We all have identities. Arguably, any statement of the form “I am a __” is an identity. Of course, we usually reserve the term for the statements which feel especially core to us in describing and predicting ourselves, and in expressing our values and aspirations. Such identities may have their benefits, but they also come with a number of perils. In particular, we are prone to a) become distressed by any perceived threat to an identity, and b) become utterly inflexible around shifting, modifying, or discarding identities. These effects can be detrimental to both personal wellbeing and goal attainment. Sanity, however, can be regained if we recognize that our identities do not exist unto themselves, and are instead [often subconscious] strategies towards the attainment of specific goals and values.

Identities are Strategies towards Goals

Consider a person who prides themselves on their identity as a writer: “I am a writer.” This identity is precious because there is an implicit statement of the form “I am a writer[, and therefore I will have a job, income, status, friends, lovers, and my life will be good].” The implicit statement is the goal to be obtained and the explicit identity is the strategy for achieving that goal. The value of the identity derives from the goal is supports.

I describe these plans as subconscious because more often than not they are not articulated. Many people have an identity around being intelligent, but I expect that if you ask them why this important, they will need a few moments to generate their answer. I also expect that in many cases the belief in the goodness of an identity is absorbed from society and it is social drives which motivate it for an individual. In that case, the full identity statement might go “I am a __ [and therefore society will approve of me]” whether or not an individual would admit it. In the most general case, it’s “I am a __ [and therefore goodness].”

Threats to the Identity are Threats to the Goal

Given that an identity is a strategy for achieving a goal, any threat to the identity is a threat to the goal. The degree of threat perceived is proportional to the importance of the goal and to the extent that the identity is sole strategy for achieving the goal. If someone believes that being a writer is their sole avenue for having a good and fulfilling life, they are going to get upset when that identity is challenged. This holds even if person does not consciously recognize that their identity is part of a plan. It is enough that some part of their mind, S1 or whatever, has firmly stamped “being a writer” as critical for having a good life.

Consider, though, someone who has identities both around being a writer and around being a musician. Suppose that this person has achieved considerable fame and fortune as a musician and resultantly already has wealth, friends, lovers, etc. by dint of this identity alone. I predict that this person will be less bothered by challenges to writing ability than the person who staking themselves on being a writer. If the writer-only has their manuscript rejected, it will be devastating, whereas for the writer-musician, it will be a mere disappointment.

Protect the Goal and the Identity Can Be Free

If threats to identity are really about threats to goal-attainment, then the key to working with identities becomes a) surfacing the hidden goals and, b) ensuring there is security around attaining those goals. Tell the child that they’re not cut out to be writer and they’ll tantrum, but tell them they’re not cut to be a writer yet have phenomenal painting skills, and they might just listen. Substitute one less viable plan for a new and better one. Other variations include exposing that the goal in fact has already been attained, as in the case of the writer-musician above, or recognizing that the identity in fact is going to be an ineffective plan regardless, e.g. giving up on being a goth because you realize that no one thinks goths are cool anyway.

Times I Shifted Identities

Recognizing my true goals and whether or not they are likely to be attained has allowed me to become flexible around, or even completely discard, identities which I have had for years or even decades. When I decided that I’d become an engineer in 2008, I formed a strong identity around being a “technical person.” This was pure goodness to. Yet after deciding that my top priority was the long-term flourishing of civilization over building cool things right now, I realized that I needed to consider whether pursuing a technical path was really the best thing I could do. This was always an immensely difficult thing to do. I felt that definitely one day I'd move out of doing tech work, but not so soon! Recently though, I did make such a switch. By recognizing that a new path would maximize my values far more than the old, I transitioned from a Data Scientist role to a Product Manager role with little pain. I was giving up on spending my time of technical problems, but this path was truer to my real values and unquestionably was the one I must take.

Another identity triggered the line of thinking which led to this post. During a religious youth, I absorbed that anything bodily is crass and bestial and is only the mental and intellectual which are dignified. Though I left my youth far behind, this message stuck: the biological is undignified, shameful, bestial; only the mental and intellectual are good. For years, eating, drinking, sex, physical pleasure, etc. have felt embarrassing to one degree or another. My mind insisted this attitude was a core value of mine -- terminal, unquestionable. Sure, it suspiciously looked like the message I’d been taught as a kid, but it just felt so damn certain. Conceivably it was, but it still meant I lived in a state of conflict. After all I am still human with largely normal human biological drives and needs and I was doing those things even while ashamed. One way or another, I needed to get some kind of resolution around this identity.

To that end, at a recent CFAR workshop I began earnestly questioning what was going on in my head being open to any outcome. To my surprise, the exercise made me feel threatened in the exact same way I feel when socially threatened. This was odd -- if the anti-biology/mental-only thing was a core value, then I shouldn't feel socially threatened. In which case it couldn't be a core value. No, it was a deeply cached alief that it was shameful to be biological and that others would judge me if ever I unabashedly sought biological pleasure. Of course, that's absurd! No one I associate with feels that at all. People revel in pleasure of all kind! When I thoroughly exposed the anti-biology identity to the evidence by just thinking about it for a few minutes, the identity relented and gave itself up. I was suspicious for some time, but I now enjoy all forms of pleasure without guilt or shame.

I remain surprised, and yet exposing and protecting underlying goals continues to work. A final example: for many years I've had a palpable desire to be wealthy -- an identity which has long interfered with my ability to consider non-profit work. I felt that I could only move into non-profit work, my eventual plan, once I'd saved up sufficient wealth. When I recognized that the identity of "wealthy person" was really just about status, and that already I'm pretty content with my status, this identity evaporated too. The goal it served had already been attained, the identity just hadn't got the memo yet.

To close, the questions to be asked are: What are you identities? Which goal does each of them serve? And do they serve them well?

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1 comment, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 11:44 AM

Fixed this. Sorry for the URL field being confusing.