With this post marking the 400th Philosophy Tuesday post* it has to do something special and fundamental… so let’s dive some more into our identities. Because it’s hard to get any more at the root of so much of our lives than that of our identities. I’ve talked about them a bunch already and explored many of their facets (this post links to many of them), but one side I haven’t really delved into yet is this.
Our identity (or identity of identities) is not an inherent thing, ascribed to us by the fates of the universe. It can also be limiting and can trip us up in all sorts of unproductive and deleterious ways. Yet, at the same time, we can’t really live without an identity – or, perhaps more properly expressed, it’s useful to have an identity. They can be fun and fulfilling and give us a sense of meaning and purpose and, well, identity, while at the same time they can be of service to us, acting as a guidepost and shortcut rather than having to invent everything every moment from scratch.**
So the question becomes, what are some guidelines around what we choose (and perhaps a little bit of what “should” we choose) when we’re building our identity?
Well, in an ironic first step, one thing not to do is to define ourselves as an opposite (or in opposition to) something else. While defining something as “not that” is easy (or easier than defining something from nothing), it is a trap and incredibly constraining.*** Plus, by its very nature it has conflict potential built in.
The other thing to avoid is making beliefs, stances, or ideologies part of our identity. These tend to be rigid and inflexible, and very susceptible to triggering our survival mechanisms (remember that our brains cannot tell the difference between an attack on our body or an attack on our identity). These hamper our ability to adapt and learn.
Status or ability or appearance are other aspects that are very much subject to change due to outside forces (or just the passage of time). This can quickly engage our calculating selves in a defensive storm, at best leading to unhappiness but at worst often self-destructive behaviour.
Where this leaves us is creating identities that are generative (rather than negating or against), enlivening, value-driven, and about ways of being.
It’s also best to diversify. When our identities are narrowly focused, even if they’re empowering in the moment, when the situation changes**** then that can cause quite the consternation and breakdown.
Similarly, be broad. Identity items that focus on a narrow outcomes or on narrow ways something can be expressed or be successful become restraining and ripe for being thwarted, and thus again creating consternation and breakdown.
Interests and activities can also work, if they are created and live for us in a broad way to encompass values ways of being. For example, my identity as “Architect” is in an interest in the whole realm of architecture, including beauty (a value) as well as curiosity and creativity (ways of being), and it ties into other interests each with their own values and ways of being.
Even with all of the above, there still needs to be some judiciousness – values and ways of being are great, but there are both values and ways of being that are unpleasant, unproductive, and harmful to us or to others. It pays to do the work to not be hoodwinked by something we may see as necessary to survive or “win” that, in reality, is inaccurate, overblown, and often produces the very thing we’re trying to avoid.
And whatever we choose, it’s good to remember the Identity Tiers and slot things appropriately. It may be even best to not slot anything into the Tier 1 category, or at least be very judicious about what gets slotted there, given how that can easily become attachment with all the landmines that entails. Use the lower slots as appropriate for the “strength” of that aspect of our identity, with values and ways of being higher up, and interests and others lower down. This keeps our identities light, which can be hugely freeing. With things in the proper slots, rather than cling and defend we can instead engage and dance with all of life.
That dance is important. All of this only scratches the surface as a starting point, and crafting our identity is not something we only get one chance at doing. As we move through life, as things and our situations change, as we learn and grow, as our interests and visions shift, as all is mutable, we can revisit and rework our identities, forever crafting them to enliven and empower ourselves and all those around us, and seeking that which we all want: being related and connected, fulfillment, joy, self-expression, making a difference, and peace of mind.
* In reality it’s probably over 400th, if you include the days when they weren’t specifically titled Philosophy Tuesday as well as counting the bonus posts around a certain movie…
** This is, of course, why they can be unproductive and deleterious. If we fully go on autopilot with them then we’re not present or mindful and can head down “wrong” paths for quite some ways before we notice and try to correct our course. And if we’re fully in the throws of our identity, we may never notice we’re down those dark paths and will follow them no matter how much they lead to ruin.
*** One common example is the “I will never do what X would do” or “I will never be like Y.” And while it may feel like throwing off the yoke of a dominating or controlling other, you’ve actually just sentenced yourself to being dominated and controlled by them because now you HAVE to act in a way that is in opposition to them, even if something(s) they do/say/think/etc could be useful or fit in with your other identities.
**** Which doesn’t have to be as a result of random fortune, it might be a very logical progression. For example, if our identity is narrow around parenting, or around a certain person, then when the children move out or that person passes on by definition the identity will be disrupted.