Where does your sense of Identity come from?

where does your sense of identity come from
Drawing by Adrian Serghie

Provided by The Girl from Jupiter

Originally posted on https://thegirlfromjupiter1.wordpress.com

So the other day I was just sitting on the bus, staring out the window as I do most days and aimlessly thinking about life when suddenly my brain decided to just drop this existential truth bomb of a question on me:

Who AM I?

As a teenager (or perhaps just a human being) every couple of months I have a weird shaking of my sense of self. I message my friends saying something along the lines of “Guys, I think I’m having an identity crisis”

At this point, I just expect a reply of “Really? Again?”.

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Identity Crisis
noun

  1. a period of uncertainty and confusion in which a person’s sense of identity becomes insecure, typically due to a change in their expected aims or role in society.

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   But let’s be real, every so often, everyone questions their sense of personal and social identity. Of course, that expresses itself in different ways. Whether that a Miley Cyrus level public personality transformation, a sudden change of style or even a depressive episode.

Not so long ago, I was in recovery from my own long-term depressive episode and anyone who has been through that knows it means, to an extent, a complete reevaluation of your sense of self. For me, I’ve found this an extremely interesting period of growth both personally and as someone highly interested in psychology and philosophy.

So in an attempt to understand what makes me, me I’ve been looking at lots of different theories of personal identity from a psychological, philosophical and spiritual level over the last couple of months. Now, I can’t at all claim to be an expert on these things but here I have collated some thoughts and ideas based on the research I have done over the past few months.

In an attempt to understand your own personality you may have taken a range of tests such as enneagramsMyers-Briggs tests or an EPI test.

All of these function by asking you questions about yourself in certain scenarios to work out your place on a set of scales of personality traits. For example, the most simplistic of these is the EPI test. This is based on Eysenck’s theory of personality in which you are scored on levels of extroversion vs. introversion (are you the life of the party or do you prefer to stay home alone with a good book?) and Emotional stability vs. neuroticism (can you stay cool, calm and collected under pressure or do you crumble into a small ball of tears and stress like me?).

These scores all come together to give you an overall personality type out of 4 categories; sanguine, choleric, phlegmatic or melancholic (a lot of complicated words I know but they’re basically headers for sets of characteristics that come with, for example, high extroversion with low neuroticism).

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Personality

noun

  1. the combination of characteristics or qualities that form an individual’s distinctive character.

“she had a sunny personality that was very engaging”

synonyms: character, nature, disposition, temperament, make-up, persona, psyche, identity

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   However, can such a complex and varied thing as human personality really be reduced to only 4 categories?

This is an issue with many psychologists attempts to explain personality and identity. Two of the other most popularized theories of personality, Freud’s concept of the id, ego, and superego and Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, also present the critical problem that they are considered far too simplistic by many.

So if you’re looking for a more nuanced, personal perspective, then philosophy is the way to go. This looks more at how what creates our sense of self and what even is a self-identity.

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Self-identity
noun

  1. the perception or recognition of one’s characteristics as a particular individual, especially in relation to social context.

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   Many people believe self-identity is constant; you are always you. And we know this either because of Body theory or Memory theory. You have always been within your body and therefore you have always been you or you can remember being your consciousness since you were born and therefore you have always been you.

However is this true? Is personal identity really a constant?

The 16th-century philosopher David Hume argued that it is not. His theory is kinda like that line from The Book of Mormon, “imagine your brain is made of tiny boxes” (although if one of your boxes is gay please don’t try and crush it, my lovelies). The idea basically is that you see your identity as a set of constantly changing factors that you place in the box labelled “you”. Such as a love of football, or that one edgy jacket you always wear, or the fact that you’re a blogger. However, really there is no box. There is no constant. Your personal identity is just that ever changing floating bundle of factors and we only think of it as constant because we are in the same body but really your bundle now is a completely different bundle from the one that you had when you were five, or that you even had a year ago.

Therefore are you even the same person from one moment to the next?

Is your constant self of self merely an illusion?

The modern philosopher Parfit furthers this theory: stating that we know we are us because we have a link back to the previous versions of ‘us’ through memories. Although each moment and event changes us and therefore you a year, a month or even a second ago is fundamentally not the same you that you are right now.

This is a nice little link into some wider more spiritual views of the self.

So if everything you have been in the past is a completely different person from the person you are now then, as far as your sense of self goes, the most important thing is the present. In The Power of Now, Buddhist teacher Eckhart Tolle states that the past and future are illusions, you only truly exist in the Now.

