What is identity?
This article attempts to define and at the same time challenges our perception of what identity really is. It proposes 2 different definitions of identity, while at the same time pointing out the limitations of both of them, to trigger deeper thinking on the topic of how we define identity.
Why did I choose this tool?
Developing an unconditional acceptance and appreciation for all the members of the group and being able to look beyond their looks, religion, political views, age, ethnicity, social standing or any other potential definitions of identity is essential to creating a safe and open space for growth. The reason for this is that it is impossible to grow in an environment where one feels threatened, even if the perceived threat is not to the person themselves but rather to the identity to which they are attaching themselves. It is better to let them discover in their own way that identity is changeable and to then decide which aspects of their identity they may want to change. The role of the trainer then becomes to widen perspectives and broaden the scope of possibilities, while letting participants decide which doors they choose to walk through and which doors should remain closed. If the opportunity for growth and change is present, while at the same time every choice is accepted and respected, our task is complete.
The best way to develop this ability (to see beyond looks, religion, political views, age, social standing or other potential definitions of identity) is for us to learn how to distance ourselves and if necessary look critically at the elements of our own identity, as well as the notion of identity itself, in order to understand that these elements do not actually define us or anyone else.
How does this apply to being a trainer?
When we think about the issue of identity in our work as trainers, 3 important considerations come to mind:
1. How important it is to understand and appreciate the variety of “identities” that are present in the group.
2. The understanding that identity can change, regardless of whether we use the mind or body or any other criteria to define identity.
3. Understanding that even though identity is not fixed and is infinitely changeable when someone connects something to their identity they will feel that it is a fixed part of themselves. And if they feel that that element is attacked or not respected, they will feel that they are personally being attacked and not respected and this can close them off to learning and growth.
“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).”
James D. Fearon, Department of Political Science, Stanford University
This sentence only begins to define the ambiguity that exists when trying to define identity in simple terms. To add to the confusion, different fields will use the concept of identity in completely different ways (speaking of political scientists, psychologists, novelists, and on and on the list goes). For the purpose of this article, let’s say that there are 2 ways to define identity: the body criterion, and the mind criterion.
The body criterion holds that identity is defined by a person’s physical features, such as the way their face looks or the way their voice sounds. When it comes to criminal investigations, for instance, this is the criteria that is being used (who did it, what did they look like, fingerprints, DNA, etc.) According to this criterion, the body holds the key to your identity.
The mind criteria, on the other hand, would determine that your identity is the composition of your ideas, hopes, dreams, memories, desires and thoughts. It would be consistent with the Latin philosophical proposition of “cogito ergo sum” by Rene Descartes. Translated into English it would be “I think and therefore I am”. According to this criterion, the mind holds the key to your identity.
But wait for a second, is it really so? For the body criteria, let’s say someone’s body went through drastic changes. Maybe they lost or gained a lot of weight, had plastic surgery, had their organs replaced, went through a gender change or their body simply changed over time and with the passing of years (something that obviously occurs from the time they are born until the time they reach old age). If the body can undergo such drastic changes, can we really say that the body is the key to identity?
In light of this maybe we should favor the mind proposition more, because the mind always remains the same right? What about when new information is learned, when new languages are learned, when new experiences are had, when memories are forgotten or replaced, when relationships change, or in an extreme case when someone develops amnesia or for some other reason loses the memory of who they are? Or what about someone who is schizophrenic? Do any of the above mean a loss of identity?
As you can see we can’t truly define identity with neither the mind nor the body. We can try to define it in other ways, like through the profession that we have, our nationality, who we are in the family (father, mother, child, etc.), our economic status (rich, poor, middle class), our ethnicity (Asian, white, black, etc.) or our educational level (high school dropout, PhD, uneducated, etc.). But no matter which category we choose, at the end of the day we will see that none of these categories are necessarily fixed or bear enough importance to determine our identity.
The truth is that identity is not a real thing, and that’s why it’s so hard to define and why it is used by so many people in so many different ways. Your identity is nothing more than a combination of traits that you have consciously or unconsciously decided to attach yourself to. We mostly think that identity is something that is attached to us, but in fact, it’s the other way around: identity is something that we have chosen to attach ourselves to.
Now, why would we do this? Why would we be so keen to say to ourselves and others “this is what I am” and present it as something fixed and unchangeable? Why would we be so keen to tell our nationality, profession or hobbies and let them define us in the eyes of others?
