Identity - What do I identify with?

By Anne Böhringer, Germany

Who am I? What am I? What do I do? An approach to a huge subject

”Who am I, what am I, what am I doing here?” Many people have asked themselves these questions, and it is existential questions such as these that may concern them throughout their life. This is why all we can do is to make a start on the subject of identity - or what we identify with - as it is a huge area that each individual can explore in his or her own way.

What is it that forms a personal identity? Probably at first it is our social heritage, the time and place of birth and our gender. These are the first impressions that we are born into, that come from our environment, parents, nation and gender, all the way through to astrological influence, and the ways of thinking or the psychological prints that result from all of these.

When you meet people from different countries, it is fascinating to discover that the national characteristics, which have often been exaggerated or over-emphasised in books or films, do actually exist. Individually we may not necessarily identify with our nation, but it still has an important effect on our language, way of thinking, behaviour, religion, and so on, whether we like it or not. Is there not the feeling of a strong bond, when meeting a fellow-countryman in an abandoned village in the middle of Algeria for example? And perhaps in this situation a conversation can ensue that would not have happened at home.
 
This seems to show that the first level of identity consists of the basic, primary aspects that we were born into. We can live with these unconsciously, or we can become more conscious of these influences, to choose whether we want to be affected by them. This is a fascinating journey of self discovery, although complex and not always easy to see as we are so permeated by them. It is often easier to work with others to study all these overlays.
 
What is the next level of identity? “I am more than my background, so what do I personally identify with?” If people are asked, ‘who are you?’ they often answer, ‘I am a mechanic, a doctor, or the mother of two children etc’. We often say what we do as a profession. But is that who we are? It surely says a lot about our nature, but nothing about our attitude towards it. Is a person a full blooded mechanic, doctor or mother, or did they choose that profession because it was a tradition in their family, or because it was simple and obvious, or because it would attract recognition and approval. To what degree do we identify with our profession, and what happens when a person cannot work any longer? Unemployment and retirement often lead to identity crises, because you are no longer a mechanic, a doctor or a mother in the eyes of the world (and often in one’s own eyes). At some point children start to live their own lives, and everybody will probably become a pensioner at some point, like it or not, even if it seems far away now. What qualities have been assembled inside you before then, what areas of interest have been built, what knowledge has been accumulated and what quality of life has been developed? If you have not started early enough, this can lead to great disappointment, where bitterness, lack of recognition and self-worth as well as dullness will occur.
 
This can also hit us when we identify too much with our body and our looks. In our 20s, 30s or 40s we may look handsome or attractive, but nature will lead every single one of us through an aging process where the focus will turn more and more to the inner qualities. How often do we meet people that want to be someone else? Thinner here and differently formed there, a little bit bigger here, a little bit smaller there, a bit more of this, a bit less of that. If we identify with our body that has its own specific genetic blueprint, we can only become unhappy in the long run. Beauty surgeons, fashion designers and shopping malls might earn a lot from us, but it still leaves us with the question ‘what do I identify with?’.
 
Perhaps there is a key and a stability in an identity that is located in values that are more flexible. An identification not with what we do, but in how it is done, an identification with the quality of the process, with the quality of thoughts, wishes and hopes and with what is important and of value in life. To identify with the quality of the processes that leads to the results, instead of identifying with the results themselves - in the quality of our work, our partnerships etc. It is not the fact of being a mechanic, a doctor or a mother that is important, but the question of how much care is applied, and the type of engagement in any activity.

How do we think about what we do and how can we develop higher reasons or feelings in and about what we do? There follows some examples from daily life that show three levels of possible thinking patterns for each example, that depend on what one identifies with.

At work

‘I have to earn money.’
‘Even if I don’t like this work, it allows me to earn my living and to do what I am interested in my leisure time.’
‘I want to contribute to the wellbeing of my family and of the community because they support me.’

Cooking

‘I have to cook.’
‘Cooking gives me the opportunity to provide for my family.’
‘I want to express my love and gratitude towards the family.’

Holidays

‘At last! Away from everything.’
‘I will have time to find a different balance, to recharge and to do what I am interested in.’
‘Time for a review about where I stand, where I want to go and to use the possibility of this break for developing new intentions.’

Exercise

‘I want to look good and have a nice figure.’
‘I want to be physically fit in my life.’
‘I want to be physically fit, to be able to be more available for something greater, because it is something greater that gave me life (an expression of gratitude in a universal sense).’

Children

‘Oh, how nice, this is our child.’
‘A new and unique human being in our custody.’
‘A new and unique human being from creation. what can we do to give him or her the best possible opportunity to realise his or her unique nature.

All of this may sound familiar and yet strange at the same time, but when we look back into history, we can see that in former times there were strict rules for everything in life. Professions were partly a tradition in families, there were rules for what was possible in one place and not in another, the gender role models were fixed etc. But the world is changing rapidly, everything is short lived and then disperses, who still works for 40 years in the same company, for example? Many people have to learn more than one profession or play different roles in society. In this situation the only stability is inside oneself, and it is very important what we identify with, and that the processes we engage in have quality, because good processes lead to good results. But this process-orientated identity needs regular practice and application in daily life to consolidate it in our systems.

Perhaps you want to try and find different reasons and ways of thinking about why you do what you do. It may be a bit strange in the beginning, but then it will be worth it, (this is something one can only experience on one’s own).

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