We often talk about identity as if it is what we are. Yet, strangely, most of the trappings of identity are things that are not, strictly speaking, us.

Some examples of ways people identify themselves:

  • I'm a rock/punk/folk/etc. music fan
  • I'm an artist/writer/musician/intellectual/etc.
  • I'm really into trains/horses/anime/etc.
  • My astrological sign/personality type/love language/etc. is...
  • My style is preppy/grungy/emo/etc.
  • I'm a generally happy/sad/angry/etc. person

Yet there's also a sense in which none of these things actually are us, but rather are things we do, associate with, or like. This suggests there's some confusion about what identity is, so let's explore what's up with it and maybe we can sort this out.

What is identity?

One everyday notion of identity is something like "who we are" or "how we tell each other apart". We might think of it as our personal coordinates in thingspace.

Another is that identity is the thing that makes me me and you you. If you're religious, maybe you think of this as your soul. If you're a romantic, you might call it your authentic self. Or maybe you just think of it as the self experiencing the self, the thing it is like to be you and not someone else.

Let's call this first kind of identity personal identity since it identifies the person and the second kind self identity since it's related to how you conceive of yourself.

I claim that we regularly conflate these two kinds of identity, this causes confusion, and furthermore that neither ultimately gets at what we want to mean by "identity". But before we get to all that, let's start by looking at how identity forms.

How does identity form?

When we are born we don't seem to know much about ourselves, as in we literally seem to lack the cognitive ability to form categories to construct a map of the world that includes ourselves. Over time, though, this changes, sometimes slowly and sometimes rapidly. By the time we are toddlers we have something like a clear identity that people can use to tell us apart from others and that we can use to distinguish ourselves.

As toddlers, though, we're not very good at making map-territory distinctions due to limitations of our present level of cognitive development. Thus we easily mix up personal identity and self identity and think they are one and the same. Some classic examples of things I remember toddlers saying that illustrate this type of confusion (and, alas, some other distractor confusions):

  • "I can't be angry because everyone knows I'm a happy kid."
  • "How come I don't turn blue when I'm sad?"
  • "I love you because I have a big heart."

We might say that toddlers are projecting things about their self perception onto their models of the world. Alternatively we could describe this as cognitive fusion, which is apt because the map and territory are conflated or "fused".

As we grow up we stop making this mistake in such obvious ways, but continue to find subtler ways to make it. There's not a lot of difference between thinking you must be sad because it's raining and thinking you have to be edgy/cool/deep because of your punk/popular/hipster group identity, other than that we consider the latter normal for adults but not the former.

Speaking of group identity, this is something that seems to start developing during adolescence. Kids go from being somewhat unaware of group affiliation (though sometimes, as in cases where societies have strong castes or classes, they will definitely be aware of that) to being hyperfocused on how they relate to groups and will generally begin to identify as a member of one or more groups. If you like, you might think of this as tribal identity, though in the modern world we tend to belong to multiple tribes that often are able to operate orthogonal to each other.

This takes us up to adults who have identities that present a mishmash of features that can be used to identify them, both to themselves and others. Some of these features are characteristic or typical behaviors, some of these are group memberships, and some of these are roles, like occupations.

Yet none of these things are fundamental to the experience of the self except insofar as they frequent the content of experience. As anyone who has ever lost a job, gone through a breakup, or otherwise had their world upended in some way knows, a person keeps going on after the thing that seemed core to their identity changes. And this is the crack through which we can see that self identity and personal identity are not one and the same.

What's it like to be me when I no longer know myself?

When your life changes enough it can feel like you no longer know yourself. Your personal identity has shifted and your experience no longer matches your predictions about yourself.

This doesn't just have to happen through hard times or large changes. Plenty of people I know talk about how this happens to them on a regular basis. They might refer to the person they were 1, 6, or 12 months ago as something like Sam[-3M] or Taylor::2020 or just "the person I was N months ago". I certainly feel this: typically after 6 months it's hard to say I'm really the same person. Sure, a lot has stayed the same, but it also feels like enough has changed that I'm a different person in some meaningful way.

