Personality and Identity: Do I Stay the Same ‘Me’ Over the Years?

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During an active imagination exercise, I discovered “It’s OK to play”. This was a liberation for me. I felt both relaxed and energised. I experienced it as a liberation for/of ‘me’.

Backwards and Forwards

I have the impression that I am the same person as I was yesterday, and in previous months and years — right back to when I was born. In this sense, my identity is about looking backwards.

Looking forwards is more of a problem. Would someone who held ‘me’ in their arms at, say, six months old have been able to know that ‘I’ understand in words, care about authenticity, and think institutions should be judged by their impact on individuals? These are all things that I feel to be ‘truly me’.

Perhaps my sense of identity only works backwards. When I think back 20 years, I don’t think my younger self could have predicted who I am now. And I don’t think that I can predict who I will be in another 20 years — presuming I’m still around.

Re-organising Our Past

Our lives can bring us new challenges and experiences. Some of these fit our idea of ourselves (we may learn a new technique in a hobby we are pursuing for instance). Some things don’t fit our identity (however much I have tried I have never got comfortable with work that demands a mastery of details: doing this kind of work is always laborious for me). Neither of these kinds of challenges or experiences creates a problem for my identity.

From the point of view of identity, some new challenges or experiences are more interesting. For instance some new things may be experienced as liberation. Imagine a perfectionist discovering that ‘I can feel good about myself even though I failed at something’. During an active imagination exercise, I discovered “It’s OK to play”. This was a liberation for me. I felt both relaxed and energised. I experienced it as a liberation for/of ‘me’. Looking back on my history after this insight meant a re-organisation: I saw the earnestness of the evangelical church I grew up in more clearly, I remembered RD Laing’s comment about being an old young man, and much else. ‘I’ felt and different and decided that ‘I’ wanted to do things differently.

Unprepared?

We can meet something new that we feel our prior experience hasn’t prepared us for. I remember the first time I read of the human typology of ectomorph, mesomorph and endomorph. Nothing I had read before prepared me for this idea. At first I was simply stunned, then I started checking it against my memories; were the people with this body structure I knew really like that? This wasn’t a major re-organisation for me (I’m something of a collector of human typologies), but it was a small one.

A huge challenge to my identity was leaving my first wife. Nothing in my upbringing had prepared me for doing this. I felt that I was walking into a blank, and at the same time that I couldn’t do it, and that of course I could — it was just leaving, and then telling people. I couldn’t conceive of the words I would use to tell my siblings and parents (although they did in fact come at the time, and I wasn’t utterly tongue tied).

Leaving my first wife is probably the biggest break with my identity that I have made. It’s likely that others perceived this as inconsistent with who Evan was. Evangelical Christians don’t do that kind of thing.

And yet I still feel that it was in some sense ‘me’ who left my first wife. My memories include this now in the stream that goes back to somewhere near birth (the first memory I can identify is when I was about four years of age).

Self-Concept

When ‘I’ felt that ‘I’ didn’t know how to leave my wife, who was this ‘I’? It turns out that I did know how, and that I in fact did it. So who was it that didn’t know?

It seems that we can be more than we know. It seems that we have an idea of who we are, or a self-concept, that can be different to who we are. It turns out that I was able to leave my wife.

In my experience I have found people to be capable of far more than they believed. This has lead to me being very optimistic about the ability of individuals to live satisfying lives. In my experience, our idea of ourselves, or self-concept, is limiting: it is less than who we really are.

Identity

So perhaps my ‘identity’ is really just an idea or concept. I have certainly found that I am more capable than I believed. Is my identity just a limitation?

I don’t think so. I have those experiences of liberation, the sense that this ‘new me’ is more truly me, that it is a realisation of what was already ‘there’. My experience is that our self-concept, or idea of ourselves, is only partly wrong.

My sense is that it makes sense to speak of ‘I’, that even after quite dramatic changes ‘I am still me’, perhaps even more truly me — even though this may be in ways I couldn’t have expected or predicted.

I am aware that this post is taking on a pretty big topic. I am aware that there are many other perspectives. I would love to hear from others with a different take on this subject. Looking forward to hearing from you in the comments.

Like my previous post, this post is inspired Caroline Brazier’s The Buddhist Psychology: Liberate Your Mind, Embrace Life [Amazon-US | Amazon-UK], which I recommend highly.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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