What is my Identity?

When we approach with reverence, great things decide to approach us. Our real life comes to the surface and its light awakens the concealed beauty in things. When we walk on the earth with reverence, beauty will decide to trust us. The rushed heart and arrogant mind lack the gentleness and patience to enter that embrace.

John O’Donohue, Beauty

Identity defines who we are, how we think about ourselves, and how the world views us. Identity involves our values, philosophy on life, abilities, beliefs and purpose.

At the core of each aspect of identity is a relationship. I am a mother, child, teacher, runner, friend… Seeing how our Identity works is really seeing how those relationships interact and coexist. It should be confusing.

Identity and Healing

All enduring injuries and trauma involve problems with identity. A person cannot heal from such injuries without addressing issues of identity.

Likewise, most significant conflicts between people involve disagreements and issues of identity. Look at the language that people use to attack each other. The harshest attacks are always attacks on identity. “You aren’t a good parent!” “He’s a lazy worker.” “He’s an addict!”

Identity issues destroy workplace cultures, social fabrics, relationships, and human beings. Consider that most cases (or probably all) of mental illness are probably better characterized as crises of identity. Imagine a person who is chronically depressed as someone struggling with their desire to change careers. Or someone suffering from paralyzing anxiety rather as someone struggling to be a good father. By reimagining these individuals, not as someone suffering from illness, but instead as working through a crisis, we empower them to take back control of their situation.

Understanding identity

Identity is made up of our memories, experiences, relationships and values. At first, these things may seem like a giant, messy knot. How do we begin to separate them out?

Let’s start first with our value hierarchy. Create three circles. Then fill in the circles with what is Most Important, Moderately Important, and Least Important.

Next, imagine that each person and thing that you put in the circles is a separate aspect of identity. Each one forms an important relationship to you. Start with what’s most important to you. Begin to sketch out these separate identities:

  • Mother
  • Spouse
  • Friend
  • Daughter
  • Sister
  • Engineer
  • Runner
  • Artist
  • Co-worker

We can use photos. We can draw pictures or just write names on a list.

Feel free to draw lines connecting people and activities. Let it be messy at first.

We can use photos. We can draw pictures or just write names on a list.

Next, we will tease out a single aspect. Separate it from the others.

Draw two arrows connecting that aspect to yourself. You’ve now sketched out a single relationship. This relationship is one important identity that makes up you.

Notice that I’ve added the “unfamiliar Self” as an element here. There are parts of each of us that we have yet to understand that we do not have complete control over. We each have our own worlds to explore.

Elements of Identity: Relationships, Values, Roles, and Feelings


We see now that our identity is really a group of relationships. Each identity involves us, our Self, connecting to an outside person, group, or thing. When we put all the relationships together, this forms our capital-I Identity.

Each of these relationships has a history to it. There are past memories and shared experiences. We have developed feelings and thoughts about that past. We radiate those feelings outward through the arrows, just as the other person’s feelings radiate back towards us. Feelings are energy with purpose. Feelings form the basis of connection much like the energy that bonds electrons and protons inside an atom.

Feelings drive us, with inertia, through the present. They drive how we act towards the other person.

There is also future potential to all relationships. Where do we expect things to go? What are our hopes, fears and anxieties about that future?


Inside each relationship are values. Values are moral tools that we use to interact. Common values include: caring, listening, advocating, creating space, accepting, courage. There are many more.

Values fall within two general types. We can build bridges of connection to the other person. And we can set appropriate boundaries between two people. Building bridges and setting boundaries are the two basic tools of connection. Our feelings animate and flow through these tools to give them life. For instance, we may feel a great deal of caring towards someone who is in pain. We use that caring to listen to their story.


Within each relationship, we assume roles. Examples include being a parent, a lover, a teacher, an ally, a protector, a healer, a saboteur, a victim, etc. These roles help to define which values we will use and which values the other person will be expected to use. As a healer, we may use listening and empathy as our two primary tools.


