What would you say is your identity? Do you identify as a mother or father, a wife or an object, a jock, a business person, or a masochist? Perhaps you describe yourself as a survivor of cancer, sexual assault, or bullying? Alternatively, you could be a person with diabetes, HIV, lupus, autism, etc. There are so many ways to label and reduce ourselves to a fixed identity, which in turn can put us into a box. Once you are in a box, how do you get out of it? If it defines you, how do you become something more? What if you experience one or more of those identities, but those do not define you, or they limit you? What does that mean? Do you feel trapped in your box? Do you want out of your box?
The self that we begin to create from birth is in a constant process of forming, dissolving, and reforming, time and time again. Over the course of a lifetime, a person should evolve and change. A healthy evolution is one that incorporates new information, the changes in our lives, bodies and circumstances, and then consolidates this into an expanded sense of self. These changes are caused by big and small events. It can be as simple as meeting one person who changes your view. Moving away from your family of origin, to another state, coast or country, will definitely impact your view of the world and yourself. Getting married or becoming single will create change in our sense of self and how we are internally organized. As we age, we can’t physically do some of the things we could when we were younger. How we see ourselves can change based on how others respond to us. As we age, people see and respond to us differently.
The self is complicated, in that it reflects the continuous, lifelong exploration of finding out who we are. Digging deep into the recesses of your unconscious allows the entirety of yourself to emerge. We do this by working through those discarded, cast-off experiences that had been too painful to process when they first occurred. These suppressed aspects must be faced and healed in some form in order to find yourself in full.
A common reason that people adopt a fixed, unchanging identity is to avoid facing the pain inside themselves. Often, our greatest fear in life is exploring what is inside of us. However, that exploration is the path to truly knowing you, accepting you, and being more fully present in the world for yourself and others.
We spend our life unpacking, and sometimes re-creating, our relationship to our parents. Our parents programmed us. We downloaded their ways of being in the world and unconsciously mimic them. It is how we first form and create a structure to take into the world. Are we exact copies? No, but our personality structure very likely resembles one or both of our parents. That is just how we are formed, for better and worse.
Successes, failures, relationships, disappointment and dreams that are realized or not: all of these impact the fantasies we had growing up. Reality comes into the picture, and we appropriately adjust both our expectations of life and who we are.
Locking into an unchanging "identity" as a stand-in for our true sense of self and all its changes is dangerous and limiting.
The following sections will explore some of the different ways we take on identities and how they can impede the fluid evolution of the self.
Illness as an Identity
There are different ways that we can express our experience of being in the world. To have had cancer and survive it, would change us. To have an incurable disease, no matter how maligned or benign, changes how we see ourselves, how we express ourselves, and how we relate to others. That is undeniable and does become part of the changing self.
However, to fully assume something that is a virus or an illness as part of one's being and identity, especially if it is shame-based, limits the possibilities of growth and evolution of the self over time.
Could this be impacting you? Certainly, but illness is still just one aspect of a life, even though it can feel dominant. Keeping it in perspective is essential, so that you are open to continued growth. Care, love and compassion can be amazingly healing of our souls, if not our bodies. It is helpful to heal all parts of ourselves for the best possible life we can live at any time.
Religion as Identity
Many people are raised in families where a particular faith or religion is interwoven with daily life. Most of those people might never stray from that religious viewpoint, as it is part of how they were socialized to see the world. There is a wide range of levels of belief and seriousness about religious faith. Some people absorb everything as literal, unquestioned truth and aspire to validating and living it. At the same time, they defer their own judgement on many matters to that of their religious leaders. That way, they don’t have to make judgement calls themselves, or question what they really believe.
Giving up your identity to a religion is problematic. At the most fundamental, it demands you relinquish an identity in favor of taking on another’s view of the religion. For people who go that route, anything from the outside that attacks or threatens that religion is seen as an attack on them personally. There is no separation. This is different from a spiritual orientation, which pursues an exploration of the unknown, asking questions without expecting or getting absolute answers, which is quite the opposite of having all the answers given to you.
