Self identity - who am I?
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 and professional success.
In short, it is the answer to the question: Who am I?
Self-identity differs from self-esteem, which is our emotional evaluation of our own worth. And also from self-awareness, which refers to our capacity for introspection.
The idea of self-identity is mentioned in Vedic philosophy as Ahamkara. Over 3000 years later, psychologists such as Carl Rogers helped popularise the concept in the West. According to Rogers, we all strive towards an “ideal self”.
Social psychologist John Turner 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.
Social identity and a sense of belonging go hand in hand. We begin integrating our social identity into our own self-identity during childhood, when being ostracised on the basis of ethnic or sexual identity can cause lasting psychological damage.
In the long run, how others perceive us will affect the way we perceive ourselves; therefore also in adulthood acceptance from our peers, or the lack of it, can have a massive impact on our emotional wellbeing.
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 gym-goers to globetrotters to radical hedonists. Some will identify with a physical or mental condition they might have. And many more with their material possessions; clothes, cars, properties, and so on.
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.
Carl Rogers sustained that psychologically healthy people move away from the roles created by others' expectations and can look for validation within themselves.
However, in advanced capitalistic societies, many people tend to over identify with what they do for a living and don’t realise how strong this identification is until they’re forced to stop working, for whatever reason, and suddenly they don't know who they are or what to do with themselves.
This can also happen to parents, particularly mothers who over identify with their role and find themselves at a loss when their children leave home.
This over attachment can be caused by an obsessive, anxious nature or by deep-rooted insecurity, where the person needs their role, title or material possessions 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 have developed a tendency to identify with their internet persona; a contrived, manufactured presentation of the self.
Talking to a coach or therapist can help us let go of over attachment to any identity and reconnect with a more authentic self, allowing us to be fine artists, educators or entrepreneurs without forgetting that we’re human beings first and foremost.
With the help of the right professional, we can also free ourselves from the shackles of internalised racism, misogyny, homophobia and general toxic shame that so often prevent us from making truly free choices in life and from fulfilling our potential.
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About Nico De Napoli
Nico is a London-based coach specialising in existential and mindfulness coaching, with over a decade of experience in mind-body coaching and stress management.