What is identity? A standard definition of the word is: “The characteristics that determine who or what a person or thing is.”
Determining the identity of objects is relatively easy – a classical example being the knife, which can be of different sizes, materials, shapes and colours; but without a blade, a knife isn’t a knife, as the blade is what gives the knife its defining function.
Defining people, on the other hand, can be rather more complex.
In psychology, identity is considered to be the qualities, beliefs, looks and expressions that make a person or social group. And self-identity is a set of beliefs we have about ourselves, such as racial and gender identity or academic success. In short, it is the answer to the question: Who am I?
Self-identity differs from self-awareness, which refers to our capacity for introspection, and also from self-esteem: our emotional evaluation of our own worth.
The idea of self-identity is mentioned in Vedic philosophy as Ahamkara. Over 3000 years later, psychologists such as Carl Rogers (1902-1987) helped popularise the concept in the West. According to Rogers, we all strive towards an ‘ideal self’.
Social psychologist John Turner (1947-2011) theorised that self-identity consists of at least two layers: a personal identity and a social one, i.e. how we perceive ourselves, but also how others perceive us. And the two can vary dramatically.
For instance, as a European, I grew up thinking of myself as white, because I’m perceived as such in southern Europe and many other parts of the world.
Not in England. At least not by many white British people, who see me as non-white because I have olive skin.
Along with many Australians and North Americans, they seem to hold the belief that only the Nordic race (a.k.a. Aryan) can be regarded as white and are clearly unaware that the Caucasian race in fact extends to the Middle East.
A trip to Iran or Turkey can be eye-opening in this respect.
The very word ‘Caucasian’ (a favourite with white supremacists) comes from the Caucasus, a region situated at the border of Asia and Europe. Moreover, Western civilisation itself originated in the Mediterranean.
When I first moved to Britain, over two decades ago, the realisation that certain people didn’t perceive me as white was unsettling, simply because it challenged my self-identity. To this day, whenever I’m asked to tick a box on a form to state my ethnicity, I feel stuck for a moment, then usually opt for ‘Other’.
Social identity and a sense of belonging go hand in hand. London being such a cultural melting pot, I’ve always felt at home here. In the rest of the country, though, I still feel like an outsider. Depending on the area, at times even under threat.
A few years ago, I took part in a coaching workshop for gay men. The organisers also run sessions exclusively for BAME (non-white) men. Recently, I asked one of the facilitators if I could take part in one of the BAME sessions. His reply was that those guys would never accept me as one of them, because they’d perceive me as white.
This reaffirmed my sense of ‘otherness’ and at the same time it made me feel grateful for growing up in southern Europe, where at least I felt a sense of ethnocultural belonging. Feeling different on other levels had been difficult enough.
I can only try to fathom the emotional damage that being ostracised on the basis of ethnicity must do to a child, as it is in school that we begin integrating our social identity into our own self-identity. And particularly in childhood, but also later in life, acceptance from our peers (or the lack of it) can have a massive impact on our psychological wellbeing.
Another benefit of growing up in southern Europe was that the social class system there is nowhere near as rigid as it is here in England, where exists a high level of class segregation, even among children.
Class identity is so strong in Britain that if you come from a white, working-class background and decide to go to university, members of your family and community will often see you as a snob and a traitor.
As a child, I was hardly aware of social stratification. It was only after moving to London, aged 20, that I realised how middle class my upbringing had been.
Which leads to my next point.
Besides our ethnocultural and sexual identity, what makes us who we are? Or at least who we think we are?
Many people define themselves by their religious, political or spiritual beliefs. Others by their lifestyle: from gymgoers to globetrotters to radical hedonists. Some identify with a physical or mental condition they might have. And many more with their material possessions: clothes, cars, properties…
One of the very first questions a new acquaintance is likely to ask us is: What do you do? Sadly, most people aren’t interested in where our passions and interests lie. So what the question really means is: How do you earn a living?
But what we do for a living doesn’t always match what we identify with. For years, I struggled with this one. Like many musicians, I’ve worked in fields that have little or nothing to do with music. As I didn’t earn a living through music, when I met new people I’d say I was a translator or whatever paid job I was doing at the time, but I couldn’t bring myself to say I was a musician.
In the long run, how others perceive us will affect the way we perceive ourselves. Carl Rogers sustained that psychologically healthy people move away from the roles created by others’ expectations and can look for validation within themselves.
I’ve always admired artists, of any kind, who might not have earned a penny through their art in years, if ever, and yet can still define themselves by their art with utter confidence. They seem to know who they are, regardless of how others might perceive them.
At the same time, I’ve always been wary of overidentifying with any occupation, perhaps due to the intensity of the classical training I received as a teenager, when I had a piano teacher who preached to her pupils that we had to choose between being artists or human beings. According to her, one couldn’t possibly be both.
Besides, I noticed how classical musicians had a tendency to become sectarian and close-minded by hanging out almost exclusively with fellow musicians.
I needed to get out there, in the real world.
Later on, I realised that other categories of people, such as medical students and even yogis, can behave in a similar way. I say ‘even’ yogis because as yogis, we’re supposed to practise non-attachment, including to our profession. But we’re only human!
Doctors can be particularly attached to their job, or indeed their title, to the point that many seem to go into the profession for the prestige they perceive it to entail, only to realise in mid-life that they’re in the wrong job.
Overidentification with work is a very common phenomenon, especially in advanced capitalistic societies. Many people don’t realise how strong this identification is until they’re forced to stop working for one reason or another – and suddenly they don’t know who they are or what to do with themselves.
This can also happen to parents, particularly mothers, who overidentify with their role and find themselves at a loss when their children finally leave home.
This overattachment can be caused by an obsessive, anxious nature or by deep-rooted insecurity, where the person needs their role, title or material things to give them a sense of self-worth and can even become aggressive if their status is challenged in any way.
While these might sound like extreme cases, at various stages in life each one of us will identify with one or more external factors to some extent or another. And in the age of social media, many young and not-so-young people seem to have developed a tendency to identify with their internet persona: a contrived, manufactured presentation of the self.
Attachment to national, racial and religious identity can be particularly harmful, as it often leads to conflict and misery on a large scale.
Talking to a coach or therapist, as well as practising meditation, can help us let go of overattachment to any identity and reconnect with a more authentic self, allowing us to be fine artists, educators, entrepreneurs and even politicians (!) without forgetting that we’re human beings first and foremost.
With the help of the right coach or therapist, we can also free ourselves from the shackles of internalised racism, misogyny, homophobia, class discrimination and general toxic shame that so often prevent us from making truly free choices in life and from fulfilling our potential as human beings.