, a life that will provide both meaning and renewed purpose.

Narrow identities are one dimensional. They narrow our focus and are, by nature, exclusive. We may rationalize their value and defend their importance, but there is a downside.

1. They shut us off from other possibilities

In choosing a pathway that is all-consuming, we deny ourselves the opportunity to consider our other needs. People of race are in danger of allowing their ethnicity to dominate, to define who they are. More than eighty years ago, the German people embraced an ideological vision of being a superior race. It had catastrophic consequences for Germany and the world.  

2. They place us at risk of having our vulnerabilities exposed

Your success is never guaranteed. To say that if you put in the effort you will realise your dreams sounds exciting but is not always true. When we hang our identity on a single endeavour, we are risking failure. And failure is something else entirely. While failure can strengthen a person, for many, it can be soul destroying, diminishing our sense of self.

3. They leave us open to personal attack

Our identity is personal, it is how we want to be known. In assuming a single identity, perhaps with religious or racial undertones, we are opening ourselves to criticism from those who fear or are philosophically opposed to our views.

Social media has become the battleground where people voice their opposition and vent their anger. It is where a person’s identity is attacked, and the fallout can be devastating.

Not all identities are helpful. They define us in ways that work against us, detracting from our true self.

1. Toxic identity

A toxic identity is an assigned identity, one that is corrosive, that diminishes us, that robs us of the possibility of a normal life.

A toxic identity may be due to an action we have taken. While working as an employment consultant, I spoke to a young man who had been convicted of child sexual abuse and was listed on the child sex offender register. The offense occurred when he was a teenager. He said that whenever he went for a job interview, he felt he might as well have a tattoo on his forehead, ‘child sex offender.’ No employer was able to look beyond this personal failure and focus on what he might have to offer.

A toxic identity may be due to actions taken against us. Domestic abuse is a traumatic experience for any person; whether that abuse has been physical, emotional, or coercive. In abusive relationships there is a loss of independence, a loss of identity, a loss of all that is valued – personal possessions, friendships, self-worth, health, confidence, trust. It is having your identity defined for you, ‘a victim of domestic abuse.’

2. Forced identity

Sometimes courage is necessary to affirm our identity, to shut out the voices that would try to fence us in and detract us from our purpose.

The Dutch House is the eighth novel of award-winning author, Ann Patchett. The novel tells the story of Danny Conroy. When he was three years old his mother left, travelling to India to live amongst the poor. Danny did not have much to do with his father. The only thing his father really cared about in life was his work. He was a successful real estate agent. On the first Saturday of the month, he would take Danny with him to collect the rent. Danny would write down in a ledger book what each tenant paid.

When his father remarried, Danny was forced to live with his sister, Maeve. Maeve wanted the best for her brother and encouraged his education. When their father died of a heart attack, they were informed by the solicitor that everything went to the stepmother, apart from an education trust. Mauve was determined to get the maximum benefit and decided that Danny should study to be a doctor as it was the most expensive option. Although Danny successfully completed his training his heart belonged elsewhere. His passion was property investment which he learned from his father. Despite the protestations of Maeve and his wife Celeste, this is what he chose to do.

3. False identity

Whenever we look to others for our sense of self, we create a false identity. We become obsessed with what others think about us, how we look, or how we behave. We worry about being judged or measured by others (and falling short of their requirements). We lose a sense of who we are and so put on an act, a facade, a mask. We cease to be authentic, presenting our ‘best self,’ when inside, we may be feeling very different, afraid the ‘real me’ may find a way out.

Being dependent on external validation reduces the likelihood that you will ever feel confident in the real you, impacting on personal growth, as well as the opportunity for happiness.   

My identity helps me to connect with others. Therefore, aim to have a broad or collective identity, one that encompasses numerous categories.

There are a variety of ways one person can be identified and they need not be contradictory. The same person can be an Australian citizen, of Asian background, of Japanese ancestry, a man, a royalist, a mathematician, a tennis player, a wine connoisseur, a fly fisherman, a pianist, a barista, a public speaker, a master in topiary, and an evangelical Christian

These different identities can co-exist without causing internal confusion or strife. They can be, depending on the context and circumstances, important in determining our behaviour and the priorities we set.

To establish a more concrete, independent identity, there are several strategies we can employ.

1. Define your values:

Values and personal beliefs are fundamental aspects of identity. Values describe the traits you prioritise in yourself or others – empathy, honesty, trustworthiness, kindness, and so on. They can help guide the boundaries you set with others in your life. And your belief system can help you recognize what matters most to you and determine where you stand on important issues.

2. Make your own choices:

Your decisions should, for the most part, primarily benefit your health and well-being. Practice doing things because you want to do them. When your needs go unmet, you have less to offer others.

3. Spend time alone:

Getting to know yourself better will involve some quality time alone.

It is healthy to take some time apart from others, even your family or partner. Try walking, experimenting with new hobbies, reading more books, meditating, or keeping a journal.

“In the social jungle of human existence, there is no feeling of being alive without a sense of identity.” 

Erik Erikson

Author: Bruce Rickard

Reflections on Suicide and Staying Alive: My son's suicide changed everything. I felt an obligation to understand why anyone would want to end their life. My regular blog posts explore the causes and prevalence of suicide and what is needed to sustain a healthy mind and a hope-filled future.

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