Survivor as an Identity
We have become a society of survivors: rape, sexual abuse, cults, cancer, domestic violence, bullying, etc.
As humans, with human parents and being around other humans, most of us have experienced violence, drama, pain, heartbreak, tragedy, etc. in our lives. No one goes unscathed through life; it was not designed that way.
The concern here is that if you define yourself by what you survived, then you have defined yourself according to an experience from your past. Did it change you? Certainly, but it is now in the past. Who are you now? That is the question that needs to be owned and acknowledged. Looking forward, not to the past, allows the evolution of the self. It is an expansive view of you and the possibilities before you.
To continually identify as a survivor of something can also mean that this negative experience has not been integrated. It is too much in the foreground, when it should just be a part of your history. Acknowledging that you had been victimized in some way, whether from abuse or illness, is fine. But to hold on to it as part of the identity, however, means that victimization is still in the present, instead of the past.
Make it part of your past. Find out who you are now; that is what is important and will improve your life in the now.
Sexuality as Identity
We have all known men or women whose lives revolve around sex: Having sex, pursuing sex, being found attractive or desirable, whether the sex act happens or not.
While there are different reasons for this behavior, basing one's identity on being desirable, wanted or needed is a risky way to try to empower the evolution of the self.
Being always on the prowl for sex and validation that you are attractive can be all-consuming. While we all like to feel attractive to others, the hunt and the release can be an endless cycle of engaging the endorphins, which keeps us from feeling deeper feelings.
In addition, jumping from one person or experience to the next ultimately prevents intimacy. For some, that is actually the intention, though they may not be aware of it. While being rejected sexually is painful, it is less painful than being rejected for who we are. A more profound feeling of rejection is to be avoided at all costs and thus there's the distraction of the hunt to look for new validation.
With a focus on appearances and sexual attraction. this means that the focus is always on the outside. It is about staying focused both on your physical or seductive abilities. While there is a focus on (the next) other and their response to you, that is all a surface awareness.
No matter how attractive the package is on the outside, sufficiently driven behavior is compulsive sexuality. While we often like to call any compulsive behavior an addiction, it is more typically the result of trauma that has not been treated.
While it is okay for women to acknowledge they have been victims of sexual violence, it is a much riskier path for men to take. To admit being a victim, for a male, is close to a public admission of not being a man. Yet boys are often the victims of sexual violence, from both males and females, but we celebrate their over-early exposure to sex as "lucky."
This untreated and unacknowledged trauma can create a lifetime of staying on the edge of erotic feelings that were introduced at an age where they were too young to process them. Thus, untreated trauma victims are never able to deepen and mature emotionally into adults. Some parts of the psyche might appear more adult, but in general, they are busy staying on that erotic edge, because to deepen into feelings is moving into territory that they cannot handle.
For the most part, women express sex differently than men. Most of the difference is caused by socialization, however. All studies show that women are sexually abused more often than males. Our society also says it is okay for women to be seen as victims, or potential victims. This has an impact on how they handle sexual abuse.
Men, by contrast, are not “allowed to be” victims, so they tend to sexualize the feelings from the trauma, where women might attempt to bury them to the point of sexual withdrawal. People who were sexually abused as children are more likely to become sex workers. This is one way the traumatic experience is eroticized.
For the self to grow and shift, it requires paying attention to the signals we receive inside ourselves, and then processing them as best we can. Trauma interrupts this natural growth process of learning to confront, process and integrate difficult feelings.
Sex for most people is intertwined with shame, from a little to a lot. In the United States, Puritan sexual shame culture is alive and well. While it is not talked about a great deal, nevertheless it persists in the background of fantasies, porn and the expression of sexual feelings. Shame is an emotion that everyone has. It is easily eroticized and is often the way that a person survives shameful feelings for which they have no other option or idea how to handle. Initial eroticized shame is not a conscious decision, it is a survival mechanism that comes out of the unconscious or is learned from the abuser.