Yet we all agree to still call each other by the same names and think of each other as roughly the same people we were even when we haven't seen each other for 20 years. And that's because in some important ways that's true, we are still those same people from 20 years ago. I'm causally linked with 8 year old Gordy who got scraped knees and dreamed of living at Disney World. So even as some parts of my personal identity have changed, other parts have stayed the same, and not always in ways that match my self identity.

For example, I can remember times I've "leveled up" at some cognitive skill but it took a long time for that to propagate from my self identity to my personal identity as people learned I was different and I learned how to integrate my new found abilities. Similarly, sometimes my personal identity changes but my self identity lags. Aging has been like this for me: I'm 38 now, but I don't really "feel" like I'm 38 in a way that matches how I would have imagined what it would be like to be this age, and I think we all know folks who "don't act their age", be that because they act older or younger than we would expect of someone who's lived the number of years they have.

So while identity, personal or self, may seem fixed for some period of time for some people, we see that it's also in a state of flux, and consequently the two can drift apart from each other or come back into coherence as circumstances change. This makes it hard to nail down where the "real" identity lies. From the outside it might seem like you're mistaken about yourself and the personal identity you project is the real you, but from the inside it can feel more like the self identity is real and the way others identify you is an attempt to model you that always lags behind.

This can leave one wondering...

Is there anything that is fundamentally me?

Ironically, this depends on whether or not you find yourself identifying with (thinking of yourself as the same thing as) some aspect of identity.

You might identify with the way you project yourself to others. For example, maybe you feel like the real you resides in the clothes you wear, the music you listen to, the people you hang out with, the job you work, the team you support, the ideas you believe in, and generally the things you associate with. If it feels like you'd be betraying yourself if you didn't look, act, or think a certain way, this is identifying with personal identity. If this is you, then in a certain sense the thing that is fundamentally you, as you experience it, is personal identity.

On the other hand, maybe you identify with your experience of yourself rather than the things you do. For example, maybe you feel like the real you resides somewhere hidden away, like there is a homunculus or soul controlling the machinery, and the things you do are imperfect expressions of that occluded true self. If it feels like you'd be betraying yourself if you didn't look, act, or think in ways that accord with a true inner self, this is identifying with self identity. If this is you, then in a certain sense the thing that is fundamentally you, as you experience it, is self identity.

But here's the thing. Identifying with personal identity is just another way of saying you're cognitively fused with the world as you perceive it, including the way you perceive others to perceive you. This would be fine except that it leaves no space for making a map-territory distinction, and so leads to confusion.

Similarly, identifying with self identity is dissociation, treating yourself as if you were a Cartesian rather than an embedded agent, i.e. an outsider observing the machinery rather than the machinery observing itself. Again, this would be fine except that it puts up a wall between the map and territory (a Cartesian split) that leads to anvil problems and other nasty surprises because of blind spots that arise from relying on the map to the exclusion of the territory.

Yet despite the high likelihood that you identity with personal or self identity (or both!), in the end both leave out the way "you" is never really fixed long enough to be a thing, and that any reification of the self with which you identity is created after the fact. That is, your identifying happens after the you you're identifying with has already ceased to exist—it must be this way because you must first perceive yourself before you can conceive of yourself, and in that tiny sliver of time "you" are already different.

This isn't some minor philosophical puzzle, but the whole thing. The moment you think or feel like the you in your thoughts is the real you then you've already lost the thread of reality and ceased to understand yourself as existing simultaneously in both the map and territory. You've confused the finger for the thing pointed at, and further confusion follows from there.

So in the end the very notion of identity is empty in the sense that it is there only because you made it so. This doesn't make it any less real or useful, but it does open up the possibility that things could be other than it seems that they must be. So while my message is one that aims to shatter any idea of a persistent identity to which you might cling for more than an instant, it's also one of hope for what is possible that lies beyond our limited conceptions of ourselves. There is more in each of us than we realize if we get out of the way of our own limited ideas of who we are.

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Yet despite the high likelihood that you identity with personal or self identity (or both!), in the end both leave out the way "you" is never really fixed long enough to be a thing, and that any reification of the self with which you identity is created after the fact.

When I think about myself 30 years ago, I remember having similar values, enjoying math, proto-rationality (although I didn't use that word), aspie traits (although I didn't use that word). Which doesn't sound like "never really fixed long enough to be a thing".