Identity is problematic in many ways. We talk about it from so many different angles, that it is hard to define what identity actually is. It’s a useful word, in that it seems to say something of the human condition, but exactly what it says, and what solutions we might propose to psychological problems involving identity, are tough questions to answer.
TWO CONTRASTING DEFINITIONS
Identity most often refers to a sense of individual separateness or distinctiveness. If, for instance, you pour water into a glass that already has water in it, then it can be said that each separate pool of water loses its own identity, in that they become inseparably woven into each other.
This definition of identity, when applied to human psychology, introduces an idea of individual separateness or distinctiveness. We start to think of a developing child as somehow on a journey to separate themelves from other humans, to carve a distinctive self.
However, we also have a different use of the word identity. Sometimes, we talk about discovering a true identity. This type of identity does not necessarily depend on being separate or distinctive – it is more to do with authenticity. People talk about discovering their ‘true self’, meaning that other adopted selves to date have been somehow ‘false’.
This second definition of identity, when applied to human psychology, introduces an idea of truth, whether by description or by sensation. In other words, ‘my identity’ can mean ‘a clear understanding of my real nature’, either objectively or subjectively.
HOW THE TWO DEFINITIONS CAN CONFLICT
We can see how these two different understandings of identity might even cause, or at least reflect, difficult psychological journeys. For instance, a person might work hard on carving out a separate identity, but that identity might be felt, by themselves or others, as inauthentic, a mask they put on. To an extent, this separateness-with-inauthenticity is part and parcel of growing up. Adolescents will often put on several identity masks as try-outs for future projected selves. As one writer put it, ‘what you call fake, it what I call a new pair of shoes that needs wearing in.’ The authentic self, in that context, is perhaps something that one graduates towards through a series of social experiments.
Equally, a person might have a strong sense of personal identity, in the sense that they feel authentically themselves, and yet to another they may look as though they have compromised their distinctiveness, their separate identity. Thus the story of a woman who joins a convent, or a person who joins a cult, may appear to some to have compromised their identity (= separate self), but may feel to others to have found their identity (= true self).
AN EVOLUTIONARY PERSPECTIVE
Looking back to animal and human development, we can perhaps find functions for both ‘separate-self’ identity, and ‘true-self’ identity. For example, in some species, distinctiveness between two sexes may allow reproduction to happen more clearly and efficiently (less time spent by sockets and plugs searching for each other, so to speak). This could facilitate the exaggeration and perpetuation of behaviour that reinforces sexual distinctiveness. Hence, identity, in the sense of distinctiveness, can be functional, if one considers species perpetuation functional.
On the other hand, we can find functions for ‘true-self’ identity. We can see how animals might graduate towards environments and situations that reflect their natural tendencies and behaviours, and reject those that do not. In this way, an animal will inherit a taste for what food, behaviour and environment is more ‘me’ – in the sense of suiting the organic equipment it has been born with. Into the next generation travels, not only the presence of a body, but also a set of urges that bring frustration in unsympathetic situations, and satisfaction in sympathetic situations. For example, we tend to be born with a preference for food that works for us, and an aversion to things that are dangerous or poisonous.
WHAT DOES THIS MEAN FOR MENTAL HEALTH?
How can we put this all together in a way that means something for mental health.
I have to think about this all the time in the counselling and therapeutic work that I do. Sometimes a client will bring up a question of identity, either explicitly or implicitly. Phrases that signal such thoughts might include:
They want me to do it, but it’s just not me
I feel I’m in the wrong job
I feel I’m in the wrong body
I feel I’ve lost my identity
I don’t know who I am any more
I don’t know where I end and they begin
I feel I’ve given up so much of myself in this relationship
I want to find myself
I don’t recognise myself
I don’t relate to other people’s description of me
THE QUEST FOR A SENSE OF IDENTITY
The search for identity, and its conflicts, can be lifelong. After all, birth gives a being the instinct to be distinctive and separate, but also the urge to find conditions and behaviours which reflect a felt set of inner needs. It is not surprising that we want to have our cake and eat it – that we can all say we want a distinctive life, even at the expense of some happiness; but we all want a happy life, even at the expense of some distinctiveness. Finding the balance is tricky, but someone’s got to do it; and that someone is probably us.