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“If you had offered me a pill to make me straight, I would have swallowed it before I could get a sip of water.”
– Mayor Pete Buttigieg
Life is full of troubling questions. What is life? When does life start and does it ever truly end? What does it mean to be human? What does it mean to be?
Philosophers have batted these questions around for centuries and just about the time there seems to be something resembling a consensus someone comes up with another question or another situation that doesn’t fit the previous answer and off we go again, asking the same questions and coming up with different answers. There are times when it can feel as though life is simply nothing more than the endless search for answers to questions that only generate more questions.
Members of the United States Marine Corp go through something called The Crucible. While artists and metal workers think of a crucible as a porcelain vessel used to melt metals, the Marines go with something closer to what Merriam-Webster defines as a place or situation in which concentrated forces interact to cause or influence change or development. The Crucible occurs at the end of boot camp, a 72-hour test of one’s endurance and training, the culmination of everything they’ve done up to that point, that defines who they are. Those who finish are awarded the Marine Corp’s Eagle, Globe, and Anchor. They are now officially Marines.
The Crucible is a Marine recruit’s most defining moment. Rarely, throughout their term of service, does a Marine encounter conditions more harsh, more demanding, more trying, than those 72 hours. In the end, though, they know who they are. They are United States Marines.
Rarely does life give us such a high-intensity period of time to define who we are, though. We’re sent through at least twelve years of school where we are expected to learn a lot of things but at the end of that education, most of us still don’t have a clue as to who we truly are. Even college fails to provide specific instruction to help one with this quest. We learn about society and sociology and psychology and the history of civilization but any work done to learn specifically about ourselves must be done on our own. There is no classroom instruction, no tutor, and no guidance counselor assigned to help us complete what may be the most critical task of our lives.
For the greater part of human existence, the question of who we are was left to philosophers, most of whom also happened to be theologians. This left us with an ingrained notion that we are, first and foremost, “children of god” and that our primary purpose is to serve him, or her, or it, depending on the specifics of the deity’s identity. Since no one wanted to incur the wrath of an angry god, they went along with what they were told and did their best to adapt to that definition. Men were protective and war-like while women stayed home, raised children, and did all the menial labor. While far from what we would consider fair in a modern environment, few ever questioned their role and their place because to do so meant challenging the deity and that was not likely to end with a positive and uplifting experience.
Yet, even within that religiously-induced definition, we have struggled to find who we are as individuals. This search has arguably been the inspiration for libraries full of poetry, every conceivable form of a midlife crisis, numerous divorces and other relationship issues, changing careers, changing political alignments, and changing our gender identities. As we struggle through this self-examination that ultimately influences change and development, we not only disrupt our own lives but those of everyone close to us as well. When an entire generation goes through such a period of definition, all of society is disrupted and change is inevitable.
Destroying The Threat Of Stereotypes
From the very outset of life, the path toward self-identification is thwarted by the imposition of stereotypes. Just to make sure that we’re all on the same page, I’m defining stereotypes as a set of a largely agreed-upon set of characteristics regarding a specific group or set of people. Some people might prefer to use the term “generalizations” and I’ve occasionally seen the phrase “unifying character traits” but neither of those conveys the negative aspects of exclusion and ignorance that are inferred in the word stereotype.
At birth, the delivering attendant, whether it’s a doctor or a midwife or a doula, gives us our first stereotype when they declare, “It’s a boy!” or “It’s a girl!” From that moment forward, we are saddled with a set of expectations not only regarding our general behavior but expectations for how we will proceed through life. For the first several years of our lives, most of us acquiesce to those expectations. We dress like other little boys and little girls dress. We play with the same toys and other little boys and little girls. We watch our peers and mimic their activities and language. We learn how to fit in with the group.
Psychologists and other researchers have argued whether it is possible to avoid stereotypes. Our brain does this thing where it groups like things together and just as it might group various shades of the magenta pigment together and call them all “red,” it does the same thing with people, looking for similarities and then grouping people together under assigned levels so as to make processing easier.