Shame at its core is the message “I am bad”. If the core of your sexual identity says, “I am bad”, then your actions will reflect that. A person who is raised in a family that insists on “traditional” roles might absorb the message that they are “bad” due to their non-traditional orientation, and might find ways to punish or humiliate themself. There is a difference between enjoying a slice of eroticized shame and taking it on as an identity. Role play is one way this aspect is expressed, or it can be a narrative in one’s head while engaged in sex with someone or in masturbation. The partner may never know the source of the other’s erotic life. But if it moves beyond a fantasy and becomes real, and it becomes how they identify in the world, then the processing of that earlier experience stops.
During the experience of abuse, whether it is physical, sexual or emotional, one strategy of the unconscious is to eroticize the experience, in order to tolerate or even survive it. A child being sexually abused can also download the shame of the abuser. If the physical sensations involved are enjoyable, it is likely that these sensations, when experienced again, will join with the shame, resulting in eroticized shame. If a parent is beating a child and the parent finds that experience erotic, the child can absorb that feeling as well, taking it on as a way to make sense of the experience as well as to tolerate the pain and humiliation.
Eroticized anger is often observed in the actions of others. A parent who bullies others will give a child the unconscious lesson "this is how you express your erotic energy," because bullying comes from our erotic core. One coping method for a person who has been raped or abused is to erotize the revenge aspect of the experience; that in turn becomes an outlet for their erotic expression. Again, this is generally an unconscious process. A child who is suppressed emotionally, or abused physically or sexually, may decide they are never going to let anyone suppress them again. They might then eroticize the feelings they have observed in others' behaviors, with sex becoming about dominating, abusing and using others to get their needs met.
Once you recognize and accept that shame has become part of your sexuality, then you can decide how you want to hold it. Eroticized shame and/or anger is a double-edged sword. The source of eroticized shame and/or anger is abuse. Moreover, it may likely have been necessary to eroticize the experience in order to survive the abuse. Fully taking on the identity of a "masochist," "object," "slut," "dominant," --whatever word that evokes the shame-- can keep you trapped in the cycle of abuse. Knowing that it turns you on, but that it is not who you are, is the healthy way to approach eroticized shame sexually while allowing for the continued evolution of the self. If the original shame dominates the identity, then there is no room for the self to be open to new possibilities.
A problem that can arise when using shame in conscious sex play is the potential damage from emotional violence. Even with the best of intentions and agreement in “play”, if you are humiliating someone or verbally abusing them, it’s still emotional violence.
There is a difference between "I am a slave" and "I am turned on by role playing a slave." "I am a slave" is the end point, with no real retreat. "I like role playing being a slave" allows you to accept the erotic enjoyment of this fantasy. "I am a slave" is a fixed identity that limits possible growth and change.
Eroticized shame and anger challenge our sensibilities about sex and erotic energy. Once experiences are eroticized, that imprint on our sexual self rarely goes away, but it can soften and become less central to our erotic life. Accepting that eroticized shame or anger can be an erotic turn on, instead of taking it on as the core of your sexuality, is very different.
In working through eroticized shame and or anger by openly confronting its roots, a shift will begin, and the shame or anger will lose its allure and power. However, that path is not for everyone. Some people want to enjoy the erotic aspect and not process the underlying context out of their sex life. They stay attached to it and cannot imagine being sexual without it. Those who take this path will likely keep eroticized shame and or anger in place as the central focus of their sexuality.
Identifying with eroticized shame or eroticized anger could be seen as the end point of healing. Accepting it is the beginning of healing. For most, it is a lifelong unfolding as we go deeper into feelings, seeing and understanding them from the adult perspective, rather than living out the experience of the victimized child self. When a person is sexually assaulted, they can remain psychosexually at the age when the event happened, until they process the trauma and rescue the assaulted part of themselves. To stay stuck in the victimized part will mean taking on the erotized victim as a sexual identity. That is a trap that can keep that part of the self from healing and evolving.