Here is where we go from something that is not a real thing, identity, to something intangible and yet that is very real, which is the need for love and belonging. We all want and need, to belong somewhere. To be a part of a group, to experience camaraderie, to have things in common with others, to not feel like an outsider. It’s a perfectly natural human need. And having an “identity” gives us a clue of where that is and with who. Providing a sense of belonging is one of the positive effects of the concept of identity.
The potential negative effect of the concept of identity, however, is when we allow our sense of identity to limit who we can have in our circle, when it gives us a sense of superiority or inferiority, or when it limits our belief in ourselves and what is possible for us (such as a woman who believes she could never be more than a housewife, or someone who feels they can never be well off financially because they are “uneducated”).
It is during these times, the times when our “identity” is hurting us or others, that we need to be reminded our identity is something that we consciously or unconsciously created. Think of it as a person made out of paper. It can look very real, and we can like it very much and carry it with us everywhere, but at the end of the day it is something that we created. And when we get to the point where it is not helping us to get to where we want to go, or when we can’t take it with us anymore (such as when someone defines themselves as a wife/husband and the relationship comes to an end), we have the possibility to leave it behind and in time recreate another paper figure which is more useful to us now.
It is a very helpful practice to detach ourselves from all of the things that we believe defines our identity on a daily basis, and one of the ways we can do this is through meditation. Meditation gives us the chance to put aside our paper creation and just be with ourselves, without having to define ourselves as anything in particular. It allows us to be all of those things, and at the same time to realize that we are not defined by or limited to any of them.
Here is the script for a meditation that can help you do this. If you have someone to guide your meditation that can read it to you, perhaps with some soft instrumental music, this is ideal. Otherwise, you can record it yourself with music and play it back whenever you need to detach yourself from everything else and just be with your true self.
Who am I? Meditation by Sri Ramana Maharshi
I have a body, but I am not my body. I can see and feel my body, and what can be seen and felt is not the true Seer. My body may be tired or excited, sick or healthy, heavy or light, anxious or calm, but that has nothing to do with my inward I, the Witness. I have a body, but I am not my body.
I have desires, but I am not my desires. I can know my desires, and what can be known is not the true Knower. Desires come and go, floating through my awareness, but they do not affect my inward I, the Witness. I have desires, but I am not my desires.
I have emotions, but I am not my emotions. I can feel and sense my emotions, and what can be felt and sensed is not the true Feeler. Emotions pass through me, but they do not affect my inward I, the Witness. I have emotions, but I am not my emotions.
I have thoughts, but I am not my thoughts. I can see and know my thoughts, and what can be known is not the true Knower. Thoughts come to me and thoughts leave me, but they do not affect my inward I, the Witness. I have thoughts but I am not my thoughts.
I am what remains, a pure center of awareness, an unmoved Witness of all these thoughts, emotions, feelings, and sensations.
How do I perceive my own identity? “Who am I?”
What aspects of my identity have remained the same throughout my life?
What aspects of my identity have changed over the course of my life?
What were my reasons for changing, and what were my reasons for remaining the same?
Is there something that I thought would always be a part of me, that is no longer present?
Is there something that I thought I would never do or be, that I find myself doing or considering?
How to apply it in everyday life:
Whenever I find myself thinking or saying things like “this is just how I am”, particularly when it’s a something negative and that you’re not particularly fond of, take the opportunity to make a conscious choice instead of an automatic one by asking yourself:
Why am I this way?
How has being this way served me in the past?
Do I want to continue to be this way?
Will it serve me in the future?
What are some alternatives that can lead to better results in my life?
The same applies when you think about negative qualities in others. If we think “this is the way he/she/they are and it will never change” realize that if you can make changes in yourself, especially deep ones that affect the core of your identity, they can do the same. The only difference is that it’s not in your hands, as sustainable change can only happen when someone decides and does it themselves. We can only encourage them, offer possibilities for growth, and especially remain open to the possibility that just as we can change they can too.
There are so many ways to define identity, and regardless of how we define it, everything in our minds and bodies is changeable. So instead of trying to strictly define identity it is more useful to see identity as an ongoing journey to be reflected on and evaluated regularly. Instead of asking the question “who am I” it is more useful to ask “who do I want to be” and “where do I want to go” so that the journey is made of conscious choices rather than automatic programming.