Who Am I and Why Does it Matter? A Therapist's View on Identity
Who am I and why does it matter? Can I be me or must I be like you? Will you love me for who I am? These are some of the questions we struggle with throughout our lives. Within our families, at work, in society and of course within ourselves.
Identity is one of those words we attach to other words in our strange human way of seeking understanding, certainty or clarity within ourselves and in relationships with others. Sexual identity, professional identity, religious, cultural, social, political, family identity - the list is endless.
Phrases such as ‘finding myself’ and ‘identity crisis’ somehow infer that we are lost or stuck if we don’t know who we are or feel unacceptable to others. It seems that finding some certainty around our identity offers us a sense of confidence and security from which we can take up our space in the world and manage the challenges that life inevitably brings.
Identity issues are an integral part of therapy; even if not the main focus and I rarely see a client who doesn’t voice the fear of becoming someone they don’t know as a result of what it might entail to embrace personal growth.
The Self is much referred to in psychotherapy. We talk about real self and false self as one way of understanding the different aspects of each of us that develop as we grow up in a challenging world. Increasingly this becomes more complex as we are exposed to real-time demands through social and other media. Demands for us to be something, anything, other than how we experience ourselves in that moment. It is little wonder that our self-images are poor and that our self-confidence often on unsteady ground.
So how do I as a therapist approach this huge topic and work respectfully with each client to help their growth without undue influence of my own identity?
As a Transactional Analyst I draw on what we refer to as a structural model. Its rather like filling your home with all the objects and evidence of experience that you encounter in your life, including what you have inherited. We are containers of our past, our parent's past and the generations that have gone before. We are influenced each time we are stimulated to respond, consciously and unconsciously, from the moment of conception.
From its first moments of life the baby looks to its caregivers for acceptance and approval – simply for being in the world. Narcissism is often regarded as a negative construct and yet without experiencing a healthy narcissism as a child how can we embody a sense that we are intrinsically OK? If a child is not received with delight as it reaches out to the people it looks to for survival the experience is likely to be one of shame and fear.
Shame and fear of feeling exposed is a real experience for any client in therapy as they entrust us with their most vulnerable aspects of self. If we are to facilitate the client’s growth, the strength of the therapeutic relationship is paramount and the pace of therapy critical. When I’m working with the client towards understanding and developing their sense of identity I hold in mind that I am working with the earliest and most fragile parts of the person as well as the most potent and self-knowing parts of them.
We may also regard our sense of identity as one which is constantly shifting. It’s more than fine to change our minds about who we are, what we believe and how we feel. A strong core sense of self allows us to move through life sometimes adapting and constantly growing as we become more of ourselves within, with others and in the world.
This is surely the greatest privilege of psychotherapeutic work, in which both of us emerge affected and enriched by each other, both with new insight into how we experience ourselves and each other – both with a greater sense of our own identities.