How Shedding Identity Boosts Individuality
Who are you?
We all think we know the answer to this question, but do we? The answer lies in how much of our time we spend on autopilot, going about our daily routine without paying much attention to what is going on around us in the here and now. This same type of automatic pilot does a lot to establish our identity, both for ourselves and for others around us. Roles fall to us and labels become applied to us, but who we are versus who we think we are can be two vastly separate people.
Identity in this context refers to all of the labels we use upon ourselves, as well as those thrust upon us by others and by society. Labels are not inherently bad. At one point in our evolution, labels were a matter of survival. Being able to accurately identify threats, especially from other humans, helped primitive people stay alive and stable enough to continue the species. However, labels can often be inaccurate, based on fear or prejudice, or dishonest, either through the lies of others or the lies we tell ourselves about who we are.
Much of our identity is assigned to us by the people around us, starting at a very young age. Our sex, birth order, and parents’ socioeconomic status are early identifiers. As our personalities grow and mature, we acquire more labels based on our experiences and filtered through our worldviews, but more often than not, the worldviews we adhere to were passed down to us by the people around us. Most of the things we identify with are things we collect from a variety of outside sources. Very little of it comes directly from our own reactions, because we have been taught what reactions are socially appropriate.
But are we simply the products of socialization? Our interactions with others teach us how to navigate through society with the tools we have, but those tools are innate — traits, talents, and tastes that we are born with or that change over time. So you may be argumentative, have perfect pitch, or enjoy reading literature on your own, but it is up to you also to manifest these things in a way that is socially acceptable — say, by becoming an attorney or advocate, performing songs, or teaching about the classics. Some people go down the other route, allowing arguments to take over, using their voice for scolding and scorn, or hiding behind literary worlds. For good or for ill, the tools we have are like a poker hand that is ours, and socialization is the way we are taught to play that hand.
The problem is that we get overwhelmed and inundated by the norms taught by socialization. Because we don’t want to rock the boat, or we think others know more than we do, we suppress our own instincts, and ignore the little voice inside us that is saying “I don’t like this and/or don’t want to do it.” But that little voice is important: in some circles, it is referred to as our “essence.” This comes from Georg Gurdjieff, a spiritualist whose work from 1910 until his death in 1949 combined elements of Eastern spirituality with theory that today fits under the heading of cognitive psychology, the study of our thought processes. Gurdjieff taught that our essence was our true self, free from social conventions or restraints. Essence is similar to Sigmund Freud’s id, but not exactly the same. In Freud’s system, the id is primitive desire, tempered by the moral conscience of the superego, while essence is often moral on its own and dimmed by the superego. In fact, Gurdjieff went so far as to call society’s meddling in our essence “false personality,” and it is in false personality that we see the most problems with identity squelching individuality. In order to fit in and not be seen as deviant, we often make concessions to others, adding more layers of false personality over our essence and behaving in ways that we don’t want to be behaving.
Then again, it is a mistake for people to assume they have only one identity anyway. Bouncing around inside our heads, we have different personalities (Gurdjieff referred to them as “many I’s”), some of which seem at odds with one another. Have you ever heard someone described as “not themselves?” Maybe you have even experienced the feeling of acting in a way different from your “usual” behavior. Our mind is more like an umbrella over many different facets than it is one single, unified whole. Thus, an opinion that is held at one moment might be different in a situation where a different “I” comes out. Often, these “I’s” come out involuntarily as we cope with different situations in different ways.
When we allow our identity of the moment to step into control, it constrains our essence. We voluntarily suppress ourselves, whether it is to conform to others or to conform to some idea of ourselves we want to portray to others. When we identify with anything, even something obvious like sex, race, or innate talents, we give those things permission to take over our essence, and thus ourselves. We spend our lives suppressing our essence further and further, fitting in with others so well that we lose track of ourselves and become automatic reactors, rather than deliberate and conscious participants in our own lives.
It is possible to learn the kind of control that allows one to voluntarily select which “I” one uses; indeed, this was the goal of Gurdjieff’s Fourth Way spiritual system, as well as of current trends in mindfulness and emotional intelligence. To truly be individual means letting go of identity. We each have the power in our own minds to do amazing things, but we are not going to be able to use it if we allow the limits of identity to constrain our essence. In order to be who we truly are, and thus get the most satisfaction out of our lives, we have to drop our mantles, both those we assume and those that are bestowed upon us. Everything we cling to that we think makes us who we are actually holds us back. Only through thinking without these constraints can we get a better picture of who we are, what we like, and even what we truly believe about the world, without the bindings of our environment and what we assume others expect of us to anchor us down.
So who are you, really? Are you the sum of your experiences, or the manifestation of the things you like? Are you your body, your intellect, or your goals? What is your essence, and how well have you gotten to know it? Are you an individual, or are you a product of what you identify with?
Proud, card-carrying nerd, rational feminist, spiritual observer, one-woman riot, proponent of free thinking and objectivity, too opinionated for my own good!