Fighting our brains to keep them from creating these groupings is difficult at best and, some argue, impossible. Even if we can’t stop our brains from creating stereotypes, though, we are not obligated to follow them. Every time we become aware of an unfair or biased categorization, we can challenge that and eventually train our brains to make more accurate judgments. Be aware, though, that the mind is so overworked that it’s going to take any shortcut it can to ease processing.
Once we give into a stereotype as basic as gender, breaking away from those assumptions proves difficult because every other system we encounter is designed to reinforce the stereotypes. For example, for many years there was no baby changing stations in most public men’s restrooms. As a dad who enjoyed taking my eldest son everywhere with me, that proved to be extremely frustrating. While women could take their children and change their inevitably messy diapers on presumptively clean-ish surfaces, I was left attempting to change my constantly wiggling bundle of joy on whatever surface I could prep with wet wipes. Protecting my child’s modesty wasn’t an option because the stereotype deemed that men don’t change baby’s diapers. Only when both men and women began challenging that portion of the male stereotype did the situation begin to change.
The threat of stereotypes occurs when we begin to think that they might actually be credible and change our actions accordingly. Perhaps the most well-known study of the stereotype threat was done in 1995 by Psychologists Claude Steele, Ph.D., Joshua Aronson, Ph.D., and Steven Spencer, Ph.D. What they discovered is that “ … even passing reminders that someone belongs to one group or another, such as a group stereotyped as inferior in academics, can wreak havoc ….”
In their study, researchers gave basic GRE verbal questions to two groups of people. Those in the null group were given no indications regarding stereotypes. Those in the test group, however, were told that the test determined intellectual capability. Within the null group, black students performed equally well as white students. Within the test group, however, black students performed worse, subconsciously giving into the stereotype that black students are somehow slower or less intelligent. Note, the students taking the test didn’t have to believe the stereotype or even be actively aware of it to respond negatively.
Similar findings were the result when researchers told women that a math test showed gender differences. Women who were told that gender difference was a factor of the test performed more poorly than did women who were not told about the inferred judgment. Such subtle inferences, the kind often made by teachers who meant no direct ill will toward their students, likely indicates why women and people of color so often struggle with standardized tests. Stereotypes, even when we reject them, can completely destroy our lives!
Breaking stereotypes, especially gender and racial stereotypes, can be extremely difficult but it can be done and the earlier in life we begin attacking them the better. While most scholarly exercises I’ve found focus on helping children break stereotypes, there are some aspects that can work for us even as adults struggling to pull free of all we’ve been told throughout our lives.
- Mentally challenge any stereotype one hears, regardless of its source. Okay, maybe you don’t directly challenge the pastor in the middle of their sermon or a politician giving a speech (though, arguably, that may be the only way to get them to listen), one can still recognize hurtful phrases like, “They’re all murderers and thieves,” or “Smart people don’t do that.” The more we become aware of bias stereotypes in our speech and the language of others the more quickly and efficiently we can counter them.
- Talk about stereotypes with friends. By making stereotypes a frequent topic of conversation among friends, one spreads the awareness of the damage they do and we all have the opportunity to grow from the exercise. Hearing the perspective of other people also helps us to recognize stereotype threats we might not have caught before.
- Avoid labeling activities/actions by gender or culture. While this particular step is extremely important when working with children, it is also important that we do the same thing with ourselves. Even phrases that are seemingly as innocent as “wearing the pants in the family” reinforce a stereotype that men are the ones in charge. A hairstyle is simply a hairstyle regardless of who is wearing it. A song is merely a song no matter who is singing it. Such stereotypes are deeply ingrained in our society but when we don’t use their labels they lose their power.
- Use inclusive language wherever possible. This one can be tough. Using non-gender-specific language is one thing but stripping our vocabularies of racial references requires some serious examination of the etymology of our vocabulary. For example, several years ago, I developed this bad habit of calling any male person younger than me “son.” That was offensive on two fronts. Not only was it gender-presumptive but it was also racially insensitive, a lesson I learned quickly once I was in a more metropolitan environment. Much of our language is designed to reinforce stereotypes of one kind or another. We need to think before we speak.
- Value difference. Step outside your comfort zone not only in terms of language but in terms of the people with whom one associates. Get to know non-cisgendered people. Make an effort to know and understand people from different cultures. Put some work into dismantling both the subtle and blatant stereotypes that permeate our culture.
