The issue of identity is an important part of both life and psychotherapy.
The following exercise is meant as a way to be curious about the way you conceive yourself and the selves around you, and to challenge what is preconceived.
You may have found that easy! If you didn’t, I think a great many people can empathize with you. Choosing a word or 3 to define your identity can be simple for some, but to others it feels reductive and unpleasant.
Take a look at the list below. Do your words fit into one of these categories? Are there other ideas of identity that fit for you? Are there any categories that don’t? Do your identifiers form a kind of hierarchy, with some more important than others? Does this vary over space (environment) and time?
The following ideas are not definitive; they are only meant to provoke thought and consideration. I’m sure there are others I haven’t mentioned, and many that I have mentioned may fit into more than one category. Paying attention to whether concepts of identity are group/individual or material/non-material can also be helpful and illuminating. Jung, for example, thought the Western world was fundamentally a materialistic one. Do you agree?
Material — If your dominant identity is materialistic, you give a lot of importance to your physical being, to things and possessions. Examples include: skin tone, weight, beauty, height, money, possessions, a house, a reflection in the mirror.
Psychological — Eg. Introvert, depressed, fun, rebellious, survivor, good, anxious, conscious, sad, optimistic, pessimistic, intelligent, creative, kind, conservative.
Religious — A member of an organized religion. Is this a dominant consideration for you? Or perhaps you’re an atheist, or agnostic.
Spiritual — Do you think of people (or yourself) foremost as souls, or as aspects of a divine being?
Job — Does this define you or others? Do you introduce yourself by your job description, or identify others by their place on a work-based hierarchy?
Class — Would you think to describe yourself as blue or white collar, working-class, upper, or middle-class? Is it important that you or others adhere to associated group values?
Culture & Community — Some examples here might be military, creative or regional.
Country — Is nation an important identifier for you?
Personal/Ineffable — This might be a general, unworded or unwordable sense of self or character. Perhaps it’s associated with your name.
Familial/Relationships — Perhaps identity for you is defined by relationships, whether they’re good, bad, multitudinous or otherwise.
Age — Is “old”, “young”, “kid” or “middle-aged” a main identifier for you?
Sex/Gender — To you, is this an important aspect of identity?
Interests/Hobbies — Perhaps you define yourself by your tennis hobby, or being a recreational cyclist.
Desires — We can define ourselves by what we want, or define others by their desires.
Emotional — Perhaps how you feel defines you.
Health/Ill-Health — You may define yourself or others by their health, or by their sickness.
Beliefs — Veganism, for example, is an increasingly popular identifier.
Politics — Eg. John is a right-winger/Erin is a Marxist.
Memory & Narrative — To what extent are we defined by our memories, our stories and myths?
The more I think about this subject, the more complex the question of identity becomes. The projection of identity, or even an insistence that a person adheres to our own (conscious or unconscious) idea of identity is more problematic still.
A point to remember: when we’re reductive about another’s identity; when we try to categorize it narrowly or with shallowness, we can expect a defensive reaction. Reductive labelling disturbs many people, and is especially prevalent online. It’s a key characteristic of bullying and scapegoating as well as self-loathing.
When used aggressively, the language of identity typically becomes reductive. Look out for linguistic clues such as: only, just, nothing but. Eg. I’m nothing but a…
When conversations around identity are fraught, it’s usually because somewhere an attempt is being made to reduce the other to a category, or a narrow set of categories. This dehumanisation is often hurtful, and met with defensive anger.
This week, I came across an "ism" that surprised me. The word I found was "sanism" - the prejudice and discrimination against those who suffer from mental illness. Why hadn't I heard this word before, I thought? After all, I'm a psychotherapist, and the ill-treatment of those who are suffering in the sphere of mental health is hardly foreign territory.
The discovery of this word prompted me to wonder whether a kind of fatigue has set into society. Marginalized groups across the spectrum of human experience are competing hard to have their voices heard. Culture wars are setting social media on fire on a daily basis, and the news is filled with horrors. Perhaps, I thought, there's only so much space on our moral radars for isms, and "sanism" just hadn't quite made the cut, yet.
Disparate marginalized groups, though often sympathizing with the struggles they see elsewhere, spend most of their energy fighting their own particular corner. This siloed approach has made some notable gains over time, but is this fractured approach the most effective, or even the most realistic one?
Beneath the surface, the majority of these groups are attempting to overcome the same subterranean foe: othering.
Q: What is othering?
A: To view or treat another person or group in a reductive manner, and as intrinsically different from, and inferior to, the self (or group-self).
Othering makes use of projection to denigrate outsiders and scapegoats, thereby contributing to group cohesion and conformity. Othering is also closely associated with narcissism: a narcissistic group or individual will unconsciously regard others as things or uses that either contribute to narcissistic supply, or threaten the narcissist's hidden fragility.
As the word suggests, another defining characteristic of othering is an exaggeration and concentration upon difference, rather than what is held in common (our sameness). The psychological mechanism of othering includes a drastic departure from the reality that we are all, in truth, very similar. There is undoubtedly a very human irony present in the world when so many of the othered cannot themselves acknowledge the qualities they have in common. The result is a fractured resistance to a universal, deeply-rooted and ancient human trait.
Psychotherapist, working in private practice in the Annex, Toronto.