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When I first got into self-development, I was encouraged repeatedly to create, develop and maintain a unique identity. This was often the more tangible advice around what it meant to “Just be yourself.”
It seemed like good advice. It implied that “I” was a fixed thing that I could create, cement as a structure, and then live by. It was promised that if I did this I would enjoy success, respect and self-worth.
It wasn’t until I tried doing it that I realized something was wrong.
If you’re like me, you’ve been bombarded your entire life with messaging about identity.
When it’s subtle, it dances around the subject, like being told you need to find a lifelong career, or you need a single purpose in life, or hearing people refer to themselves by their beliefs, job title or activities, like “I’m a software developer” or “I’m a Christian.”
When it’s direct, you’re being told you need to develop into something that fits a strict set of rules. Be A Man, be A Good Muslim, “you must find yourself” – these are the kinds of instructions that are often thrown at us (usually advice that’s completely unasked for), and we get a sense that the people delivering these messages know what they’re talking about.
I’d like to offer a different view. For a moment, I’d like you to consider the opposite side of this argument: The idea that having an identity is harmful.
WHAT IS AN IDENTITY?
Taking directly from Wikipedia, the true definition:
In psychology, identity is the qualities, beliefs, personality, looks and/or expressions that make a person (self-identity) or group (particular social category or social group). A psychological identity relates to self-image (one’s mental model of oneself), self-esteem, and individuality.
You’ll notice immediately how this both does and doesn’t align with what you believe an identity is (if you’ve ever stopped to really consider it). This will give you a hint as to the subjective nature of identity. Simply put, we don’t really know what an identity is, but we cling to whatever we’ve got like a life-raft.
What makes up “Yourself?” Whatever your answer, that’s your identity.
Many people focus on vocation. When you ask them to introduce themselves, the most common fallback position is their job title. Accountant. Car salesman. Stay-at-home Mom. Entrepreneur. Student. People most commonly identify as what they do for a living, or what they do instead of having a job.
Others, in my experience, try to create an impressive identity, based on particular beliefs they wish to convey. They identify as being part of what they perceive to be an elite group, or they try to make a point of being impossible to categorize. People say things like “I’m spiritual” or “I’m a vegan” or “I’m an atheist,” or even something like “I am consciousness.”
However it’s done, most people try to label themselves as succinctly as possible, with a title that either connotates impressive qualities, or tries to avoid further digging. When a person identifies strongly with something specific – e.g. “I’m a Republican” – they do so to invite probing, agreement, or even conflict. Others play it safe, like “I’m an engineer,” to avoid laying potential bait that might provoke further exploration.
These identity labels come with an unwritten set of rules, standards and boundaries (usually). A Doctor may subscribe to being analytical, powerful and reliable. A Vegetarian may subscribe to eating only certain plants, loving all animals, and being a promoter of good health. A Social Justice Warrior may feel pressure to maintain extreme outrage and fight whatever stance is taken by the majority.
Whatever the identity, the label is a summary of the rules you must follow to remain true to “yourself.”
Before continuing, take a moment to register what your identity label is, or are (there may be multiple hats you wear), and what rules you feel this obliges you to follow dogmatically. This may even include an identity where you feel pressured to break all rules, like being a Criminal or a Self-development Enthusiast.
WHY DO WE BELIEVE IN IDENTITY?
The keystone piece that all identities have in common is they help us describe the dauntingly mystical concept of “yourself.” People are highly needy to be describable, which I translate as wanting to be understood, important and connected. People seem to think that having an identity makes you someone, and not having one makes you no-one.
Many of my coaching clients show great fear about losing their identities. This is almost always a key piece of work we must go through to achieve truly flexible and confident authenticity. They describe the fear as being like the fear of death; a complete unknown that seems likely to be painful. In most cases, my clients will even cling stubbornly to identities that are measurably harmful – like being Mr Nice Guy or even being a Loser – rather than risk being nothing at all.
There is a technical piece of the identity puzzle that we must overcome psychologically to believe that “yourself” can be described. The problem with stating “I am a…” is that we know deep in our hearts that it’s clearly untrue. No matter what you identify as, it takes only a small amount of effort to find exceptions that cast doubt on the label.
Any Loser can remember a time they won. A Pretty Girl can remember a time she looked like shit. An Atheist can remember that emotional time they looked up at the sky and said something to a god they don’t believe in. And these are just some extreme hypotheticals.
What about when you’re sleeping, eating, taking a shit, lost in conversation with a friend, relaxing on the beach, or just walking to the shops? Are you still your identity then? If there’s nothing about your current thoughts, emotions or behaviour that matches the specific list of rules attached to your identity, do you still exist? It’s questions like these we must battle if we want to maintain the illusion of an identity. How do we handle such challenges to identity?
It’s simple; we ignore the evidence.
I can claim to be a Nice Guy by simply ignoring that time I was a nasty little bitch to someone. I can skip over the memory, detach from it emotionally, justify it as an exceptional behaviour that “just wasn’t me” and then slowly but surely re-assert myself as the Nice Guy. You do this too, don’t you? You cut out huge pieces of your behavioural timeline through either ignoring, minimising, blaming or justifying, just so you can claim – mostly just to yourself – that you are still authentically aligned with your identity label.
It takes a lot of effort, this process. All day long we see ourselves drop the ball with our identities, and our internal cover-up team has to go through the big propaganda process to smooth it over.
Animal Lovers will sometimes slap a mosquito dead when it bites their arm, and ignore that they killed a living creature. Intelligent People will occasionally believe in something just because a scientist they follow said it, without doing the research they insist everyone else performs, while minimising this oversight to themselves. Lovely Girls will give someone a sulky cold-shoulder and tell themselves it’s justified because the other person bought it on themselves.