We may not be able to stop biased stereotypes from occurring, but we don’t have to accept them and we don’t have to let them become part of our self-definition. One has every right to be exactly who they want to be, without any presumptions as to how that definition might affect our behavior, habits, or public presentation.
Understanding The Dynamic Nature of Identity
Even as late as the mid-1980s, many psychological studies looked at identity as a fixed and stable factor. Having a consistent and steady identity was not only presumed to be the norm, but any deviation from that stability was also largely considered a symptom of psychosis. The basis for this perspective came from how “identity” is used in non-human definitions. A flower identified as a rose is always and consistently a rose; it does not wake up one morning to the realization that it is actually a daisy.
However, a litany of studies building upon research from the 1950s shows that our identity is inherently fluid, starting with the fact that one does not identify as a five-year-old for any longer than twelve months. The list of things that affect our identity is lengthy and not only includes our age but also our education, our careers, our hobbies, and aspects of all our relationships. Our identity is wholly fluid, always changing, and in reality, anything but stable.
Such a fundamental difference in the way we think about identity is, of course, upsetting to some and confusing to others. For many people, the concept that an identity change demands that there be an event causing that change. One example would be the strong, athletic young person who joins the military and returns from war missing a limb. That event would, naturally enough, be sufficient to change how a veteran identifies. Short of a trauma-inducing event, however, these people would expect an identity to remain static.
What we’re increasingly learning, however, is that there are many factors involved in our identity that we don’t immediately recognize. One study done in 1991 looked at married graduate students who, over a period of time, tended to identify with decisions their spouse had made as to their own, merging the two separate identities into one. The couples did not realize what was happening until the change was mentioned to them. Most couples in a long-term relationship likely never realize the degree to which they adopt portions of the other’s identity.
Awareness of identity is not necessary, however, for the identity to be present. Actions and activities can often be demonstrative of identity even when one is actively denying that explicit identity. We see this most often, perhaps, in those who serially abuse young children. Few ever view their identity as that of a child molester, yet their patterned behavior defines them as such.
What this means is that one’s identity is like the contents of a river, composed of the basic ingredients that label us as human but with various elements coming and going throughout our journey, influencing our identity for a portion of the journey but not always staying for the entirety of the trip.
No longer do we believe that changes to our identity are necessarily symptomatic of psychosis or the result of great trauma. Changes to our identity can occur simply because we finally become aware of and embrace aspects and characteristic we had previously attempted to ignore. This also gives us room to admit that we may not have correctly labeled a portion of our identity, giving us space to adjust our self-creation.
If such instability feels troubling, know that you’re not alone. Shifting sands makes walking difficult. Much of our society is built upon the concept of stable identities that never change. We find this especially true in our criminal justice system where once a person is branded as a felon, few states ever return to those persons specific rights such as the ability to vote regardless of any level of reform they might demonstrate. Capitalistic economic policies assume that identities stay consistent and predictable based on previous performance. Allowing change on any level, whether small or drastic, provides room for outcomes not previously considered and consequences for which society is not prepared.
There is more to this process once we understand that one isn’t “stuck” with an identity that fails to hold true. With commercial DNA tests letting people know more about their ancestry than ever before, people are discovering they have cultural roots they had not previously anticipated. Some inevitably choose to pursue those ancestral cultures, leaving behind that with which they are raised. This has led to events like people raised in Brooklyn deciding to learn and speak only Mandarin Chinese, women in the Midwest having their hair braided to “embrace the 3% North African heritage” the test said was present (note: everyone has 3-4% North African heritage because that is the region from which homo sapiens originally migrated), and a few people of color deciding to embrace the Viking lifestyle of some unknown ancestor.
Constraints still remain, however. One cannot simply decide that they want to be something they are not capable of being. I would dearly love to be an astrophysicist. I enjoy reading about all the different theories and quantum explanations. Yet, despite all my enthusiasm, when it comes to learning the math necessary to actually explain astrophysics my brain refuses to cooperate. All the desire in the world is not enough to make me an astrophysicist; that will never be part of my identity. Other people are unable to learn a musical instrument; even basic drumming eludes them. A severe lack of eye-hand coordination might prevent one from becoming a carpenter or sculptor. Wanting to do something and having the ability to do it is not always in line and there are times when all the effort one can muster is insufficient to change that.
