The importance of our identity

Our identity is extremely important because it informs how we see ourselves as individuals, how we relate with other people and how we view the world and our place in it. Sometimes we just don't feel that we fit in even though we long to. We may become chameleon-like and mimic other people in the hope that they will accept us.

Our identities are initially established in early childhood. It is here that we learn whether we are loved and valued, and whether we receive comfort when we are feeling distressed. School also has an important role to play as we begin to mix more with other people and try and find our place with other young people and adults. If we have not been loved we may grow up thinking that we are worthless. If we have been bullied at school, or not achieved academically, this can have a devastating impact on our sense of identity.

Deep within us is a need to belong, to be accepted, to be loved and to feel that we have something of worth to offer to others, our community and society. We observe what others do and what we think we need to do to become acceptable. This may include what we wear, our hairstyles, the music we listen to, where we socialise, being on social media, and the way that we look (including body image).

It seems that in today's society there is an expectation to present oneself as perfect, whatever that might mean. I would suggest that this happens at whatever life-stage we are at. Social media invites us to give an impression that 'all is well', as we present ourselves as we think other people expect us to. Yet sometimes, inevitably, all is not well.

It is much more acceptable now to talk about mental health, yet barely a week goes by without yet another person having committed suicide. Often these people are in high profile positions, perhaps in the entertainment or sports world, or they may be a precious person in a family who had no idea that anything was wrong. How can it be that we have so many ways of communicating yet we seem to find it difficult to be still long enough to really listen to and see just how another person actually is?

I would suggest that something is profoundly wrong when people don't feel able to ask for the help that they need. It can certainly be difficult to acknowledge that we are not feeling alright, as there may be fear of dismissal, rejection, belittling etc. When we are distressed and don't know who we are or what our identity is, we may self-soothe with self-harm, alcohol or drug use, to name a few.

I would also suggest that our true identities are within us and start with us valuing ourselves just because we are unique and precious. We don't need to copy other people or want to be someone else or like someone else. There is so much potential within each person just waiting to be acknowledged and developed. It is so important to have self-compassion, to be aware of our silent internal dialogue and the impact of that on our identities.

What are we saying about ourselves - are we saying 'I am worthless', 'I am stupid', 'I won't ever make anything of my life'? What we believe leads to what we think and feel, and how we respond. Are we in relationships where we are built up, or torn down? If we feel worthless we can feel dis-empowered and unable to be assertive - we may lose ourselves or become compliant because we are fearful of other people.

Here are some thoughts about where we may get our identity:

  • Our family of origin.
  • Our country.
  • Our sports team.
  • Our friends.
  • The school or university we went to.
  • Our possessions and finances.
  • Our jobs.
  • Our neighbourhood.
  • Our faith.
  • Our life experience.
  • Our sexuality.
  • Our gender.

Clearly this list is not exhaustive.

Without doubt, these things and more may have an influence on our sense of identity, but some of these things may change, so we need be secure within ourselves about who we are so that this secure base helps us as we manage life, relationships and all the challenges that these bring. Loving and valuing ourselves make an enormous difference to our sense of identity and well-being.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Godalming GU7 & Weybridge KT13
Written by Stella Goddard, BA (Hons) Registered MBACP (Accred)
Godalming GU7 & Weybridge KT13

Stella Goddard is an Accredited Counsellor who has extensive clinical experience working with clients' sense of identity. Often this has been damaged in childhood and Stella encourages her clients to be self-compassionate so that wounds can heal and they are better able to see, acknowledge, value and develop their potential and true identity.

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