As I was thinking about the concept of identity it took me back to my days as a school social worker. In 1975 I was the social worker for 4 schools, working with kids from kindergarten right through to high school. Covering this range in ages and stages gave me a great appreciation for how children grow and evolve.
In those days identity was not something you addressed, directly or indirectly. I’m not sure when we thought a child’s identity really was “formed,” but it certainly was not while they were in school. In fact, I had the feeling that identity was something rather sacred, almost mysterious, and that you certainly did not have the “right” to start messing around with it.
During these “formative” years the goal instead was to expose children to as many different experiences as possible – music lessons, sports, clubs, activities, and the like. I think the belief was that the more exposure the better, and that through those experiences children would grow up strong and confident, knowing what they liked and didn’t. In that context, the word “identity” was not really even being spoken.
I think the closest we came to the issue of identity was the concept of self esteem – which translated into feeling good about yourself. I was constantly speaking with parents who were concerned about their child’s self esteem, and wanted to know how to improve it. This was a hard question to answer because we didn’t really know what created high self esteem, and I remember feeling somewhat inadequate in my replies. Some children had good self esteem, and others didn’t… and it didn’t always seem to make sense why this was the case. I am sure you can think of people who, from the outside, look like they should have high self esteem but don’t, and others, who seem to have had a lot of pain and misery and yet are filled confidence.
As I look back we were right on the edge of identifying something really important but didn’t quite have all the pieces. We knew experiences, both bad and good, played a part in how children felt about themselves, but because we thought identity was “fluid” – not something that was formed yet – we didn’t really see what was right before our eyes.
Dr. William Glasser was an early pioneer when he coined the terms “failure” and “success identity”. He was primarily focusing on adults and addiction, and articulating what happens when a person feels like a failure and how their world shrinks. The addiction becomes more and more their focus and the world narrows around this focus. In contrast, when people feel successful the world opens up and they become “bigger and bigger.” Dr. Glasser’s focus on identity was, I believe, right on the money. But there was something missing. Dr. Glasser seemed to be primarily focusing on behavior, even though he was talking about identity.
Today I know that what we “do” is not the core of identity. In fact what you have, as in possessions or what you do (jobs, roles, accomplishments, and so on) do not create your identity per se.
So what does create our identity, and when does it really form? Is it a gradual process, or is it all “set” one day, like clay that has finally hardened?
My interest in identity came through my work with trauma and abuse. I had opened a private practice and one of the areas of specialty was trauma and loss. I really wanted to help people move beyond their trauma but I saw people “locked” in their painful experiences and the beliefs that went with them. They had formed an identity around the trauma and they were trapped inside of it. Beliefs like “I am not good enough,” “I am flawed, or evil” hardened around the person like an invisible cage. They moved through the world, inside this cage, seeing life through this “mesh” of beliefs. The identity they formed is what I call the Constructed Identity because it literally is constructed from the experiences a person has had.
When I tried to help people release this identity it didn’t go over well. People defended their “identity” and I realized that they had become very attached to it. Even though it was painful and depressing, they still clung to it. Clearly it was serving a purpose and there was no way they were going to give it up without having something to replace it with. The more I pondered this challenge, the more I realized that this identity started forming very early in life, before people were fully aware or conscious of what was even being formed. I thought back to all the children I had worked with and realized the kids I wasn’t very successful with were the ones whose identity was the issue. They had what Dr. Glasser was referring to as a “Failure Identity” and I had no idea back then, how to help them shift that.
So how early does our identity form? Very early! Our system is like a recording machine, logging all the things that happen to us, good and bad. Based on this information, we start thinking we are a certain way, or a certain kind of person. If you listen, you will hear children making statements about themselves like, “I am shy;” “I can’t do math;” “nobody likes me” and so on… and unfortunately they become self-fulfilling prophecies because they now behave in a way that supports what they believe. As time passes more and more “layers” are built up around the identity and by adulthood it’s like a brick wall.
People also say lots of positive things like, “I’m an athlete, an artist, an environmentalist, I love, music, art, etc. The bottom line is, when things have gone well we feel pretty good as a person, parent, partner, boss, or employee. But if things have not gone well, it’s a different story, and this is where the problem lies. The problem with the Constructed Identity it that it is based on external events, what we do, what we have accomplished, the roles we play, etc. When there is a problem, a crisis, or a “fall from grace” the identity takes a big hit. If the problem is life changing like a separation/divorce, bankruptcy, illness, or accident it, can be catastrophic to the identity. This is what my clients were dealing with, who had suffered trauma and abuse.
I realized the Constructed Identity would always be vulnerable to shifts and changes in life and that to have a deep sense of safety, well-being and confidence on the inside, you would have to build your identity on something else. But what?
This was the turning point in my work and in my life. After my “dark night of the soul” experience – when my husband and I separated – I discovered that my Constructed Identity wasn’t solid either, and came crumbling down. Through my own growth and development I finally realized that who you truly are is not tied to externals. Who I was, on the inside, was a beautiful, shining being.
Today, through Prime Potential, I guide people in stepping out of their Constructed Identity, and into their Authentic Identity – the true essence of who they are. This is an incredibly exciting process and opens the door to people living with more joy, creativity and health.
I want to be part of a world where we encourage people to live from their core essence, and share their gifts and talents with the world. A world in which everyone who chooses can live up to their highest potential, and in which everyone has access to living a full and vibrant life.
I am so happy to be part of the growing movement of people who help others free themselves to be who they truly are.