Sexually Transmitted Diseases (STDs) as an Identity
STDs are just viruses. Our society has decided, however, that if you have an STD, you are somehow tainted. That you are a slut, or worse. This dynamic is closely tied to eroticized shame and for some, eroticized anger. Many people have an STD before they ever become sexual. For example, cold sores are a less stigmatized name for Herpes Simplex Virus, or HSV-1. It can be transmitted with no signs of an outbreak and the initial infection is usually from a relative kissing a child on the lips and unintentionally infecting them. HSV can be spread to any part of the body, via this same method. After a person has had more than a couple of sexual partners, they could have, or been exposed to, one or more STDs, the most common being human papillomavirus (HPV). But there is a stigma associated with knowing you have an STD, and that stigma must be processed. Some people with STDs become lost in the shame, and withdraw sexually and physically. This is a shame response. The eroticized version of this response is to seek punishment for having the STD or by consciously or unconsciously seeking out more STDs. The eroticized anger version of a response would be to intentionally expose or infect others with the STD.
If the shame of having an STD becomes an identity, then someone else's rejection, perhaps because of that virus, or not, becomes a personal attack. This can take matters out of the realm of discussion and understanding. Once things become incorporated in the personal, then rejection is no longer about the STD, it is about the person as a whole. It limits compassion for others, as well as for the self. It is a victim identity; and if held too firmly, it is not possible to heal.
Roles as Identity
Men who have worked their entire lives and been too devoted to their jobs often take their profession on as their sole identity. Almost as often, they can die quickly after retirement because they have no purpose with which to move onward in life. Unable to expand who they are or to make a shift, they just disappear.
It is easier to see the unfavorable possibilities arising from negative labels which form a trapped identity, such as STDs, illnesses, etc. On the other hand, we get a great deal of social support for taking on roles as a mother, wife, caretaker, father, doctor, firefighter, psychotherapist, husband, provider, but these roles can be as much of a box or a trap as negative labels.
For instance, if your identity is tied up in “being a mom”, what happens when the kids leave home, and there is just you? If “a mom” is who you are, then when you are no longer a mom, you might look for other people (or animals) to mother, or you intrude on your children’s lives to give yourself a purpose in life, because being who you really are is not enough. Identifying with a single role limits who you are. By understanding that this is just one part of your life, a role that you chose to fulfill, an aspect of you, you shouldn’t be limited when possibilities arise to allow your sense of self to shift, grow, and advance.
If you are a minister, priest, rabbi, imam, peace officer, Marine, etc., these can be all-encompassing identities, both inwardly and externally. But who are you when you are not on duty? Who will you be when you are no longer in that role?
The same can be said for someone who defines themselves as a raving devotee of some celebrity or sports team, or a person who is defined first and foremost by their politics or religion. Those people are living outside of themselves, with almost no connection to whom they are on the inside. Their devotions are not who they are, they are how they have chosen to be in the world. Holding tightly onto that outside identity restrains possibilities for newness.
Sexual Orientation as Identity
With the emergence of the lesbian, gay, and bisexual movement demanding acceptance and visibility, we talk about sexual orientation more than ever. It is becoming less shameful for some, but not all.
Kinsey wisely created a scale as a means of expressing sexual orientation. The levels went from 1 to 6, with 1 being completely heterosexual and 6 being completely homosexual. Most would like to think that once you figure out your number, the discussion is over.
Studies have shown that women can have a more fluid sexuality over the course of a lifetime than men. And there is a more socialized acceptance of fluidity in female sexuality. While men may have that same fluidity, they were not allowed to openly express it in previous generations. As with most things in life, there are also awakenings, acknowledgements, or evolutions around sexual attraction.
We now have descriptions like ”mostly straight,” “heteroflexible,” “homoflexible,” “pansexual,” etc. Modern language is trying to catch up with the nuances of what we have been feeling and expressing, even though the feelings are not new.
Are there people that don’t change? Sure. But like every other category of identity that has been explored here, rigidly holding onto a fixed identity can prevent evolution and refinement of one’s place in the world.
