Reflecting On and Evolving Identity at Any Age
How to decipher the identity we choose from what others have chosen for us.
Posted May 29, 2021 | Reviewed by Vanessa Lancaster
- Examining and unpacking our identities can be an important process at any age.
- Distinguishing differences between identity that is inherited by family and that which defines unique interests and talents is a good start.
- Developing a stronger sense of identity can be achieved through exercises including reflecting on family patterns and the timeline of our lives.
Typically, when working with younger clients, we focus a fair amount on their identity, how they see themselves, and who they want to be. Sometimes this is a stated goal. Other times it’s more indirect because the stated goal is about work, relationships, or family issues. Nevertheless, it’s still about identity and, though we may think about it less often, it is beneficial for us, at older ages, to reflect on our identities too. The shifts in how we see ourselves or in how we want others to see us are important and interesting at any stage of life.
The path of self-discovery can be a long and winding road, and it can also be rather random. In some instances, we may come up against a clarifying situation for us: a choice between two very different careers, partners, or cities to live in; a moment to decide whether to throw ourselves fully into work or relationships or to try to balance both. Equally, we may, over the years, develop a sense of self before feeling that, maybe, something is missing or not quite right. Then we shift or think about shifting, aware that there is a skin in which we will feel more comfortable or a purpose which we’d be happier pursuing.
Self-reflection comes easier to some people than to others, of course. Whereas some will be aware of feeling out of place or yearning, others find it harder to analyze themselves and their reactions, their discomfort showing up in behaviors or feelings the cause of which are hard for them to locate. Another key variable is how much our lives are prone to influence, whether by character or circumstance, leaving more to be untangled as to our own chosen identity and what has been laid upon us by others.
While we each have different innate and developed capacities to be self-aware, we can also choose whether to leave things to chance and the unfolding of opportunities or to be more thoughtful and deliberate about the process. If the latter, some exercises can help untangle the strands of our identities.
I like to work with a theory I first read about in Far from the Tree, a brilliant book by Andrew Solomon, distinguishing between vertical and horizontal identity. (From this point on, Solomon gets all the credit for the concept, and I take any blame for my description and use of it). I use vertical identity as the identity that we inherit from our families: both genetically, in terms of looks, tendencies, and wiring – green-eyed, athletic, musical, a worrier; and also in terms of family habits, values, and activities that have influenced us – being a lawyer, valuing education, playing sports. Horizontal identity, as discussed in my practice, is more about the tendencies, physical and mental characteristics, unique interests and talents, that we have developed on our own, distinct from our family – we may be musical or tall or athletic where our parents are tone-deaf, short, clumsy; or shaped by a school, community, career, or experience which has had a particular impact.
To help think about our vertical identity, we draw a genogram or family tree, typically up to the grandparent’s generation, and focus on influences and relationships, family stories, and lore. Patterns usually begin to emerge. We note what interactions are like between parent and child, siblings, and others. How were disagreements dealt with? Was speaking up encouraged? What values were explicitly spoken about? What was tacitly assumed? Were there family secrets? Who was respected? Who was dismissed? These questions tend to bring up reminiscences and help develop insight into how these factors have influenced our development.
Once we have this information, it is key to ask which of the patterns and traits we've noted do we see in ourselves. At this point, crucially, we can then ask which of them we want to emulate and which we want to change. It is in this question that the sense of agency comes in and the opportunity to plan.
To think about horizontal identity, I like to work with a timeline. Even for individuals in their twenties, many decisions have already been made, experienced, or tolerated. By sketching out a timeline, from birth to the present day, the picture of ourselves that we build starts in a skeletal way with mundane facts but becomes the building blocks of our story. Once we add in questions about how we felt about certain transitions or who were the individuals we remember going to for advice or comfort, what was most impactful, we can start to see our life as a narrative with a shape, maybe a specific arc or pillars of consistent meaning, goals, and experiences.
While some experience an ‘aha’ moment through these activities, they usually serve, instead, as the starting point of teasing out how we perceive our identity and some of the influences we have had in our life, which we may or may not have fully understood at the time. Once we have a sense of our present identity, we can start to think about how we want to shape it going forward, a new direction we may want that arc to take. At this point, our natural self-awareness has been aided by the process of deliberate introspection that we can usefully think about any shifts we would like to make.
Bear in mind that the narratives we understand about ourselves are not singular or set in stone. They are just some of the many strands and snapshots we see through the lens we have now. They should serve as a guide to our next steps and, in particular, our active role in shaping them. In my view, this exercise in introspection is not the prerogative of the young but is rewarding at any age.
Solomon, Andrew (2012). Far from the Tree. New York, NY: Scribner, Simon & Schuster.