Monday, 16 February 2015

Letting go of identity

Recently, I’ve been reading this book called ‘Multiplicity: The new science of personality’ by Rita Carter, fascinating stuff for a psychology nerd like me! The premise of the book is that instead of having one steady personality most of us have several, developed in response to the dynamic and unstable contexts we encounter in modern life.

Consider how it must have been for people even just 300 years ago: with no means of getting anywhere other than by their own steam, or with the aid of an animal if they were lucky enough to have one, most people in the lower classes spent their entire lives in one locality with the same group of people, encountering the same situations day-after-day. They thus developed a very simple, stable personality that could be relied upon by the people around them.

Today things are different. We exist within multiple contexts simultaneous, with different groups of people and with complex social dynamics and expectations. Thus it is not surprising to find that most of us have a suite of personalities, just as we have a wardrobe of clothes for different occasions, one for work, one that comes out when we are at home with our family, and one that we share only with our lover.

How do these personalities arise? Just as personalities have always arisen: in response to the pressures of our environment and the needs of the people around us, and through the lens of our natural tendencies, we develop habitual behaviours that we then begin to associate with who we are.

For example a child grows up with a deaf mother and a violent alcoholic father. In her childhood she does her best to help her mother whom she loves but who also makes her feel guilty, not intentionally but in the subtle unintentional way of people who have learned to play the martyr. She also learns to fear male aggression and avoids openness with her father because it makes her physically and emotionally vulnerable.

Based on these early experiences, we could make a very simple prediction that this child is likely grow up to be a people-pleaser, working in one of the helping professions and never feeling she is good enough to be truly worthy of love, respect or status. In intimate relationships she may well struggle to be open and will likely take on either a submissive role or a strident nothing-can-hurt-me aggression that prevents her from really connecting with the other.

But because modern life is not simple, the development of personality is not simple either. Perhaps this child, so powerless in the home, learned to exert her power over children at school. Thus we may find that the woman who evolves is submissive and a pleaser at home, but an assertive, power-hungry bully in the workplace.

Carter defines personality as ‘a coherent and characteristic way of seeing, thinking, feeling, and behaving’ and this seems a good enough working definition to me. This clearly indicates that personality is not just a role we play, it’s something we identify with, we consider it to be who we are.

In my life I can clearly see three different personalities: there’s the studious responsible me who works in a leadership role within an organisation dedicated to personal and social change. Right now this is the me that’s writing this blog! Then there’s the rebellious, outrageous me, who does things my work colleagues would find very surprising indeed. And finally there’s the me that comes out when I’m with my lover and that is a very different person again.

There are also roles that I play but do not identify with: for example I used to work in a big corporation. I played the games and wore the uniform because I thought I could get things done that way, but it never suited me and I never felt comfortable in the role. So at some point in our lives we begin to identify with some of the roles we play but not others, and these became our personalities, our identities.

The trouble is that identifying too strongly with these roles can become very limiting, and in some cases can cause serious cognitive dissonance in our lives.

For example, because I’ve come to believe so fully in my most prominent personality, the responsible, good one, I sometimes feel that I need to hide the other two, both from others and from myself. In the past I even tried to deny that they existed: these weren’t really me, they were some kind of aberration, a dark-side that I needed to resolve or work to integrate or grow out of, or at the very least keep well and truly to myself. I worked to make the dominant ‘good’ aspects of myself stronger in an effort to assuage my guilty feelings about these other aspects of myself that did not fit into my self-defined identity.

It’s very freeing to recognise that none of these personalities are actually who we are at all. As all the mystic traditions teach us, these layers of identity are nothing more than self-constructed facades behind which the true self resides, the silent observer.

When you let go of identity, accepting that none of your personalities are really who you are, you bring a playfulness back into your life. You’re free to try on different roles, as you would try on different clothes, selecting the ones you enjoy wearing and discarding the ones that don’t serve you. Life becomes a big game of dress ups where anything is possible

So now I hear you say ‘that’s all very well but if I suddenly start cross-dressing or play the smart-arse with my boss it’s not going to go down very well,’ and you’re absolutely right. But that doesn’t make cross-dressing or sassing your boss the problem. If you’re a man and you really want to wear woman clothes and the people around you can’t handle that then you have to decide what is most important thing to you. Like anything this will depends entirely on the context.

The point is not to cling onto something new, that is the need to try out different roles, but to recognise how by identifying with the roles you do play you hold yourself back from experiencing life to its fullest.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thanks :) Great blog!