Identity: when do we become who we are?

What is identity?

Identity is… (thefreedictionary.com)

1. The collective aspect of the set of characteristics by which a thing is definitively recognizable or known.

2. The set of behavioral or personal characteristics by which an individual is recognizable as a member of a group.

3. The quality or condition of being the same as something else.

4. The distinct personality of an individual regarded as a persisting entity; individuality.

5. Information, such as an identification number, used to establish or prove a person’s individuality, as in providing access to a credit account.

If we look at the definitions we find that identity is not as simple as we sometimes make it out to be. Sure, an aspect of our identity is knowing who we are as a person – knowing the set of characteristics by which we can be recognised. Our identity can also establish which group we’re part of; whether that be a religious group, a social group or a member of a specific culture. What interests me the most is that definition number four states that it is a quality or condition of being the same as someone else; our identity is not just about us. If you return to the latter point about belonging to a group then that definition fits well. The idea that our identity is a personality of an individual, the characteristics that make someone recognisable and a way of knowing that we’re like somebody else/a social/religious/cultural group is what makes the concept all the more fascinating.

What I’d like to focus on, however, is when our identity is established. Are we everything we know we can be at four years old? Probably not. Do we know at sixteen what we want out of our future? We might have a pretty good idea. Do all fifty year olds know exactly who they are? It’s not likely.

Exploring our identity is a process that never really stops changing. We may know what career we want to go into, we may know that we’d like a family. But every life event can change our future, it can change who we are as a person and make us realise that different things are important to us.

If you lose one or both of your parents as a child, will you grow up to be the same person had they not died? It’s difficult to know for sure. But if one of your parents dies of a rare disease and you’re trying to decide whether you want to go into scientific research or information technology as a career, it might push you in the direction of science. Alternatively, it might create such a crisis of identity that you never truly reach your full potential.

With the current economic climate there are a lot of people out of work; due to a lack of jobs in their chosen field a lot of people are re-evaluating what they want in life. Myself included. I’ve volunteered and trained for years in order to work in the voluntary sector and with the economic crisis I have found myself wondering what it was all for. Is that something I even have passion for any longer? After all, what has the sector done for me? Now that I need it the most, it’s dwindling. I can see the bigger picture and know that it’s not their fault, charities aren’t closing or cutting staff because they want to. It’s because they have no other option. But what sort of damage must that do to individual identity? I know it’s had an effect on mine. It’s make me reconsider what I really want, so far as to wish that I had studied something completely different and headed down a very different path.

Aside from societal issues there are also other factors involved in discovering your identity. As teenagers subgroups appear and children are slotted into neat little boxes whether they want to be in them or not. If you dress a certain way, or listen to a specific type of music then a label is plastered over you quicker than you can even say your name. Whilst these subgroups may not be prevalent in later life, the relationships formed at that period of time may be with you for the rest of your life. In which case, the pressures and influences of members of that social group may forge an aspect of your identity that won’t change.

Along with subgroups comes the dreaded subject of marginalised groups. It’s perhaps the hardest part of discovering your identity to realise that you’re not like everyone else. With teenage subgrouping you’re bound to find someone who will share your passions. But there is a whole section of our identity that we so often take for granted, unless it really matters.

Living in a hetero-normative society means that everyone is the sexuality they were ‘born’ with. Or so society would have you believe. Generally, you are straight until you state otherwise; coming out as gay or bisexual is not an easy journey, speaking from experience. Discovering that part of yourself, struggling with how that fits into your world and how it fits into the world of the others around you is not easy. Sexuality is still a difficult subject in our world, despite many attempts to bring it into the same normalcy as groups that once were treated as badly, namely females and non-white minority groups. And God forbid someone should realise later in life that their sexuality is different to the one their family and friends always thought they had.

Whilst identity is very much a personal thing, there are many aspects of our identities which we share with others. Whether that be through shared cultural groups or our own choosing (coming out, sharing experiences we have had which may change our outlook on life, etc.) it’s all about who we are as a person and how we fit into this world.

At twenty six am I the same person that I was at sixteen? Yes, I am because I haven’t had a body transplant. But do I have the same identity? No, I definitely don’t. I have worked hard on achieving my aims, I have pushed back against issues I once faced (and some I still do), I have re-evaluated aspects of my identity and had what could be dubbed a quarter life crisis. Will I be the same person when I’m thirty-six? I hope not. I hope that I will have continued to grow and change for the better, I hope to have some new people in my life who will expand my horizons and bring new elements to who I am.

Identity isn’t necessarily who we once were, it isn’t even who we will one day become. It’s about who we are right at this very moment in time because tomorrow we might be a completely different person.

Please share your own thoughts of identity and when you think we become who we are.

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