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Who are you?...and does it even matter?

Identity. It’s something that crops up so often; social media encourages us to express our ‘true’ selves, books promise to help us ‘unlock’ who we really are, friends encourage us to ‘just do you’…from a young age we’re put into boxes, by other people, but also by ourselves; “I’m a girl”, “I’m artsy”, “I’m an animal person”. Our identity is two-fold, we are not just who we think we are, who we view ourselves to be, we are also something to other people. It was a couple of years ago when I started to consider identity from a different angle.

Let’s start by looking at identity from a positive angle. In our western society we’re typically taught that a strong sense of identity, and pride in this identity, can only be a positive thing and is something to strive towards. On a deeper level, identity may provide us with the opportunity to fulfil what psychologist Carl Rogers believed to be a basic psychological need: the need to belong.

Although there's undoubtedly more acceptance of individuality in our modern world than ever before, this need runs deep within us, dating back to when acceptance within the tribe was not just about connection, but about survival. Perhaps this is why, in addition to the reassuring feeling that we are on sturdy ground in that we know ourselves in and out, a strong sense of identity, and therefore belonging, brings a sense of being more secure in the world.

During my time working with people with dementia and dedicating a large portion of my postgraduate university studies to this area, I uncovered the great importance placed on identity, reading about the benefits of maintaining the individual’s identity, but also the great significance placed on the carer in maintaining their sense of identity. In fact, when devising creative activities for the people I visited, one activity focused mainly on rediscovering who they were. This activity involved first talking about things that were/had been significant to them (religion, profession, passions etc.) and creating a collage to revisit whenever they felt a little unsure of themselves. There is no doubt in my mind that being influenced from a very young age to think that identity is profoundly important, and possessing a sense of ‘who you are’, only to have that dissolve, is an unnerving and scary place to be. Suddenly, the world begins to make a little less sense.

The above serves to demonstrate how a strong sense of identity can protect us, whilst also satisfying our deep-rooted psychological needs. In addition to this, if we know who we are, what we like and what’s important to us, this gives us the opportunity to seek out like-minded people, and position ourselves in situations in which we feel more ‘at home’ (again, this caters to our need to belong). But what happens when we’re met with people or situations that aren’t in-line with our identity? The stronger the importance we place on our individual preferences and upholding these, the stronger the reaction when we’re placed in a situation in which we must go outside of these.

Recently, I’ve heard a lot on social media about the ‘ego’ and how important it is to ‘kill’ it. Some of you may not have heard of this term, or maybe only in a certain context. Often, when someone mentions ‘ego’ the first thought that comes to mind is someone who is egotistical, however, the ‘ego’ is simply the ‘self’, that you are upholding. For example, someone may identify as ‘the academic one’ and seek to uphold this. It’s easy to see where this crosses with ‘identity’. It's also easy to see how, in seeking to uphold these versions of ourselves, we may be bringing ourselves suffering.

This concept that, in upholding these labels and preferences that we've put on ourselves, or have been put upon us, there's actually potential to disempower us (as opposed to the version of identity serving to bring us security and belonging) is something which is given much thought in a book I’ve been reading titled ‘Zen Jungle’ (details at the end of the post). The book considers how, if we are constantly attempting to uphold our ‘preferences’ and versions of ourselves, all we are actually doing is limiting ourselves and creating narrower and narrower opportunity.

We are all, to a large extent, influenced by our experiences (particularly in childhood during developmental phases), but is what we’re living even our ‘true’ self? Is our identity just something which has been imposed upon us, that we’re upholding without question? In the world of positive psychology, we put much emphasis on ‘authenticity’ and being your ‘authentic self’, but can you truly differentiate between that which is truly you and that which has become you due to external influence?

I remember a particular module on my positive psychology practitioner/coaching course that was dedicated entirely to the topic of 'authenticity', ending with the task of writing an essay. I hadn't imagined the effect delving into my own 'authenticity' could have. The process of taking a candid look at everything within my life; who I thought I was and the areas I thought were fundamentally ‘me’, was a truly eye-opening experience. We are made up of so many layers that have been added over our lives. One question I found to be of most use was what parts of me prevailed without external encouragement and continued in the face of questioning/direct discouragement? For myself, this was art and academia. What would your answer be I wonder?

Yet, once you’ve discovered ‘who you are’ at your core…does it even really matter? If we’re going by the school of thoughts that tells us ego/identity is bad, then it matters in the respect that you shouldn’t think of this as ‘you’. The ego is fragile; if we protect at all costs the fact that we are ‘the academic one’ or ‘the fashionable one’, the moment that this is threatened (such as a bad grade, a negative comment) we will find ourselves crumbling. That being said, if who we consider ourselves to be brings us pleasure and moments of joy then it’s beneficial…right? According to Barbara Fredrickson (professor of psychology and key name in positive psychology) the more we experience positive emotions, the more open we become and the more creatively we think. So where do we stand when it comes to identity and the ego?

Whilst there are many opinions out there, I find myself drawn towards a middle ground and favouring balance. Rather than seeking to extinguish my ego all together, I feel that being aware of who I consider myself to be (my ethical beliefs, my passions etc.) and expressing this, keeps me feeling aligned. Yet I maintain the awareness that rigidly holding on to an identity can also leave me vulnerable to narrowing my life. So as they say, 'you do you' but remember to leave room for growth.

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Further reading/resources:

Book: Zen Jungle - The Holistic Masterclass in How to Truly Love Life link

Book: Authentic: How to be Yourself and Why it Matters by Stephen Joseph link

Youtube video: Achieving Anything in Life by Getting rid of your Ego - Swami Mukandananda link

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