This is the second part of a two-part article. If you’ve not read the first section, you’ll want to do that before proceeding. Return to part 1 <-
Putting Your Identity Together
Here is where things start getting complicated and intense. Talking about creating our own identity is one thing. The general concept that we control who and what we are makes us feel good. Sure, who doesn’t want to feel as though they’re in control of themselves? Beyond all the talk comes action, however, and there’s a lot of action to consider. For ease of organization, I’m dividing the process into three areas: The Biologicals, The Externals, and The Internals. Please note that these are not solid containers of mutually exclusive pieces of one’s self. They blend, they mix and can work with or against each other. What follows is not a rigid, set-in-stone recipe for self-creation. Rather, it is a guide to help you decide what should be a part of who you are.
The biology of who we are is largely determined by our DNA and the physical components of our physical construction. While there may be biological aspects that we can and possibly should change if given the opportunity, we’ve no control over the basic parts with which we start life and no, not everyone starts off equally. There are many people who start life with serious physical and mental challenges. Some of those challenges affect not only the quality but the quantity of one’s life. Others are born with skin pigmentation that does not directly affect their physical identity but influences their external identity. Here are some of the biological components that one needs to consider when constructing their identity:
- Gender. There are two distinct aspects here: that with which one is assigned at birth and that which is true to one’s self. Sometimes these are the same, sometimes they are not. Discovering one’s true gender identity is a journey unto itself that can be fluid and require frequent recalibration of one’s identity. While gender can be changed surgically the mental and emotional components can be more challenging to balance as hormonal influences are sometimes difficult to control.
- Physical composition. More than merely an inventory of the pieces and parts included in one’s body, this includes how well those pieces and parts actually work. When one starts life, everything may work quite well but a broken arm at age ten may lead to arthritis pain when one is 30. Perhaps not everything in one’s body works correctly and fails to produce sufficient insulin, causing one to spend their life avoiding sugar. While medical science establishes a standard for what should be present and how things should work, not all bodies cooperate with that standard.
- Mental composition. The presence of a brain falls under physical composition and we’re going to assume that if you’re reading this the brain is at least present in some form. How well that particular portion of our body works falls under mental composition, though, because it is its own complicated world of synapses and connections and chemical balances. When things don’t work as designed here, we often need professional assistance to overcome the challenge. Sometimes that assistance is in the form of pharmaceuticals while other conditions might require surgery. Either way, this is part of one’s identity.
- Emotional composition. Emotions may be the most fluid piece of our biological identity and as such is the portion that can be the most difficult to control. While there is still a lot about emotions that science doesn’t understand, we know the general tendencies for emotions are biologically driven, often influenced by both genetics and one’s physical and mental condition at any given moment. Professional assistance is often necessary here as well.
- Genetics. Not only are we the sum of all our various parts, but we are also the sum of the parts of others, the ancestors of both our parents who contribute to the unique construction of our DNA. Here is where we find some answers, such as sexuality, hair and eye color, weight, hormones, enzyme production, reproduction capabilities, and possibly even dietary limitations (jury’s still out on that one). Everyone in our family tree going back for centuries contributes in some way to our DNA but how that DNA is assembled is uniquely you. For the moment, there’s no changing our genetic identity but that could eventually change. Gene editing is a controversial science but its ability to “fix” challenges such as gene-based disease has the potential to change millions of lives.
What’s important to realize about our biological identity is that some changes are predictable and some are out of our control. How one’s body responds to aging is largely determined by genetics but can also be influenced by external aspects such as injury, diet, and exercise. We grow tall then we grow wide and despite our best efforts, there is much over which we have little say.
In short, the external influences on our identities are anything outside of ourselves that shape us. There are two important aspects of the externals that require important consideration. One is that they can and do change, which can result in an adjustment to our identity. The second is that as much as something might influence us, we have the ability to influence it and affect its identity as well. Let’s consider some of the broad categories.
- Culture. For our purposes, we’re defining culture as the customs, social institutions, arts, and humanities of a particular group of people. From the aspect of defining one’s identity, the culture into which one is born is the default but as one re-locates and/or becomes aware of and interested in a particular culture, certain aspects of that culture are adopted, sometimes intentionally, sometimes subconsciously. Many people, especially those who travel a great deal, have a multi-cultural identity. However, one has to beware of cultural appropriation, which is is the adoption of a culture to which one has no relationship.
