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The Identity Trap and How to Avoid It

The Identity Trap and How to Avoid It

The topic at a glance

What is Your Identity?

So, what are we referring to when we talk about identity? Where does it come from? It is something static or does it change over time? Is our identity what we are?

One way to describe your identity would be to say that it is made up of all of the thoughts you have about yourself.

It could include ideas such as:

Image by Till Krech

Our personal identity is not static. It changes over time (e.g. moving from childhood to adulthood), and there are aspects of it that will change over the course of a single day (e.g. we may have one identity at work and another one at home).

How is Your Identity Created?

By developing a more flexible approach to your personal identity, you may discover there is more to you than you think.

Humans do not come prepackaged with an identity. For example, when we are infants, the adults around us will try to describe our personality (e.g. ‘she’s a bit grumpy’), but we do not yet identify with such labels. It is only as we grow and interact with the world that we begin to form a personal identity.

One of the most powerful forces shaping our identity is the feedback we get from other people. This is problematic because there is no guarantee such feedback is accurate or fair. It could mean that we end up believing things about ourselves that are not based on reality but on the mistaken view of somebody else.

There was some research done by Rosenthal and Jacobson during the sixties that powerfully demonstrated how our identity could be shaped by the mistaken opinions of someone else. In the study, schoolkids were assigned to either a ‘slow’ or ‘smart’ group – the students were placed into these groups randomly, and it had nothing to do with their actual level of intelligence.

The disturbing conclusion of the Rosenthal and Jacobson study was that just labelling one group as ‘slow’ was enough to create a self-fulfilling prophecy – i.e. the teacher interacted with this group in such a way that the students started to believe and act like they were slow learners.

How much of your identity is there because of the mistaken views of somebody else? What if the belief that you are no good at art has more to do with your art teacher having a hangover than your actual artistic abilities? What if you feel like a failure because your parents had unrealistic expectations?

Addiction as an Identity Trap

Addiction is not just a physical process – it also leads to the development of a new ideas about who we are and what we are capable of. In fact, our whole identity can start to revolve around obtaining, using, and recovering from the effects of our chosen drug. We may surround ourselves with likeminded individuals, become part of a subculture, and this only strengthens our ‘addict’ identity.

In order to break free of addiction, it is not only necessary to give up our drug but also the identity we developed due to the behavior. We have to think differently about ourselves or there is a high risk that we will return to the old ways – in order to become a butterfly, we have to stop being a caterpillar (check out this older post on the danger of trying to be a caterpillar with wings).

How Mindfulness Allows Us to Become Less Trapped by Any Identity

One way to improve our lives may be to develop a healthier identity but mindfulness takes a different approach. It is the understanding that none of the thoughts we have about ourselves should be taken too seriously.

An identity is always going to limit us in some way, and it usually requires ignoring or denying aspects of ourselves that make us feel comfortable. For example, believing you are a ‘good person’ can mean you need to become dishonest about those aspects of you that don’t confirm this.

The thoughts we have about ourselves can be more of a hindrance than a help. Life is always more satisfying when we switch our focus to actual reality rather than descriptions of reality. By developing a more flexible approach to your personal identity, you may discover there is more to you than you think.

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