There are three types of feelings that we experience when looking at our relationships in terms of identity: competence, goodness, and worth.

Goodness is our intent within the relationship. How do we feel about our intentions towards the other person? What is our purpose here?

Competence is our ability to interact with the other person. Do we have the tools that we need? When we interact, do they generally respond in the manner that we expect? When we listen to the other person, do they feel listened to? When we show empathy, do they feel cared for? When we put up boundaries, do they respect those boundaries?

Worth is the type of energy that we receive back from the other person. Is that energy positive, negative, or a mixed bag? Do they appreciate the relationship? Are we deserving of their time and attention?

Common issues with identity

Why don’t I understand myself?

This is a common problem that takes some work. Chances are there is an identity issue at the heart of it. Here are a few common identity conflicts:

  • One of your core relationships may be at-odds with another. One set of values may be colliding with another.
  • One of your identities may be changing. This can unsettle the balance of your value hierarchy leading to questions of fit.
  • You may be having an issue with a single core identity. You may be questioning your purpose, your competence, or your worth. These things come into question often in marriage or during the long arc of someone’s career. Do my friends like me? Am I a good husband? Am I doing the job I was meant to do? I don’t like where things are going in this relationship. These are common identity questions.
  • Past injuries and trauma can resurface. For instance, someone who had a difficult upbringing may feel like their inner 7-year-old just wants to come out and play again. These past identities will require attention and their own place on the value hierarchy.

What is an identity transition?

Change is one of the only constants in life. As we change, so too does our Identity. Relationships shift within our value hierarchy. Some connections deepen, while others grow weaker. The way we value people and things also changes.

Everyone experiences periods of rapid identity transition at some point in their lives. Puberty and high school is one such period of rapid identity transition. This can be unsettling for everyone involved until they understand what’s really going on. The teenager is transitioning from childhood into adulthood. This is a scary change that will upset the balance of their value hierarchy. Rapid change also occurs for the parents. Parents often project their own issues onto the teenager, when really it is their job to look inward. They need to evaluate how are they going to change from being the parent of a child to being the parent of an adult. This is an unsettling and frightening change for many.

There are other major transitions that come natural for many adults. Becoming a parent or getting a divorce are common changes. The “midlife crisis” is really a common identity transition. A person questions if they are on the right path with their career and/or other major relationships. Changing careers and retirement represent other transitions. Needing to care for aging parents with disabilities and/or dementia is another big change as we can watch our loved ones go from independence to dependency.

What is an identity crisis?

An identity crisis occurs anytime we battle internally over an aspect of our identity. We may fight against an identity transition or question if one needs to occur. We may feel lost, alone, confused, anxious, depressed, or afraid. You may feel inauthentic. Your self-esteem may take a hit. Remember, these are all feelings. Unsettling that they are, they exist to guide a person along the way.

How is identity formed?

Identity formation is complex. It includes all of our past accomplishments, abilities, values, growth, conflicts, and injuries. Each of these aspects may represent its own distinct identity. For instance, a person may be a little league baseball player. This identity from childhood never quite goes away. It can give rise to wanting to coach little league later in life.

Trauma victims may form distinct identities before, during, and after the traumatic event(s). These identities can become so distinct that it is like a tearing apart of the soul. The trauma victim may seem like separate people at times as different aspects of their Self surface.

In the present, we use our tools to exercise our purpose. Always, we look to the future. We question if we are working towards our potential. We question if our abilities and tools are still serving us. We wonder if a change of direction is needed.

Diving into relationships: Crossing a Threshold

We have looked at Identity from a 30-thousand foot view. We asked the question: how do all of our many identities work together to form our capital-I Identity?

Next, we will go down to the surface. We will dive into individual relationships that make up a single identity. What are relationships made up of? How do they form? How do we better understand what’s going wrong when something isn’t working?

We will see that to relate to another person is to cross a threshold. We are walking through a door. We are venturing into unknown territory. We do not know if we have what it takes to succeed on the other side. We don’t know how the other person will react.

Next: crossing a threshold

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