- Belief systems. Religion plays a strong role in the identity of many people as it shapes one’s fundamental belief systems. However, as one develops independently, one may find that the precepts of the belief system to which they are introduced as a child no longer matches with their reasoning and critical thinking as an adult. Even apart from religion, one still has a belief system of some sort that influences who they are. Science and mathematics can become a belief system as can aspects of literature and media. If one is unsure of their belief system, this is a good point at which to take it under serious consideration.
- Political systems. Superficially, governments and the political systems that control them seem to be the most external of influences upon one’s identity. Once a government establishes rules for living within their jurisdiction, one’s political identity takes the shape of either agreeing or disagreeing with those rules. However, within the influence of these political systems is the inherent ability to shape those systems either through voting or through revolution. Many prefer to not participate and let the system control their identity. Others, however, find resistance a core part of who they are.
- Education. Many of us take for granted the basic ability to read and write even on a modest basis. We don’t immediately realize that the most fundamental education creates for us an identity separate from many in under-developed countries. The extent, proficiency, effectiveness, and direction of one’s education influences their identity as well, even down to the titles one may hold. Terms like Doctor and Professor are specific identifiers or academic achievement. However, one possesses the ability to determine for themselves the degree to which that education shapes their language and interaction with others.
- Language. How one communicates with others is perhaps the most fundamental external factor of one’s identity. We learn first the language of those who care for us. As we develop, we might add additional forms of communication-based on our social settings and geographic environment. The broader one expands their language capabilities the more effectively and efficiently one might understand and communicate with a larger group of people. As much as language influences us, we also contribute back to it by spreading words and terms not widely known and creating new words and phrases that might become associated with our identity. The classic example would be from the 1970s television comedy, “Happy Days,” when the character of The Fonz coins the word, “Ayyyyyyy.” His use of that phrase becomes part of his identity.
- Geography. Yes, where one exists affects one’s identity. First, where we are born gives us a national identity whether we like that or not. Sure, we have the ability to change that aspect as we grow older but on some level, we retain at least a minor influence from the origin point. Beyond that, the place where we exist provides all manner of influences from weather to the availability of food. For most people born in an industrialized country, we have the ability or option of changing our geography, finding a place that best suits who we want to be.
- Family. Oh, is this a tremendous factor in shaping our identity, sometimes in the ways in which we choose to escape their influence rather than embracing it. The family gives us our name and biological contributions to our DNA. The ways in which we are raised and nurtured, whether positive or negative, influences who we are and continues to influence us throughout adulthood. Naturally, we influence the whole family dynamic as well through the manner of our participation or lack thereof. While one might argue that the nuclear family is inherently dysfunctional, we have the ability to address that dysfunction and replace it as we create ourselves.
- Employment. Given the tremendous amount of time one spends engaged in work it would be impossible for that experience to not become part of our identity. At its best, our employment is in a career field we’ve chosen and enjoy. At its worst, employment is simply a means of economic sustenance at the hands of a cruel overlord. While yes, one might change an employment situation they don’t like, even negative influences sometimes become comfortable to the point we fear engaging an alternative. However, in a positive situation, we have the ability to make the work environment better not only for ourselves but for everyone around us. We hold more control over this aspect of our identity than we might realize.
- Social engagement. Whether one’s best friend is a cat that shows up at the back door every other Thursday or a troupe of comrades who regularly invade one’s fridge, the amount and quality of our social engagements becomes part of our identity. Every social interaction, from the barista who hands us our morning coffee to the ticket taker at the cinema, has the ability to influence us in some way. However, social engagement is where we hold the greatest influence as well. We determine with whom we associate and the basis of that association. We have the ability to control the when and the where as well as adding and removing engagements as they suit us. While not everyone is a social creature, everyone has a social aspect to their identity.
Several other external influences can exist and these can be broken down into endless subsections if needed. What’s important in creating one’s identity is that we carefully consider the role each of these plays in who we are rather than letting them passively shape us. If one is to be in full control of our identity, we have to also be in control of all our externals to the extent that doing so is reasonable and appropriate.
If the work toward self-creation hasn’t been grueling enough at this point, it’s about to get intense. The Biologicals and The Externals are factors over which we have limited control. While we can change many of those aspects, some of those changes are difficult, take considerable amounts of time, and may have unintended consequences. The Internals? That’s all you, baby. The good news is that there are only four categories here to consider. The challenge is that each one is a separate journey into ourselves. This is like the five-mile, full-pack run at the end of the Marine’s crucible. Don’t stop now.
How we see ourselves
If you’ve ever taken the Myers-Briggs personality test, this is largely what is being measured. This portion of our identity is often referred to as our personality and that is not wholly incorrect, but how we see ourselves, our self-identification is more than just a collection of traits. Included here are the things that encourage us and allow us to encourage ourselves. How we define hope and how we measure our personal levels of success are included here are well. Our interpretive context, how we translate things we do as well as things that happen to us, is a critical part of this aspect.
