“Know thyself.”                       “Who am I?”


Growing up


We begin to develop our sense of identity in childhood. An infant explores her fingers and toes, and we interpret her actions and responses as reflecting an implicit sense of “me.” A two year old explores his image in the mirror,  touches his mirror image, and suddenly with a satisfied smile, exclaims “me!” A five year old who is asked “who are you?” may simply offer her name, or say “I’m a big girl,” or with a giggle that implies you don’t know the obvious, say “I’m ME!”

The development of long-term memory contributes to a Remembered Self, so we gradually incorporate autobiographical memories into an unfolding story. Some aspects of this story are public, but some are private and secret unless it feels safe to share. Often this sense of identity continues to evolve over a lifetime: Jung describes this as a process of individuation. The unfolding may also slow down or come to a kind of standstill if an established identity becomes fixed at some point.


Who are you?


I am my memories          I am my story          I am my imagined future        I am my job

I am my body                 I am my family         I am my religion                     I am my country

I am …

We are story generators! Stories provide a sense of continuity, and uniqueness, even though they can also create and maintain suffering. Psychotherapists, coaches, and religious/spiritual teachers often encourage us to re-examine our stories and consider alternative narratives, ones that are more empowering, compassionate, or freeing. Sometimes we are aware of different parts or perspectives within the story (“Part of me feels…. but another part of me says….). Typically these are seen as parts of “me,” but it is also possible to recognize that there is a deeper aspect that is aware of the various voices.

I suggest that story plus body generates and maintains an experience of separateness. Does that make sense?


Identity can be Complicated


Identity can be complex and encompass many features: relational (family, partner relationship, friendship, etc.), cultural, professional, racial, ethnic, national, religious/spiritual, gender, sexual, disability. Some of our identities may be in conflict, and conflict may be a prominent feature of our social lives. Identity politics has emerged into prominence since the 1990’s, focusing on oppression and injustice in relation to specific identities.

I am a born-again Christian, I am a gay black minister, I am a Guatemalan immigrant trying to learn English, I am a mother whose two children died, I am an out-of-work auto mechanic, I am a lonely old widower whose friends are all gone, I am a deaf psychotherapist, I am a divorced Catholic, I am a peace-loving Muslim, I am a bisexual feminist neo-pagan, I am a disabled veteran, I am a 3rd generation farmer…

Identity may embrace a psychological description and a deeply felt sense, often including a range of physical, emotional, and cognitive aspects:

I am a trauma survivor, I am someone who grew up moving every year, I am a drug addict/ a recovering alcoholic, I am an ex-convict, I am a highly sensitive person, I am an overweight ex-beauty queen, I am a sexual abuser, I am a cancer survivor, I am an extravert, I am a lonely question-asker, I am a restless soul, I am an animal-lover …

Some aspects of identity may feel “core” and some may feel more peripheral, depending on our experience, history, personality, ancestry. The other feature that is significant is the permeability of the identity: does it become fixed at some point and remain relatively unchanged over a lifetime, or does it remain flexible and evolve over time?


Religious/Spiritual Identity


Religious or spiritual identity may be absolutely central or remain somewhat peripheral. What defines religious identity? For some it means membership in a community, including like-minded believers or followers of a tradition. For others, a sense of identity may rest on particular beliefs. These play a stronger role in some traditions, especially when there is a definitive text. Alternatively, identity may be embedded in traditions that place more emphasis on particular stories, rituals, service, or practices intended to deepen spiritual growth. And again, the strength of this identification can vary. How do we explore this territory? A counselor who expresses genuine interest and curiosity, who listens for the deeper meanings and asks about the felt experiences, is more likely to understand the significance of such an identity.

For those who did not grow up with, or choose, a particular religious tradition, the identity story tends to be more nebulous. One person may describe an early sense of the holy, or a deep connection with a non-physical, guiding presence. There may be a longing that in the early years has no object, but then emerges as a longing for God, for the Truth, for Divine Beauty. Words may be inadequate to capture this sense of essence: who I am is a seeker of Love, a lover of the Mystery. These are subtle stories with a powerful identity foundation, and may only be shared in the most safe and sacred spaces.


Religious/spiritual identity in counseling


If you are a client, how much will you share about your sense of “who I am”? It will unfold slowly, and become clearer as a therapist inquires into what’s really important for you. How would a counselor learn about religious or spiritual  identity, which is often more subtle? By being fully present and listening, trusting intuition, and by treading very softly and respectfully.

If the religious/spiritual dimension plays an essential role in someone’s life, then the beginning of the story matters. A counselor can ask, “Were there some early religious or spiritual experiences that had meaning for you? What did you feel?” Then there is the unfolding of the story: what was your experience after that? This is essentially a spiritual autobiography, which some may be moved to share out loud and others may want to write. Here is where the potential stalls, dark places, gnawing questions, unanticipated turns, and startling discoveries may be revealed – if trust is present.

From some religious or spiritual perspectives, identity does not simply derive from the remembered story of the    person. The essential identity resides in the blessed relationship to a prophet, holy one, or teacher, and faith conveys the conviction that the ultimate truth of this identity will be fully realized after death. (For others, the journey is believed to be longer, through an unknown number of reincarnations.) This deeper self is often called the soul.


Beyond identity?


There are also some spiritual paths in which the ultimate goal is the undoing or seeing-through of any specific, separate identity. This insight is conveyed by revered teachers who have realized, in direct experience, that the sense of identity is what veils a much deeper mystery: that who and what we are is not separate from the Ultimate Mystery, the Ground of Being, the Godhead, the Beloved One. The essence of who I am is not separate from This.

What a range of possibilities! Identity stories of all kinds, some of which seem cast in stone by the age of thirty and some of which continue to shift and unfold until the end of life. Narratives that dictate fixed possibilities and others which point to unfolding discoveries. The question of identity may be tucked away in an unexamined pocket, or may play a prominent role in the search for meaning. Isn’t this a territory worth exploring?  What if we ask the question of ourselves and others, implicitly or even directly?


In my mid-twenties, I participated in a therapy group after the death of my parents. I vividly remember an exercise in which we were each paired with a partner, and were instructed to ask the other person a repeating question: “Who are you?” And then of course, to respond to the same question put by our partner. I have no memory of my responses, but I have never forgotten the power of the question – and it turns out to be a central practice in some spiritual traditions: Who are you? Who are you, really?


(Note: a repeating question is simply put to the other person, and the response accepted silently, or with a simple “thank you.” Then the question is repeated. The process may continue for five minutes or so; the time needs to allow for the possibility of deepening.)