Where this leaves us is with the knowledge that while one’s identity is fluid and capable of change, that change is not and cannot be arbitrary—it must come from somewhere within us, utilizing elements that are already present though perhaps dormant. We are born with transitory powers to be more than a collection of stereotypes but not everyone is born Chinese, not everyone is born a musical genius, not everyone is born gay, and not everyone is born coordinated. One has wiggle room in creating their identity but we cannot be something we were not born to be.
Knowing Who We Are
Not everyone on the planet has an identity crisis. There are plenty of people in the world who know and accept who they are, what their identity is, without having any reason or desire to question that. I have found, anecdotally, that musicians often fall into this category. Many know at a very early age, pretty much from the first conscious awareness of self, that their purpose in life is to create music and they have an inherent ability to do so. They could never imagine themselves doing anything else. Similar situations occur across a variety of identities. Mathematicians, farmers, inventors, artists, and many others know who they are from the earliest moments of their lives.
Sometimes, tragically, one knows who they are and also knows that being who they are is not acceptable to the environment in which they currently reside. I am saddened and often frustrated that there are still far too many places in the world where women know they have these incredible skills and talents but to even ask for education to develop those abilities might result in them being abused, beaten, or even killed. Plenty of others know early on that they are not the gender which they were assigned at birth but the very act of exploring a different identity results in ridicule, separation, and too often, death. Their society and their religion establish their identities for them and they are not allowed to question or challenge what those authorities tell them without fearing for their lives.
Still, for millions if not billions of people, there are more than seven billion of us after all, identity is something that eludes us. What we sense we are battles with many external influences and even our own desires, leaving one with uncertainty as to which way to go, what to do, who to be. Our educational system in the United States and across much of Europe is designed to push us toward a specific identity by the time we graduate from high school or turn 18 years old, but do we truly know enough about ourselves and our options to cobble together an identity that works for us Some people struggle their entire lives, never feeling comfortable with any combination of labels, never finding an identity that truly fits. Knowing who we are is not always a given nor is it always something that reveals itself to us.
Psychologists refer to the process of learning who we are as self-awareness. I bring that term up with some trepidation and a careful warning: not all self-awareness methods are based on actual scientific research and there are plenty of feel-good scams that happily take one’s money while producing nothing of value. I’m also not a proponent of anything program that offers to help one “find” themselves. You are not lost. Your identity is not lost. We don’t search for an identity, we create our identity based upon the following factors:
- The culmination of our experiences
- The development of our skills and talents
- The awareness of our own realities
Of those, it is the last one that tends to trip us up the most because it is at that point we often have to face truths about ourselves that might either make us uncomfortable or make everyone around us uncomfortable. Let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves, though. Let’s look first at the culmination of our experiences.
Experience lies at the very foundation of human identity. Many psychologists and researchers are fond of saying that we are the sum of our parts, with “our parts” being comprised of the various experiences we have. From our earliest moments of existence, the experiences we have shaped our identity. Were we raised by our birth parents or adopted? Were we bottle fed or breastfed? Were we an only child or in the middle of a large family with multiple siblings both older and younger? All of those factors along with many others form our basic identity and to a large extent, we get no say in those earliest experiences. We don’t have any control over where we were born, the social and political climates in which we first live, No one asks us into what culture we wish to be born, the pigmentation of our skin, or in what language we first learn to communicate. Yet, all these factors influence our identity.
Other experiences we do choose and those factor into our identity as well. For example, if one chooses to ask a person out on a date and everything about it goes horribly wrong, that experience does not determine our identity but it certainly influences it. Failure and our response to it has a tremendous impact on the creation of who we are. A trip that immerses us in a different culture, an education course that challenges our thinking, and even breaking down on the side of a road in the middle of the night while it is raining and having to change a flat tire on our own are all experiences that help form our identity.
Now, listen carefully: because we never stop having experiences, our identity is never done developing. One may go through the majority of their life thinking their identity is one thing and a single experience at age 59 changes everything. Seniors who are inherently trusting, giving souls may completely reverse course after becoming the victim of a targeted scam that deprives them of their savings. Tragically losing a child is an experience I would wish on no one but unquestionably changes one’s identity. There are experiences throughout our lives that dramatically alter the course of who we are.