At the same time, our fears, things that threaten us, the way in which we handle emotional pain, and disappointment fall here as well. Not every aspect of our self-identity is positive, nor should it be. Things we choose to hold in secret, memories we refuse to let slip away, and our historic responses to critical life events are part of this influence.
There is a forward-looking aspect of how we see ourselves, also. Who we hope to become, what we want to do in the future, what we are afraid of becoming, what we fear might happen, also affect our identity. The person who stockpiles dried food against a coming holocaust, for example, or the individual who saves their entire life to return to college after retirement are both examples of this futuristic aspect of how we see ourselves.
So very much goes into this self-awareness that listing all the possible influences would be impossible. Instances of restraint, any form of repression, the manner in which we respond to threats on our character, our defense against society’s labels, all factor into how we see ourselves. Do we push back against stereotypes or give in to them? Do you conceive of yourself as not disadvantaged by your race, gender or anything else? When considering your life, do you see opportunities or a series of roadblocks?
For all the other aspects and influences on our identity, how we see ourselves may be the most critical because it is wholly of our own construct. No one can tell us we’re doing it wrong. We see in ourselves things no one else knows exists and elements we would never reveal publicly inevitably play into who we are. Without the ability to act upon and re-shape this self-conception, we are little more than slaves to the world around us.
The boundaries we create
I am always amused when someone tells me they live life without any rules. That statement alone is, in fact, a rule. For every “I am … “ statement we create for ourselves, there is an implied boundary, “I am not …” For example, if one states they are an ally for LGBTQ+ people they are by default creating a boundary against bigotry and all forms of homophobia and creating an internal alert to guard against such.
Boundaries are necessary to protect us against attacks on our identity and our character, things that would attempt to dismantle our perception of ourselves and what we allow others to see. The manner of behavior we are willing to accept from both ourselves and from others is a boundary. The decision of whether to accept or reject an external influence is a boundary. We may not always be aware of these walls that we’ve created around ourselves, but they are absolutely necessary and we should at no point allow someone to shame us for having created them.
For example, if one has a family member that constantly and persistently berates and belittles them regardless of facts and achievements, one may establish a boundary that either limits or completely eliminates any time spent around that person. Such boundaries are healthy and an important part of protecting our identity.
What becomes difficult, however, is maintaining those boundaries and making sure they are sufficient to protect us. Many people have huge gaps in their personal boundaries that leave their identity open to attacks. One of the most frequent and basic boundary-breakers is the inability to say or hear the word “no.” Without that boundary firmly in place, external influences become overwhelming and take over large portions of our identity.
There are also times when our boundaries are too soft or porous. Let’s say, for example, that one claims to be an ally for LGBTQ+ people but yet they are constantly seen in the company of, and agreement to a well-known homophobe who routinely makes fun of and belittles gay and lesbian people or refers to trans people as “unnatural.” Such an action calls into question one’s commitment to their identity as an ally. For a boundary to be firm, one has to maintain consistency between public and private actions.
Having clear, solid boundaries prevents other people and external influences from manipulating who you are and what you do. No one can guilt you into doing things that violate your principles or causes you unnecessary discomfort. People may “press your buttons” in a variety of ways but it is the strength of one’s boundaries that allows them to not become stressed or give into someone out of frustration. What good does it do to carefully construct one’s identity if we subsequently allow external influences to dismantle our work?
Of course, setting and stating boundaries is one thing. Keeping our personal rules and maintaining those boundaries is quite another. The maxim that “rules were made to be broken” might be a convenient excuse for breaching someone else’s rules but when we do that to ourselves we undermine who we are and water down our identity. When someone repeatedly makes sexually aggressive comments toward you, do you always shut them down, or do you let it slide if the aggressor is cute? If someone asks you for money because they’re “desperate and have no one else to turn to,” do you give in or do you apply the same scrutiny and requirements that you would for any other requests?
When one is inconsistent with their boundaries, the public perception of one’s identity becomes inconsistent as well. Are you someone who appears wishy-washy on issues or are you firm and reliable? Being inconsistent with our boundaries opens one up to ways in which others might take advantage of us, allowing us to be harmed in various ways. When we fill in any gaps and eliminate any inconsistencies, our identity remains strong.
How we see the world
Each of us processes trillions of pieces of information over the course of our lifetime but each of us processes that information differently based on our perspective of how the world works and operates, especially in relation to the things that directly affect our own lives. Like other parts of our identity, this global perspective is constantly changing, morphing our identity sometimes suddenly in response to a specific event and other times gradually as a perception develops.