So, we believe in our identities only because of a massive filtering out of evidence – both passively and actively – to avoid acknowledging the simple truth: That most of the time, we’re not identifiable, we’re nothing at all.
THE DARK TRUTH
It’s obvious, isn’t it? Identities are formed by one thing, and one thing only: Neediness.
The need to belong. The need to matter. The need to feel connected. The need to have a reason to live.
All of these and more encourage us to create an illusion; a fantasy that gives meaning to the word “me.” We are compelled to try and be something. It’s doesn’t even really matter what, as long as we can give it a label and wear it as a uniform.
So, what’s wrong with that, you ask? Why not subdue the terrifying sense of chaos that comes with peeking into the idea that a human being is not really a thing that can be labelled, or made sense of? Why not just delude ourselves so we can avoid going crazy? Can’t you just let me be Consciousness or something spiritual like that, and leave me the fuck alone?
These are fair questions. It’s not my place to say you should kill your identity, because I don’t know what’s best for you.
What I can speak to, however, is why and how I chose to kill my identity. Or I should say, identities.
I was a Nice Guy. A Hard Worker. The Funny Guy. A Good Friend. A Rock Star. A Coach. Consciousness. Sometimes it was just called Myself. The list goes on and on.
I collected identities like serial killers collect mutilated body parts. I had one for every occasion, and could make wardrobe changes effortlessly. I often modelled or outright copied them off people I admired. The manuals for each identity were stored within easy reach in my personality library, and a quick change of behaviour was simple for me.
I could go from Caring Friend to Funny Guy to cheer someone up. I could go from Nice Guy to Rock Star, and then back to Nice Guy, all in the space of a single gig. These identities were costumes and I thought they served me well. Until I started to notice a pattern; an obligation that I got more uncomfortable with over time…
I had to follow the rules.
If I was in Nice Guy mode, I found it almost impossible to stand up for myself. The manual for Nice Guy had nothing on assertiveness, direct honesty, expressing sexual attraction, or taking a stand to respect myself. I would have to break my identity to indulge in such things, so because of my attachment to being seen as the Nice Guy – by both myself and others – I would have to give up on those luxuries.
The same went for all my other identities. I had to party hard when I was the Rock Star, even when I was feeling tired and antisocial. I had to hide sadness when I was the Funny Guy, even though it made me feel sick and fake to do so. I couldn’t take a break when I was the Hard Worker, and I couldn’t give someone tough love when I was the Good Friend.
My identity always ended up being a prison.
An Engineer will feel like avoiding irrational artistic expression, and may miss out on a lifetime passion. A Hardcore Feminist may force herself to hate all men, and miss out on great connections and friendships. A Coach may avoid being helped by others. There are tonnes of examples of people missing out and even getting seriously harmed because of their stubborn refusal to let up on their identities.
Think about your own identity. How often have you felt compelled to comply with it, even though the situation seemed to call for something different from you? How many times do you think you’ve missed out on a potentially scary new experience, that may have been great for you, because you didn’t want to be seen as not being “yourself?”
The dark truth is that identity is a fiction. It never existed. In every moment, you are something different to what you’ve ever been before. You’re older every second, so you’re never the same person. Your thoughts, mood and behaviour constantly fluctuates and often breaks the rules of your identity, and – especially when there’s no-one around to watch you – you’re often nothing at all.
LETTING YOURSELF DIE
Identity suicide is terrifying. The idea of letting the labels go, and just being whatever you are in each moment, constantly changing, always a little bit different even when there are trends and preferences, is scary. But so is getting let out of prison after 30 years.
You’re institutionalized by your identity. You’ve accepted it as a life-sentence, and because ultimately you sentenced yourself to it, you’re reluctant to admit it’s a lie. Every day you work hard to rebuild and fortify the walls of your prison, simply because you don’t even want to contemplate being nothing.
But being nothing is freedom.
When I was no longer Mr Nice Guy, I was free to choose when to be caring and when to be assertive, when to be submissive and when to be aggressive. I could adapt to situations. When I let go of being the Hard Worker, I could choose when to get shit done and when to enjoy some relaxation. No more guilt for taking time off – and I ended up being even more productive! I even let go of trying to be Consciousness, which allowed me to experience and enjoy all of my emotions, instead of just trying to watch them happen from the sidelines.
Rather than trying to fit a model, allow yourself to become influenced by your context into adapting. In simple terms: let your desires, mood, thoughts and situations dictate your actions, rather than trying to make it all suit a set of rules.
The easiest way I’ve found to help transition is to switch from identities to helpful contextual roles. Assess the situation, ask yourself what would be the best parts of you to come out right now, and then let them play.
If, for example, you’re stressed and burned out, let your fuck around and do nothing role have a turn. If you see someone you like, let your bold and flirty mode kick in. If you’re usually a Lovely Person and your boss steps over the line, let your badass take-no-shit role step up for you at least briefly.
Switch from being something to doing what is authentic in the context. Yes, you can be a Vegan, but that doesn’t mean you can’t swat the mosquito or fight off the attacking dog – you must protect yourself if you want to keep spreading the message.
In the words of the great Morpheus – “Free your mind!”
For more information on how you can achieve a greater level of independent authenticity, send your questions and stories to me firstname.lastname@example.org – I read and respond to everything personally
Lovely read, and it really hits home for me. I am currently trying to stop letting my “identity” (an annoying thing that makes me feel trapped in a role that I no longer want to play) dictate who I am and what I am and how I act. I want to start being myself- genuinely and unabashedly.