Identity: how do you define yourself?
Defining our own personal
identity can take a lifetime and to complicate matters,
our identity changes throughout that period whether or not we
consciously undertake a process of personal development. So
what do we mean by personal identity? How can
we answer the question “Who am I?”
The answer is more than just our given name of course - it is
much deeper than that - it is a question about our personality
and more. There are some obvious factors that we know from the
outset just by looking at our circumstances. That we are male
or female, whether we are young middle aged or old.
Identity from groups and community
We know our nationality - or at least most of us do, although
some people who have migrated or have dual citizenship may even
find this difficult to be certain of! In this world there is a
wonderful opportunity for migration and travel, with the
results that we can cease to feel part of our local community,
or even our nationality and instead feel part of the global
village. We cease to be surprised by the McDonald's restaurant
in a developing country - it feels like home. Identity even on
this seemingly simple level quickly gets complicated as
previously strong local identities get transformed.
In the UK, there is increasing emphasis on local, regional and
devolved (national) government. The UK - the United Kingdom -
is made up of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
Living here means that our identity can change depending upon
the circumstances. An Englishman overseas may say he is
British, if in Scotland he might say he is English, whilst a
Scotsman may only feel that he is Scottish and never British.
Within England, there are definite regions, North and South
being the obvious ones and yet those in Cornwall may view
themselves as a separate nation.
On a yet more local level we may view ourselves as a member of
a local community, a housing estate, a school, an office, a
company, a church or a town.
Each time we say we belong to one of those groups we identify
with them and adopt some of the behaviours and beliefs of the
wider group. Some of these groups that we are a part of are in
conflict with each other, so even on the level of these most
basic external circumstances, it can be difficult to come up
with a definitive identity of who we are.
What groups are you a part of and how does that influence your
Identity through roles
In our day-to-day lives we may define ourselves through the
roles that we play. These roles may include being a mother or
father, husband or wife, brother or sister, son or daughter,
colleague, friend or even enemy! Again some of these roles may
be in tension - consider a priest or doctor serving in the
front line alongside soldiers, a certain level of internal
processing needs to take place for someone who is committed to
saving and preserving life to also be involved in taking
What roles do you have that form part of your identity?
Identity through our work or profession
We may define ourselves through our profession or our work. I
am a teacher, I am an accountant, I am a lawyer, I am a
plumber, I am an electrician, I am a chef ... and so it goes
However if we define ourselves by what we do, our profession or
work, then does this not oversimplify our complexity? Of course
it does. There are many individuals who become lawyers, but
they are not all the same, however they may describe themselves
as a lawyer and this may be the main way in which they
establish their own identity. But something is lost by doing
The problem therefore with all of these ways is the reduction
in our identity to generalised groupings. There are two
problems with this: the definitions are external to us and they
Our identity surely is more than the generalised identity of
the groups we are part of and more that what we do, how we
behave and the roles that we adopt.
Our identity is who we ARE not what we DO.
So how do you define yourself?
Take a blank piece of paper and a pen and write down as many
words, roles, groups and thoughts about your identity that you
can think of. Take about 10 minutes over it.
Then sit back and consider whether these are really the things
that define you - are you more than this? Looking at that list,
who is defining who you are - is it you or those around you via
these groups and roles? And is that how you want to define your