What shapes our perspective is a mix of education, experience, one’s personal morality, and our valuation of what is important. Every piece of information is run through this extremely individualized filter and we then respond accordingly. If something happens somewhere we have never been and about which our knowledge is limited we are more likely to respond apathetically than if the same thing were to happen someplace we enjoy being.
One’s global perspective, also known as one’s world view, shapes critical pieces of our personal identity. Whether one is conservative or liberal, religious in any manner or not, accepting of others different from one’s self or not. To some degree, our biases are heavily influenced by one’s global perspective as are our acceptance or rejection of stereotypes.
Not surprisingly, the more we know, the broader our global perspective tends to be and we tend to be more compassionate and accepting of people and events outside our immediate geography. People who have traveled extensively have a demonstrably different way of filtering events than do those who are born, live and die within a 50-mile radius. Please note that one is not better than the other but as one is based on a greater amount of first-hand information it is more likely to be more accurate in its assessment.
One also needs to realize that this perspective of the world can be wrong and misguided. When we accept as fact information that is false, we skew our perspective away from reality. This may result in an identity that appears ignorant or foolish. When one repeatedly responds according to misinformation, all other valuations of one’s identity are called into question. Even more disconcerting is that one may not realize they are the victim of misinformation. When one’s belief system leads them to trust sources that are ultimately untrustworthy, one is less likely to scrutinize the value of the information coming from that source.
On the plus side, however, we always have the ability to radically change one’s global perspective. For many people, the events of and immediately following September 11, 2001, dramatically shifted their global perspective and every piece of information they have received since then has been disseminated through that filter in one way or another. For some within that group, however, they have moved away from their initial assessment following that event. Where the shock of the attacks caused many to be more withdrawn and protective in their view, as a greater understanding of what happened and the long-term effects of the political consequences has come to bear, many people have shifted their view in yet different directions from that initial response. Again, the more we know, the greater one’s depth of understanding, the more accurate our perspective becomes.
A valuation of ourselves
Separate from how we see ourselves, our valuation, our self-esteem if you will, is a strong and fundamental aspect of our identity. Here is where we answer one of the basic questions: Am I a good person? How we answer that question colors all other aspects of our identity no matter how positive or negative they might be.
For some people, self-esteem is pretty much a constant. Some people are sure of their worth and their place in the world. They are confident they are doing good, that they’re achieving sufficient success according to their personal expectations, and that they’re reasonably happy with the path their life is taking. Other people are consistently the opposite of that, never satisfied with the quality of who they are, lacking any confidence to do better, and perpetually disappointed with every aspect of their lives.
Most people, however, are on a self-esteem roller coaster that is frequently, sometimes daily or perhaps hourly buffeted by a mix of blows and encouragement that sway one’s emotions one direction or the other. If one falls into this category, life is frequently more stressful as one’s emotions likely dominate their self-esteem valuation. A snide remark from an employer might send some spiraling downward while a compliment or word of encouragement from a complete stranger can elevate one’s self-esteem skyward and the effect lasts for days.
Also impactful here is the presence of diseases such as depression, anxiety, and addiction. When any one of those is present, one’s self-esteem is inherently colored by that condition and can make positive-leaning self-esteem difficult if not impossible to maintain. Such a distortion of our self-esteem is critical and not only affects one’s identity but how one views their entire life. Professional help is strongly encouraged for anyone who might be experiencing any such life-altering disease.
Ultimately, one’s self-esteem takes everything we’ve placed into our identity and gives it the equivalent of stock valuation. One’s initial valuation might be low, but can be improved. At other times, one’s valuation might be inflated and require a level of correction in order to be tolerable to society. What’s most important, though, is that one can control their own self-esteem. One does not have to be at the mercy of external influences. We get to decide our own worth and no one has the right to argue when we set that valuation sky high.
Communicating Your Identity
When a Marine finishes the Crucible, they are awarded a special pin they wear on the collar of their uniform for the remainder of their service: the Eagle, Globe, and Anchor (EGA). That symbol alone identifies them as Marines and is recognized around the world. Not everyone achieves the honor of being a United States Marine. This identity is special and holds tremendous value.
Life doesn’t always give us a special pin when we complete the crucible of self-creation, however. As we go through this process, making adjustments, doing the difficult work of determining exactly who and what we are, there is rarely a specific symbol one can use that tells this world, “This is who I am.” That means it is up to us to find ways to effectively communicate our identity.