We like our labels and they have a role in defining ourselves in the moment. But we still change, we have new awareness, awakenings, and shifts. It is important to understand life is about an exploration of who we are, and through that process, we come to understand more about ourselves and about things that we had no idea are deep inside.
As we age, we change, and hopefully, we grow. We approach deeper awareness of ourselves. That is healthy. Again, by being open to growing and evolving, we can expand and be our best, whatever that is. If on the other hand, we try to force ourselves to stay the same, we shut down and get smaller.
Gender as Identity
This is a complex topic of particular discussion today. While sexual orientation has often been a lightning rod, it is secondary to the impact of questioning and acknowledging a gender orientation that is different from our sex at birth. This goes to the core of our certainty about how the world is ordered. If we cannot trust what our physical body says about us, how can we trust anything else? What are we to hold on to? It recalls the same earlier arguments made about sexual orientation: that "parts only fit one way."
Gender identity, like sexual orientation, exists across a spectrum. All of us have a mix of masculine and feminine energy. The majority of cross-dressing men happen to be heterosexual. They are finding a way to express their feminine energy outside of the constraints of a social system that prefers to think of gender as binary.
Each person has to come to terms with who they are, and part of that discernment is gender. Most people probably never think about it, but for those who are confined by social norms and those for whom the gender identity is incongruent with their birth sex, this is a central part of their journey to uncover and express who they are.
While this journey to discover ourselves has always been a part of us, social conventions made it almost impossible for people to push against and yet, throughout history, there have been brave souls that had no option and were willing and sometimes even able to challenge the norms and declare who they were.
Once we let go of how things are "supposed to be", an opening comes for us to see how things actually are. We all come to consciousness in our own time and own way. Some people know they are in the wrong body from almost the beginning. Others awaken to what is causing the discomfort in the core of their being, when they are ready to face it.
Life offers many distractions, and too often, the path inside to explore who we are takes the lowest priority. People discover themselves in their own time. Fear of being disowned, rejected, assaulted or even killed keeps many from embracing and celebrating who they are. We are trained to consider what others think of us as more important than what we think of ourselves. While others’ input can be useful, ultimately it is our life, our body, and our journey.
People who are vehemently opposed to the idea of questioning one's gender identity are rigidly holding onto many fixed ideas about how people and the world are supposed to be. They fear a lack of that control, and that if people are free to be who they know they are, then the world order will end, and it will be chaos.
The smaller a person’s world is, the more tightly they hold onto keeping everything the same.
Why a Fixed Identity is a Problem
The greatest problem in solidifying what seems to be a permanent identity is that as we age and change, our world will get smaller if our identity does not evolve and change. Otherwise, we shrink and will attempt to protect that fixed identity, because it feels like that is all that we are Even if it is an artificial identity and it prevents us from owning who we truly are, we might cling to it. Someone with the flexibility to change, grow, and be excited about what is coming next is actually embracing the world and all of its possibilities. This type of person will have a much easier time adjusting to the changes of aging and knows that there is something bigger than this body or this set of identities. They will also not fear death, because they understand it is just the next step on the path.
As a society, we do a poor job of teaching people how we become ourselves. Understanding the self is treated as some magical process that we do not understand. Psychotherapists know how it happens. It is messy and often complicated, affected by flawed parents, traumatic experiences, and just bad karma, but we know how it works. We can often repair the damage so that the natural drive to grow and evolve can resume its role.
Labels can be useful, as long as they are not held too rigidly. They are aspects of us at this moment in time. “I have HIV,” instead of “I am HIV.” I have whatever it is, instead of saying I am that.
Being a parent never stops, but it does change in meaning. Having an infant is very different than having a 50-year-old adult child. Are you still a parent? Yes, but the children are no longer your full responsibility.
Identities can give us a way to communicate, share information and even preferences. However, each of us is much more complicated than a label, and the limitations, if embraced, can be harmful.
Take the risk, explore who you really are, by stepping back from those fixed identities. This is the most important journey of your life. Enjoy the ride; it’s why we are here.