At the same time as we are gathering all those experiences, we are developing the skills and talents inherent to our nature and perhaps adding some that are not especially native to our being. Language is one of our first experiences in communication but the addition of multiple languages changes our ability to communicate more broadly and thereby becomes influential in our identity. People who are naturally gifted in the understanding of numbers and their place in the world see their identities taking a firmer shape as they develop the ability to apply their skills to solving real-world and theoretical problems.
Even here, though, as natural as this process might be for some, there are others who struggle. Skills and talents don’t always manifest themselves early in childhood. Many people reach the age of adulthood still asking the question: what am I good at doing? Frequently, adults asking that question have tried all sorts of things across a broad spectrum and are frustrated at coming up empty. Parents and teachers and therapists have all tried to reassure us that everyone is good at something but there is no empirical evidence to back up that claim. For some, the best they can hope for is to be mediocre at something they find somewhat interesting. Still, even in those less-than-desirable conditions, one’s identity is formed. Every attempt at trying something new and different shapes one in some fashion.
Where this ultimately leads us, however, is toward a kind of identity work that helps us to assemble the information necessary for self-creation. Exactly how this happens is up for some debate. There is a set of psychologists who believe identity is spoken into existence. They believe that the music we prefer and play repeatedly, the fashion choices we make, and the keywords and phrases used most often are what establishes our identity. At the same time, there are others who believe that our identity is wrapped up in biological markers such as race, biological heritage, DNA peculiarities, and our ability to adapt to various environments. Still, others attempt to make a case that community identity, the group(s) of which we are a part, come first and that our personal identity is an amalgamation of one’s communal identity.
Regardless of the path one takes to get there, we have to be ready to do some serious reflection and deep examination of who we really are, not just who we prefer to be. We have to consider not only the positive aspects but the negatives as well and allow ourselves to accept what’s there and what isn’t. Here are a few steps that might help one get to that point.
- Journalize. This doesn’t have to be anything especially formal, nor public, but writing down what we experience and how we respond to different experiences, what we think and how we feel about those experiences, all work together to help paint a picture of who we are or were in any given moment. Even as events and circumstances change who we are, a journal gives us the ability to track those changes so we understand and appreciate how we got to where we are.
- Pay attention. It is easy for us to go through life as though we’re on autopilot. Start paying attention to what exactly it is you do, to whom you speak, and what you say. How many times in the past week have you eaten the same lunch, for example? If the answer is three or more, ask yourself why. We establish routines for a reason but quickly forget what that reason was. Do you find yourself speaking to the same people during your day, and saying exactly the same things? Consider why that happens and why you don’t speak to others or change up the conversation. Often, we have difficulty creating our identities simply because we don’t pay attention to who we are.
- Get input from others. You may think you’re not good at anything, or you might perceive that your strengths and weaknesses follow a given path, but those closest to you, and even those not all that close, might be aware of different characteristics and traits that had not made themselves clear to you. They may also reaffirm matters on which one was not certain. Listen carefully to what other people tell you and don’t be afraid to read between the lines a little bit. Friends have already made up their mind who you are from their own data and like you anyway. That makes for a pretty good place to start.
- Focus on yourself. We spend so much time thinking of who we are in relation to other people and other things that we lose sight of who we are. Stop, separate yourself from everything and everyone, at least mentally, and engage in serious introspection. Consider what it is you give to the universe as well as what you take. Pay attention to what you need and compare that to things you no longer use. Take stock of what feels right, what your body tells you is correct, where your emotions are most stable. Consider who you would be if all you had was yourself.
DO NOT expect this process to be something that happens in the course of a day, a week or even a month. Neither should one expect that once they’ve gone through this exercise and determined who they are that they never need to repeat the process again. Remember, identity is fluid, changing, evolving. Anytime one begins to feel that their out of place or disconnected it would probably be beneficial to go through this rigor again.