In Buddhism, there is the concept of the ‘ego’ and the ‘true self’. The ego being the superficial illusion of ‘self’ as described in Hume’s theory above. The true self basically self-explanatory; it is who we truly are beyond and without the ego. The ego bases all it’s ideas purely on past experience and fear for the future however since the person in the past is not the same you as now, the ego cannot be your true self.

This is where Hume’s theory and Buddhism slightly differ in that Buddhism does believe in a constant self: the true self. However few of us ever transcend to this state of being through dis-identification with the ego.

Similar ideas to this are expressed in other spiritual paths such as the Hindu philosophy of Advaita Vedanta. This view states also that our sense of self is an illusion of the empirical ego but there is a true constant state of being beyond this in Atman and Brahman.

So to conclude, I have probably made you even more confused about your sense of self. Sorry for any existential crisis that may ensue. However, like me, I hope maybe you will be able to identify with one of these theories and it will help explain why you are constantly re-evaluating your identity.

Personally, I find the idea of a non-constant self-comforting. Think of it this way; if you are fundamentally not the same person you were in the past when you did that embarrassing thing age ten or when you said something mean or snappy to your mum, and the you now has learnt from those events then you do not have to feel guilty anymore for those things (of course this does then bring up the issue of when people are and aren’t responsible for past actions such as committing a crime but, man, that’s a discussion for another time).

   Disclaimer: I am not an expert on any of these topics. I have done my research as can be seen in links above and below but I apologise if I have misrepresented any of these theories or religions.

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Further reading/sources –

14 thoughts on “Where does your sense of Identity come from?

Add yours

  1. I love the concept of the Myers Briggs Theory! I’ve taken it multiple times and recommended it to people because (although it can never be fully accurate) it did help me to feel more confident with certain aspects of myself and explain why I am or think a certain way. Also, I just find it really interesting! So of course I have to ask, what personality did you get?😂

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Haven’t got me confused, I follow my heart, not how someone else may think I should or could be… 🙂

    “Confidence is knowing who you are and not changing it a bit because of someone’s version of reality is not your reality.” Shannon L. Alder

    Liked by 3 people

  3. I have to vote for the non-constant self too. That makes more sense to me. In a certain way, as it is learnable (like extroversion: how to be more social), on the other way that our personality becomes more whole.
    When I first completed the EPI test, it came back as fully melancholic (it was a slightly different test). A few years later it became choleric-melancholic (50-50%ish), I guess due to pushing myself into social situations. Twenty years on, comfortable with myself, it is phlegmatic (3E-4N).
    A few years ago I came across the MBTI and done that twice in the last 3 years. The result didn’t change (same letters) but the percentages did (moved to more extremes). I looked up a few YouTube videos on my types, and it was such a revelation and a relief.
    However, knowing our own personality is just one side of our Identity I think.

    Liked by 2 people

      1. Hm. I have never really thought about it so I could be wrong.
        I would say the personality is probably the passive side of the identity. It is ‘How’ we think or react, ‘How’ our emotions relate to our mind.
        The active side has a root in culture. That is the ‘What’ we think and do. This part is the ‘Where you belong’. We somehow relate to this.
        e.g. If at work people cheat on their spouse, because “everyone does it” and “it is okay” etc., and you belong to that culture, then I guess you will do the same. However, if you belong to a different culture (i.e. the kingdom of God) then you will most likely refuse to cheat.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Very interesting perspective. Our environment molds our perspective and our identity, or at least, a part of it. But we have control over most of our environment so we can control what we choose to let inside and what not.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. A student asked his teacher, “Master, what is real?” To which the teacher replied, “That is real which does not change.”

    Then, there is the saying that “The only constant in life is change”.

    It has been said that those who are ‘aware’ and ‘enlightened’ are those who have discarded the ego. They say that there is no separation; but, that the ego tries to create separation.

    My thought is that the ego is the only part of us that is actually us, i.e. where our identity is. Discard that and all that is left is the Source or Creator. What we have then is a multitude of glasses of water from the ocean. Individual portions of the one ocean. Different vessels containing the same thing. That’s what ‘no separation’ means.

    I have decided to refuse to disregard my ego. That is the only part of myself that is me. To discard that is to cause ‘me’ to disappear. I refuse to give me up. The Creator can have that part of itself back when I’m dead.

    Liked by 2 people

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