I was engaged in a conversation with a friend the other day and as she spoke about a whole range of issues, I found myself also experiencing a myriad of emotions. These ranged from sympathy to empathy (there is a difference), sadness, boredom, to irritation and the odd annoyance. I interrupted these emotions to analyse what I was feeling and was quite intrigued. Clearly this person was invoking some of these emotions, but some of the feelings were generated by my own internal stuff. I then had to untangle what was mine and what belonged to her.
Sometimes we project unresolved experiences we have had unto other people based on how we are experiencing that person. It might be that a person triggers some of one’s unresolved issues with one’s mother, father or an ex-spouse, boss, or a deceased loved one. Then, we begin to experience it as if we were that person and we react to them.
“I don’t feel myself,” “I feel out of sorts,” “I don’t feel right;” these are just a few statements we make from time to describe an emotional or even a psychological state of mind. But what do we really mean, what makes us who we are? Is it our relationships with friends and family? The things we own or our values? Psychologists believe that our identity rests on one of four central pillars and the emphasis we place on different aspects of our lives. There are four main identities: social identity, relational identity, personal identity and collective identity.
Think about it for a moment, what makes you uniquely you? Does your identity rest on your roles in life – wife, husband, boyfriend, girlfriend, mother, father, boss, etc.? Or is it something less easily labelled? In other words, it is a combination of your background, experiences, dreams and aspirations.
For some, their identity resides largely in their relationship with others, how they are reflected in the eyes of friends, colleagues and family. For others, their real identity is more private, bound up with their inner thoughts and feelings, and perhaps rarely revealed to the wider world. Identity can also be rooted in other areas such as nationality, culture or gender, which may even define us more strongly than where we work or how many friends we have. I know living abroad, my culture, nationality and values shapes more of my identity more so than when I am at home where my gender, personal achievements and relationships play a more significant role in how I identify myself.
For some, their true self may be intricately bound up with their partner’s; perhaps they feel their identity most when they form an intimate connection. For some, our identity lies partly on our temperament, our upbringing, the wider culture in which we were raised and our early experiences.
Finding balance between the four identity areas is vital to getting harmony in our lives. It is helpful to be able to draw on the attributes of each type and to recognise when our identity may lean too heavily in one direction. For instance, having a high social identity can be an asset, helping people to get along in life and at work is also a positive thing. However, this can come at the expense of a lack of personal identity.
Once you have a clearer picture of where your identity lies, you can work out whether you are satisfied with your true self. Is your identity one that you have chosen, or one that you have had forced upon you due to circumstances. Are you frequently told you should be one way or another when you are perfectly comfortable and content the way you are. Or maybe it’s the opposite and you are very uncomfortable in your skin.
Whatever your identity type, self-awareness is the key that can change it all. It has the ability to help you break your genetic and cultural personality disposition. If you lean heavily on one facet of identity but feel this is under-represented in the way you live, you can make changes.
With a social identity, you are very orientated towards your relationships with others and your identity rests partly on what you think others think about you. You are good at getting on with people and at forging strong friendships and will enjoy jobs where you have good relationships with colleagues. You probably work very hard at maintaining your relationships and your sociability protects you from loneliness. Having friends around you is particularly good for your health and well being. However, there is a danger that you can be over concerned with your reputation. A high social identity also correlates with susceptibility to shame, worrying about your flaws being exposed and the fear of negative social evaluation.
If you have a relational identity, you tend to base your identity on your close or intimate relationships and you are very keen to share your true self with someone else. You strive for authentic intimacy. You are happiest when you understand the thoughts and dreams of loved ones and friends. You enjoy being close to others, and forming strong and supportive relationships. If, however, you are too high on relational identity, it may mean you are subsuming your own self in a relationship. Finding mutuality is vital to having balance. It is perfectly fine to put a lot into your relationships as long as you are receiving plenty in return.
With a personal identity, your sense of self is most likely to reside in your ideas, intellect, dreams and goals. Who you are is informed by your thoughts and feelings, your emotional responses and your sense of uniqueness. You are most likely to view your private, inner self as being the most ‘true’ version of you. Personal identity is closely related to introspectiveness. You are reflective and have a strong sense of your values. You probably have a great deal of integrity and value non-conformity and independence of judgement. People with high personal identity and social confidence rely on their stable internal values as a guide to their social behaviour. At its most extreme, those with high personal identity and low on all other identity types may have alienated identity achievement, where you have a strong sense of yourself but feel distant from others.
People with collective identity are likely to focus on their strong sense of national pride, family heritage and their religion. They may feel strongly that their gender and culture strongly shapes who they are. This could mean they feel grounded and secure with a positive sense of achieved committed identity. People with a high collective identity are rarely prone to egocentrism and are likely to feel deeply connected, which can bring feelings of security, contentment and respect for others within their group. This strong sense of connectedness may however become a burden and make it difficult to develop, change and grow.
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