Can I create my own identity?
What is identity? Can it be chosen or changed, or is it fixed? Does everyone have a fixed identity, and is this identity defined by their culture? Can we choose whether or not to embrace the identity that has been “assigned” to us? Can our identities limit us or how we see others? These and more questions and potential answers are explored by this article.
Why did I choose this tool?
Being a third culture kid myself, and having radically changed what might have been considered “permanent” aspects of my identity, I highly value the process of questioning and exploring the identity, and being able to make our own choices when it comes to what defines us. I also value it when people have the capacity to see beyond someone’s nationality (or other more obvious aspects of identity) and take the time to get to know the real person that lies under the generalities. I believe that being able to do this is one of the most important skills needed within the intercultural competence.
How does this apply to being a trainer?
It takes a lot of skill to “raise identity related awareness” within the group (as defined by the criteria), without coming across as defying or wanting to change someone’s identity, which they would naturally be defensive to. I have found that one of the most effective ways to do this is to come from the perspective of my own personal beliefs and aspects of identity that I have changed and how it has made my life better. If we first raise awareness of our own identity, and if necessary question or even change it, then we are in a much better position to facilitate this process in a group. Coming from the perspective of someone who can empathize with them and knows how challenging it can be, is more inspiring and motivating then hearing it from someone who knows it in theory but never did it for himself.
The dictionary defines identity as “the fact of being who or what a person is”.
Here is a more elaborate definition from James D. Fearon, department of political science of Stanford University:
““Identity” is a complicated and unclear concept that nonetheless plays a central role in ongoing debates in every subfield of political science (for example, debates about national, ethnic, gender, and state identities). “Identity” as we now know it derives mainly from the work of psychologist Erik Erikson in the 1950s; dictionary definitions have not caught up, failing to capture the word’s current meanings in everyday and social science contexts. The analysis yields the following summary statement. As we use it now, an “identity” refer(s) to either (a) a social category, defined by membership rules and (alleged) characteristic attributes or expected behaviors, or (b) socially distinguishing features that a person takes a special pride in or views as unchangeable but socially consequential (or (a) and (b) at once). In the latter sense, “identity” is modern formulation of dignity, pride, or honor that implicitly links these to social categories.”
The definition by psychologist Erik Erikson referred to above is the following:
“…a subjective sense as well as an observable quality of personal sameness and continuity, paired with some belief in the sameness and continuity of some shared world image. As a quality of unself-conscious living, this can be gloriously obvious in a young person who has found himself as he has found his communality. In him we see emerge a unique unification of what is irreversibly given–that is, body type and temperament, giftedness and vulnerability, infantile models and acquired ideals–with the open choices provided in available roles, occupational possibilities, values offered, mentors met, friendships made, and first sexual encounters.” (Erikson, 1970.)
I don’t know about you, but for me the more I try to understand the definition of identity and the elements that it is composed of, the more confused and disoriented I feel. And I believe that the reason for that is that identity, although it is a widely used term in many fields especially psychology and politics, is actually a construct of our minds and therefore not a real and definable thing. Add to this the fact that I have experienced massive changes in my internal and external world over the course of my life, there is no possible way to put “what I am composed of” neatly in a box and label it my permanent identity.
Then comes the issue of labels, when we are not defining ourselves but other people take it upon themselves to label us in order to organize and define their own world, and they do it to our detriment. Does this then become our identity? Are we then limited in what we can be by our most obvious or glaring characteristics, what other people decide our identity is or should be?
Here is a short video about how it can be harmful to define people with labels. It was created in Turkey in 2013 during the EU funded training course “SOS – Social Justice in Social Media”.
Third culture kids face this struggle an awful lot. They are people who have been born and/or raised in one or more countries then their “countries of origin”. For instance, someone who has Dutch parents and a Dutch passport, but was born in Brazil, never lived in Holland,moved to Turkey and lived there for his formative adult years. What is these peoples’ culture? What is their identity? How should they define themselves to themselves and then to the world?
Here is a description of what many third culture kids experience, written by Ndela Faye for the Guardian:
Am I rootless or am I free?
When your mother is from Finland, your father from Senegal, and you live in neither, your identity becomes a matter of choice
No, but where are you really from?” It is the question that automatically makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. Like many “third culture kids” (TCKs), I panic, wondering whether the question refers to my nationality, where I was born, where I am living now, or where my parents live.
Depending on the person and situation, I’ll have different answers to that dreaded question. I’ll tell white lies and change my story as I go, like many other TCKs. Sometimes I’ll go for the quick answer: Finland and Senegal. Other times I’ll tell the whole story: that I was born in Helsinki, moved to Luxembourg, then to Brussels and finally to London. Or I might say that my mum is from Finland and dad from Senegal, but that I really feel like my home is in the UK now.
Each time I get the question, I feel like I need to explain myself, prove my origins, and because of that I’ll often find myself omitting parts of my story in order to make my identity more palatable for others.
Living like this can sometimes feel liberating: I feel as though I’m wearing different masks, and I am constantly able to reinvent myself. But this also presents a dilemma: who am I really? Which of these masks is the true me? Where do I belong? In my case, this is made even more complex as I’m biracial. Although I was born in Finland, I’m aware that I don’t look typically Finnish – but seeing as I’ve never lived in Senegal, I feel strange saying I’m from there. Then again, I don’t feel very Finnish either, as I’ve lived abroad for most of my life. They’re both countries where I have family, and are places that I visit every few years – places I think of with nostalgia. But when I’m actually there, I feel out of place, like an outsider.
