Like most complex concepts in the age of social media, identity you have returned into the murky state of meaning different things to different people.
The common use of “personal identity” in psychology describes the qualities or traits that make an individual unique. “Social identity” includes social and political affiliations. Psychologists emphasize qualities, traits, and group affiliations because they’re measurable. But like many complex concepts operationalized for study, this measurable description does not capture what people think of or try to express when they use the term.
Colloquial use is closer to “identify with,” meaning “the same as,” “closely associated with,” or “having the same problems or feelings as someone else.”
Identifying with serves as both a filter of information the brain consciously processes and a preordained judgment of what is right or wrong. For example, if I identify with a certain preference, say of appearance, I will notice those who share my preference, not notice vague similarities, and invidiously judge (if not take offense to) those with a different preference.
Avoid narrow identifying.
Don’t sell yourself short. A narrow range of what we identify with produces anxiety and rigidity and, in extreme cases, a fragmented sense of self. There are lots of contradictions to narrow identification, both from others and from one’s own auto pilot brain. The latter is because the autopilot brain makes implicit judgments based on habits and past experiences and associations, as well as present comfort or discomfort, not based on identifications.
Identifying with is an operation of the reflective brain. Narrow identification sets us up for internal conflicts between our autopilot and reflective brains. It also makes us prone to fundamental attribution errors: for example, blaming negative interactions on the opposition of others to what we identify with. In the extreme, we become good talkers but poor listeners, demanding tolerance while expressing intolerance.
Narrow identifying is the currency of the media, particularly social media, much of it in reaction to those who narrowly identify with something else.
How to expand identifications and strengthen your sense of self:
For emotional well-being, identity must be multi-faceted, reflecting the whole person, not one or two aspects of it.
In terms of personal qualities, importance is a ranking concept—something must be more important than something else. For example, I identify with possessing certain skills, but they are not as important as identifying with being a supportive, nurturing, and protective partner and father. Maintaining the hierarchy of what we identify with creates a sense of authenticity.
Write down a description of who you are and what you identify with. (Keep it honest by not showing it to anyone, which will eliminate impression management.) It makes sense to start with the hard-wired drive to form and maintain emotional bonds. Example:
I am a partner, parent, child, friend. I identify with my sense of basic humanity (compassion, kindness, appreciation, morality, equality, fairness), curiosity, skills, community-membership, certain attributes, preferences, skills, and experiences.…
After you make your hierarchical identity statement, read it aloud into your phone and play it back. (Hearing your voice affords a bit of objectivity.) Then read it several times a day for about six weeks. By the end of that time, you should experience more confidence with less anxiety and concern with what others think of you. You’ll probably spend less time reading comments on social media.
Identity by default
The alternative to whole-person identity is identity by default; what we identify with becomes the most important thing about us while we’re identifying with it.
Where “identity” in the sense that psychologists use it is relatively valid and stable, identifying with is limited to preferred, not necessarily authentic aspects of the self and is woefully subject to trends.
“I am (whatever I currently identify with on this particular platform), and you must validate it.”
The distressing vulnerability of young people documented by Jonathan Haidt and others is due in part to the pressure they feel to identify with limited or false aspects of themselves.
When we feel inauthentic, we tend to demand validation from others.
“You must recognize what I identify with” can imply “Because that is all I am.”
Demanding gives an adrenaline boost with temporary energy and confidence. We feel more powerful and confident but less able to perceive nuance or other perspectives and less able to grow and prosper.
To avoid identity by default, we must take care that the most important things about us are what we identify with.
Of course, you have an absolute right to identify with whatever you want. For your emotional well-being, it’s wise to identify with what you really want. If you don’t, you’re likely to identify with whatever makes you stand out or belong to certain groups, with your precarious confidence resting on the validation of others, including those unlikely to give it.