Don’t Look For Yourself, Create Yourself
British philosopher Julian Baggini gave an interesting talk at [email protected] in which he asks the question: Is there a real you? If time allows, I strongly recommend watching it. Not to give away any spoilers or anything of the sort, but where he ends up is with the interesting idea that we cannot find ourselves, we must create ourselves.
What Dr. Baggini is suggesting is the polar opposite of what popular culture has embraced the past 50 or so years. Young people especially have been told to go out and find themselves. Those with the means for doing so have embarked upon year-long adventures in an effort to make those decisions about who they are and who they want to be. An entire industry has been built around guiding people who are searching for their lost identity.
The problem with that approach, and the reason it has largely been unsuccessful and the object of scorn and ridicule is that it doesn’t work. We can’t find ourselves because we don’t exist somewhere apart from where and what we already are. We can shape our identities, we can influence our identities, but we don’t find our identities. We alone decide who and what we are and no one else is remotely qualified to make that determination for us.
Here, too, however, one has to watch for differences of opinion and a certain level of bullshit that ends up misdirecting us. Adam Cash wrote a “dummies” book called Psychology: How to Build Your Personal Identity. He differentiates between one’s public self and one’s private self and there is some merit to that approach in general. Others might use the term corporate self or communal self compared to the individual self. There’s a reasonably sized community within the field of psychology that makes this separation.
However, what we must realize is that our identity is more than establishing self-confidence or deciding that we want to take on a given personality. Our identity stems from the biological components with which our bodies are constructed and expands through our experiences and our education and our mental, intellection, emotional, and physical development. We are not just one thing, we are the sum of many things.
Dr. Baggini uses the example of a wrist watch. His was digital but I prefer to reference my analog timepiece because it’s perhaps more true to the analogy. If I were to disassemble my watch, I would have a table full of pieces, some of which would be quite small and, to the untrained observer, of questionable value. Put together correctly, though, they become a precision timepiece and that is exactly how we refer to them: as a watch. We don’t say, “I have a cool collection of gears and springs and itsy bitsy screws on my arm,” do we? No, that thing on my wrist getting caught on the cuffs of my shirt sleeves is a watch—that is its identity.
You are exactly the same. There are all these myriad pieces and parts from experience and biology and personality and emotions and preferences and dislikes and inheritance that come together with incredible and amazing precision to form you. There is no external you and internal you because the face of the watch is just as much a part of the watch as the timing mechanism that no one ever sees. We may choose to not reveal our full identity to everyone we meet (probably a good idea in the majority of cases) but the portion we keep to ourselves still holds influence over the parts we allow to be seen publicly.
What’s more, if we continue the watch analogy, we have the ability to change the face, adjust the timing mechanism, swap from gold to stainless steel parts, blend digital with analog components, and create our watch in any form we wish. Okay, so there are some memories in one’s past that are overwhelmingly dominating our identity and we don’t like that. While it’s possibly not the smartest idea to completely remove that memory (totally different book on that subject) its influence on your identity can be minimized. Perhaps the biology with which you were born doesn’t match the rest of your identity. Maybe your sexual identity doesn’t fit within the analog confines of social or religious expectations. None of those things keep one from assembling a top-of-the-line identity.
What’s critical is that we commit to the assembly and since most of us don’t come into life with an expertise in identity making we have to expect the process to be every bit as grueling and a thorough test of our fortitude as is the Marine Corp crucible. Fortunately, one is not limited to 72 hours to complete their identity, but like that event it takes a level of mastery and understanding of every piece and where it fits to complete this task.
The whole concept of “finding yourself” has lured us into thinking that identity work is easy, something we can treat as a vacation. While some identities come rather naturally and never need much of a tune up, for many people the process is extremely involved and can involve a tremendous amount of therapy to grapple with the intensity of some of our experiences while attempting to resolve a host of conflicting emotions and desires. When one reaches the point of realizing that they need to create their own identity, the answer is seldom found in taking a year-long backpacking trip across Europe.
Instead, creating our identity takes time, study, and consideration. We may find that to be the person we want to be that we must first remove some things and possibly even some people from our lives. One might also find that we need to understand more about certain aspects of ourselves before deciding whether we embrace or discard those qualities. To be happy with our identity, we have to work with precision and not be afraid to discard what doesn’t work.