So where is home? Identity is attached to a sense of belonging, usually through family ties or deep emotional connections. Home suggests an emotional place – somewhere you truly belong, but I, like many other TCKs, never quite feel at home anywhere. It feels sometimes that I am in limbo. I am a strange mix of I-don’t-know-what, and sometimes I feel as if I’ll never find that one place where I belong 100%. I just feel blessed to have had the privilege of experiencing so many cultures.
I sometimes wonder whether my life would be different if I had grown up in one place. I wonder what it would be like to have lived in a house where there were ruler marks beside a doorframe, documenting each of my childhood growth spurts; to have a friend who’s known me since nursery; not to feel like a tourist, wandering around with a map in a country that I’m supposed to embrace as my own.
Sometimes I resent the fact that I have to give complicated answers to seemingly simple questions. At other times it all seems rather trivial: as I watch my nieces and nephews growing up, and laying the basis of their identities among multiple cultures, I cannot help but feel proud. What an amazing opportunity, to speak multiple languages and see so many countries.
Being rootless has given me a sense of freedom. I feel grateful for the experiences I’ve had, and I am proud to feel, above all, like a citizen of the world. The possibilities for the future are endless. The sense of being at home anywhere, yet feeling that home is nowhere, is part of who I am.
I love being able to choose to be whoever I want, wherever I go. My many masks are a storyboard of all that I am. I’ve gradually built myself an identity that is a collection of pieces, each of which I’ve handpicked; choosing the best bits in order to create a whole. I’ve realized that those pieces are not mutually exclusive, but that they are all dependent on each other. Being rootless doesn’t mean I don’t belong to any one place; it means I choose to belong to many.
It seems clear that trying to define ourselves or others by their nationality, race, religion, habits, or any other criteria is limiting at best and hurtful at worst. And yet we need some definitions and a clear identity for ourselves and those around us in order to be able to function, make decisions, know how to interact with others, even to do something as basic as knowing what language or what non-verbal cues are appropriate to use.
I believe that the secret lies in having an identity, having something that you embrace as a part of you and you enjoy it and belong to it. But, it also lies in not limiting ourselves or other people to their chosen or assigned identities, and to always be able to see that we are more than our identity. For this purpose, we can see identity as clothing. It is something we wear, maybe even every day, something that we own, or perhaps created, something that expresses a bit of who we are, but that doesn’t define who we are in our core. Like our chosen clothing, different aspects of our identity can change, maybe even dramatically. And if we don’t ever change our identity, at least it needs a little washing and refurbishing once in a while, so that it doesn’t get stale and outdated.
In the case of third culture kids, many of them end up putting together bits and pieces that they like from every culture and end up creating a third culture which is the combination of what they decided to keep from every culture they come from or have been a part of. Even if you are not a third culture kid, you can choose to do the same and consciously decide what you would like to be and what you would like to embrace rather then automatically embracing the elements, customs and or/behavior you were raised with. And when a certain aspect of your identity is not suiting you or if you no longer can or want to be that (for example in the case of a profession), you can feel the freedom to rediscover yourself and to explore aspects of you that you previously didn’t know about.
As a natural result of changing or fine-tuning aspects of your own identity, your tolerance and understanding of others will increase. You will find yourself less rigid about assigning labels and identifying someone with just one main element of who they are. You will know that, because things can change for you, and that you are more than the identity you hold at the moment, the same can be true for them.
- What aspects of the culture you were raised with do you like, or even love?
- What aspects of the culture you were raised with do you dislike, or even hate?
- What aspects of other cultures you have been exposed to do you like or love?
- What aspects of other cultures you have been exposed to do you dislike or hate?
- If you could create a new culture of your choosing, what would it be like? What customs, values and traditions would you choose?
- What can you do today to start creating this ideal culture, at least for yourself?
- How will doing so benefit you and the people around you?
How to apply it in everyday life:
If you would like to explore this topic with participants in a training setting, here is a method you can use:
- Divide the group into 4 or 5 smaller groups
- Give them the task of creating their own culture. You can include categories such as name, language, type of currency, how they conduct marriages, how they conduct funerals, their religion and ceremonies, etc. (about 20 minutes)
- Once they have defined all of the above, tell them to start acting and communicating as the culture that they have created. (about 10 minutes)
- When they are comfortable with acting, according to their new cultural norms, take one person from each culture to visit the other culture and complete a task (ex: find someone to marry, conduct a religious ceremony, etc.) (about 20 minutes)
- When everyone has completed the assigned task (or given up trying), close by showcasing what they did (he found a bride from the shenanigan culture!)
Give each group the chance to describe the culture they created, and then ask questions such as:
- How easy or how hard was it to come up with a new culture?
- How do you feel about the culture you created? Do you identify with it?
- How easy or hard was it to act according to your new culture?
- How did you feel when someone from another culture came and tried to do something with your group? Did you welcome them? Did you try to act according to their culture, teach them how to act according to yours, or neither?
- If you can become attached to a culture you created in 20 minutes, it’s clear how you might become attached to a culture you have known your whole life. What does belonging (or not belonging if that’s the case for you) to a culture give you? How does it make you feel?
- How can the exercise we just did help us to understand people from other cultures?
- How can the exercise we just did help us to question our own culture and values, or at least to be open to the cultures and values that are different from ours?