Why is this communication so important? Because other people are going to make assumptions about us that are often incorrect. Those assumptions can impact everything from one’s self-esteem to the type of opportunities one receives. When we communicate our identity proudly and up front, others are better able to respond appropriately to who we are. This is YOUR identity, your self-creation, and no one has any right to challenge or diminish that in any way. However, there are some challenges.
Before one can sufficiently communicate their identity to others, one has to embrace it for themselves. If, after going through this crucible of self-creation, one determines they are a gay, politically moderate, exceptionally educated elf-breeder, then one has to first accept all the aspects of that identity without feeling the need to backpedal on anything. If one looks at the identity they’ve created and feels that there might be a need to apologize for any aspect of it, then the whole thing needs to be reconsidered. One isn’t ready. We must first believe in ourselves before anyone else can believe in us.
Second, we can’t allow ourselves to be distracted by naysayers, and there will be naysayers no matter how one defines themselves. Some will say you’re overreaching. Some will say you’re not reaching far enough. Others will completely deny that you are who you say you are. This is where one’s boundaries come strongly into play. Don’t take the bait and argue with them because trolls only feed on the acknowledgment that comes with your response. Stand firm, block them or remove them, limit their access to you. Don’t let anyone or anything else diminish your identity.
While I’ve been writing this (it’s taken a minute or two longer than I expected) I received the story of a Marine recruit who had just received his EGA this week after completing the Crucible at Parris Island, North Carolina. This particular recruit was different in that when he first enlisted in 2016, his physical discovered that he had undiagnosed Stage 3 Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. Obviously, his boot camp training stopped as he underwent treatment that can at times be brutal, leaving a body weak and a spirit worn. He beat cancer, though, then came back, persevered, did what some told him was impossible, and finished his training. The epitome of a Marine, he had made a commitment and nothing, not even cancer, was going to prevent him from fulfilling that.
Similarly, we have to be as equally determined in our commitment to our own identity. Yes, it can and will change, but as it changes we remain committed to who we are right now in this moment. Just as a Marine would never apologize for the qualities that make them Marines, neither should you apologize for the qualities that are part of your identity. Never apologize for your gender. Never apologize for your race and culture history no matter how blended it might be. Never apologize for your sexuality. Never apologize for your belief system. Never apologize for your education. Never apologize for your global perspective. Never apologize for any of the things that make you the unique individual you have become. You suffered and fought and struggled to create this identity. There’s no apologizing necessary.
None of us is the same person we were two or three years ago. Self-assessment is a constant need and as we evolve one should as strongly commit to who they are now as they did to who they were in the past. I’m no longer the pianist and conductor I once was, for example. I still have those skills but I identify more strongly as a photographer and writer. Where once my relationship with my parents was central to my identity, I have moved further away from that since their passing. I’m now more likely to identify as the father of my children or Kat’s significantly-older partner. I am as firm in my assessment now as I was 20 years ago.
In Act 1, Scene III of Hamlet, William Shakespeare’s Polonius famously states:
This above all: to thine own self be true. And it must follow, as the night the day. Thou canst not then be false to any man/Farewell, my blessing season this in thee!
For all the myriad analysis of this phrase and its potential meanings, in the context of the period what Polonius is telling his son is to do what benefits himself the most. We must acknowledge ourselves first and foremost or else what we present to others is a lie.
Centuries have not changed the wisdom of this instruction. Our greatest freedom lies in our ability to define for ourselves who we are and our greatest strength is found in being that person, without apology, without exception. Be who you are. Embrace who you are. Enjoy who you are. Love who you are. Any other existence is compromised.
I’ve pulled from a horde of different sources, not all of which are available for reference. For the sake of maintaining a minimal level of academic integrity, here are some of the sources we consulted or considered in the writing of this article.
Sally Davies, Resist And Be Free
Who Am I? Self Identity—How to Build Personal Character
Literary Devices: Origins of To Thine Own Self Be True
World Bank Group: World Literacy Totals
Berkeley University: DNA and Mutations
SoundVision: DNA & Behavior
BasicGrowth: How to Create Your Own Identity
Adam Cash: Psychology, How To Build Your Personal Identity
Science Direct: Identity Work
Science Direct: Gender Differences In The Self-Defining Activities
Simply Psychology: Stereotypes
Ian Goddard: Identity DefinedDominic Packer and Jay J. VanBavel: The Dynamic Nature of Identity
Aron, A., Aron, E. N., Tudor, M., & Nelson, G. (1991). Close relationships as including other in the self. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 60(2), 241-253.
Jessie Zhu: What Is Self-Awareness and Why Is It Important