The Practice of Being Present
Identity (part 1)
We all seek to construct an identity in some way. Human beings are social creatures: not only do we live in a context of social relationships, but one of the distinguishing features of our human brains is the capacity to reflect about ourselves, to think about and construct ideas about ourselves.
Another process that is intrinsic to human beings is making meaning. Constructing an identity is a way of making some meaning, some sense, of who we are. And creating that sense of who we are contributes to a sense of certainty and of security. So part of what we naturally do as human beings, is to construct an idea about who we are in our social environment to me: who we are in relation to others; who we are in comparison with others (e.g. in terms of skills, personality, experience, etc.)
At different times, in different ways, we may focus on different things in constructing that identity. We may construct an identity around being a responsible person, just as we may construct an identity around being a rebellious person. We may construct an identity in relation to how we want others to see us, or we may construct an identity in relation to how we want to see ourselves. We may also construct an identity in reaction to how we think others perceive us: either to confirm how they see us or to disprove how we think we are seen.
We may construct an identity that is focused on self protection. For example, a people-pleasing identity, which elicits a response from others that "he/she is always so willing to help… such a good person… what a saint!" is an identity which is both internally motivated ("I feel good about myself because I'm such a good and caring person") and externally motivated ("I feel like a good person because others see me as a good person and/or like me"). But it is also an identity organized around self-protection: protecting oneself against disapproval by others; protecting oneself against confrontation with others; protecting oneself against thoughts and feelings of "being selfish if I attend to my own needs, set boundaries with others, etc."
Ultimately, every identity we create is about self-protection. We protect ourselves from various perceived risks and threats in various ways. Having an identity gives us a sense of who we are in this world, which protects us against a possible sense of not knowing who we are. Our identity, our sense of who we are, is always in reference to other people, to activities, to achievements, to abilities. The identity of being a professional allows me to situate myself in the social world. The identity of being intelligent allows me to situate myself in relation to other people and also to my abilities and to specific achievements related to intelligence. My identity related to my ethnic or cultural background allows me to situate myself in relation to other people both in terms of belonging and being different than.
Identities usually involve some measure of situating where we belong, and who we belong with (i.e. a social group) as well as a sense of worth. So if your identity is as an academic, it allowed you to situate yourself within a specific institution, department, or group as well as within larger groupings and enterprises such as: your field; other academics pursuing similar lines of study; and the field of academia in general. You create a sense of knowing who you are in relation to that as well as in relation to the work that you do and the relationships you have. You also create your sense of identity in relation to the work that you produce and the responses to it. There is a sense of comfort, security and stability from these secure moorings of your identity, as well as a sense of self-worth.
If you are a construction worker, a nurse, and manager, a soldier, an athlete, or even a criminal, and you identify yourself as such, then similarly your identity is constructed within a framework of relationships, activities, physical spaces, productive output, responses from others, etc. But you can also be engaged in any of these and other activities or professions and sustain an identity that you are not defined by that: you will still have as defined and identity that is either based on not being what you are doing, or on being something other than what you are doing.
In other words, constructing an identity (which we do in a very active way on a day-to-day basis) is an enterprise that is geared to creating a sense of security in this world through various means, and is always constructed in relation to, and in reaction to factors that are external to us in our daily lives and environments.
Now I am not saying that these identities have nothing to do with our own, internal nature or personality. I say they are constructed in relation to, in reaction to external factors which means it is in the particular way that you, as an individual, relate to others and react to circumstances. But it is largely due to how you react to your own perceptions, beliefs, fears and expectations, all of which have already been conditioned in your early life experience, your early life development, and are themselves reactions formed around trying to feel safe in the world.
Very little of your constructed identity originates in the Essence of who you really are, or fully expresses that essence. In fact, by definition, our identities cut us off from our essence and limit its expression. If, in our essence, we are three-dimensional, our identities are two-dimensional. Even though identities change and evolve, at any moment that we relate to them, we relate to them as something fixed, definite – because that is their very purpose. The purpose of our identities is to be defined and knowable – to us, and others. Our essence is by definition undefined and unknowable.
I am not saying here that identities are a "bad thing". I'm saying it is important to understand the very important reasons we try to create identities, the purpose of creating and sustaining an identity, as well as the limitations it creates to truly being in Presence.
In my next blog, I will discuss how to apply this in your own self-reflection, and explore ways to begin freeing yourself from the limitations of your own sense of identity.