The problem with “identity” (Fixing it is up to you)
Do you know what the word of the year was in 2015? It was ”identity” according to Dictionary.com.
Why has identity become a hot topic today? Why was “identity” the word of the year in 2015? Chalk it up to the new individualism — a world where we’ve become keenly aware of, and more vocal about what defines us, thanks to the opportunity social media has unleashed to publicly assert yourself. (Ironically, despite its many blessings, social media has contributed to the problem by enabling people to create “identities” which may have nothing to do with who they really are.)
Why does personal identity matter? Because it fuels not simply a sense of who you believe you are, but as a result, the choices you make such as where to work, whom to call a friend (or enemy), and indeed which political candidate gets your vote.
Taken together, our identity-centric lives are coalescing into potent, new communities demarcated by beliefs, both spoken and unspoken, that increasingly influence how well society functions — or doesn’t — economically, socially and politically.
So, what’s the problem?
For all the attention this “identity trend” is receiving, it reinforces an impression that actually diminishes rather than expands upon what it means to be fully human. Indeed, the notion of “identity politics” undermines the deeper meaning of human identity.
The actual ‘problem with identity’ may be a matter of meaning. As the word of the year in 2015, ‘identity’ suggests the timeless fact that we all long to belong. We yearn to tie ourselves to a group, a tribe, a community we can call our own. But that isn’t the deepest meaning of the word.
What I’ve learned over three decades is that your essential identity – your distinctive, value-creating characteristics – springs naturally from the core of your being – a place that is blind to classifications, transcending gender, ethnicity, religion, and every other label we adopt as a way to locate ourselves in the world. You are simply you: unique and powerful in your own right.
With this in mind, identity’s 2015 “word win” may reflect the sobering fact that it was the most used, least understood term out there.
When your definition of identity is based upon a descriptive label rather than the special contribution you’re capable of making as an individual, you short-change yourself, those you care most about, and society as a whole. Why? Because, to paraphrase a quote from Oliver Wendell Holmes, you leave your music inside.
How you can help fix the identity problem
It’s pretty simple. To borrow another quote from Holmes, “Be yourself. Everyone else is already taken.”
Don’t let the pull of labels or social media distract you from tapping into and applying your innate identity to your life. Everyone will benefit including your co-workers, your friends, your children, your spouse or partner and, most of all, you.
At bottom, having a clear sense of identity is the key to shaping a life marked by authenticity and integrity –- knowing what to do, what not to do, and why.
Here’s one more quote to take away. It’s from British artist, illustrator and teacher, Evelyn Mary Dunbar: “We are each gifted in a unique and important way. It is our privilege and our adventure to discover our own special light.”
I hope you agree.