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Identity Management
by Stewart Blackburn

"You're a poopy!" "No, I'm not!" "Yes, you are!" "No, I'm not!" Kids know how powerful identities are without anyone having to explain it to them. From the moment we are born, people are trying to manage our identities for us. In the best of circumstances our parents and caregivers are encouraging identities that make us feel good about ourselves. More often we pick up identities from our friends, in school, or on television that are not so positive. We are taught that there are certain inherent aspects as to who we are that include nationality, race, body type, gender, rich/poor, religion and family loyalties. And we are encouraged to perform actions that are rewarded with positive feedback about who we are and consequently we risk exclusion from the group if we divert too far from the group identity.

Good or bad, positive or negative, these identities give us a sense of our relationship to the world, our place in that world. We get a sense of substance, of being something that matters, that has meaning. It also gives us a convenient set of scripts with which we interact with others and the rest of the world with some sense of confidence. Our identities define most of the ways that others expect us to behave, and thus how we most comfortably will behave. And we become limited by how we define ourselves (or how we allow ourselves to be defined by others). We perform actions consistent with an identity or risk losing that identity and thus fall out of our comfort zone or worse.

So while our identities give us the framework to live our lives, they are also the boxes that keep us from growing. When I know who I am, I am pretty sure I know who I am not. This lack of uncertainty keeps the unconscious mind from presenting options that are outside of the acceptable identities. Ku will give us what we want and expect to see. It is only in changing our definitions of ourselves, our beliefs about who we are, that we can become someone or something new. This is the essence of identity management.

I do not want to minimize the difficulties in changing identities. For many people, it can be excruciatingly hard to escape from the boxes that we find ourselves in. To break out of one's identity, as in, say, leaving one's family or nation, can be very painful, disorienting and usually requires a great deal of effort. Some people would rather kill or be killed before they would relinquish their identities. It is not a trifling thing.

Identities also have a way of fixing dysfunction in the sense of making them unquestionable. I would rather accept myself in my lack of feeling whole rather than risk questioning my beliefs and possibly not "know" who I am. The fear of losing one's identity seems to be more powerful than the experience of dysfunction. "I am fat" is so obviously a dysfunctional identity that it begs understanding without the awareness of the individual's need for an identity of some kind, even a painful one. Most of our limiting beliefs come in the form of identities. "I am limited in this, that or the other way." Reason only gives us ways to interpret these beliefs and identities, not to let go of them.

And this can change.

One way of describing change is that transformation happens by moving from subjective to objective "I am 'x'" to "I sometimes do 'x'", or "I use 'x'". "I am a knitter" to "In the past I have thoroughly enjoy knitting." This may seem trivial, but the distinction is crucial. In the first I have defined myself, I have said that not only have I knitted, but that knitting is an ongoing piece of me. When similar situations or opportunities arise again, I am likely to say "Oh yes. I am a knitter. I will knit now." There is no scanning process of alternatives. It is a pretty innocent box, but it is a box just the same. When we identify with something subjective we can only look at it from within. It is part of our interiority. But when we can say "Oh, this is not who I am. This is only a part of my objective experience" then we can distance ourselves a bit from it and change things. Another example of this might be the difference between the statements, "I am fat," implying an ongoing and unending condition, to "I am carrying more weight now than I want to," a statement of the moment with the implication of the possibility of change.

Even the statement of ownership is an identity. When I say that, "I own this house," I am defining myself. Clothes, of course, do the same. "Clothes make the man." The same is true with cars, works of art, music collections and many other things. Part of the fun of possessions is influencing how other people might see us. We get feedback, we hope positive, from the views of others about us, our taste, our wisdom, our coolness, etc. Certainly, old possessions give us a sense of timelessness and consistency. We get to pretend for a little bit that the world is not constantly changing. Identities of all kinds help us cope with the disconcerting and disorienting nature of change. But probably possessions do this more than most in that they always come with a story that says something about us that we like. If we lost all of our possessions, who would we be? I have come across several people, who, having lost absolutely everything, have said it was the best thing that ever happened to them. They had never before felt such a delicious sense of freedom. They were able to see that they were not their possessions, that, in fact, they were something wondrous without their possessions that they had been blind to before. I also know people who wonder why they cannot make change happen in their lives. These same people are unwilling to let go of their old possessions, things that are now obviously an integrated part of them and how they see themselves. I have seen the frustration in their faces and even when confronted with the connection, they cannot part with these pieces of their identity.

I may say, "I am heterosexual." This puts me with "other people just like me" and allows me to operate in a context that I know and understand. However, it limits the acceptability of feelings that don't fit into the heterosexual model. Because sexuality is so complex and diverse, by limiting experience to a narrow arena one can easily overlook big parts of a deeper nature. One can easily say instead, "So far, my most exciting sexual experiences have been with the opposite sex." This leaves room for an openness to new feelings, if not actions. And many times it is just these feelings that are the important discoveries, feelings that do not require any action at all.

At the level of nationality, I might say "I am an American." That is to say that belonging to this country defines, at least in part, who I am. It says that there are certain beliefs I hold. It assumes certain commitments I have to others of the same identity. It subscribes to a certain general world view. By identifying as an American I then have a built in history, culture and society that are by definition separate from other nationalities. But, automatically, I am participating in an "us and them" situation. We can only get out of the "us and them" role and become a "we" if we can find some other identity that can transcend that of nationality, as in "a world community fighting global warming." Obviously, any other "us and them" identities, like race, gender, rich/poor impose on us the comfort of a concept of a place in this world, but deprive us of connections between people other than those in our 'tribe'.

At an even deeper level, I might say "I am a shaman." There are certain things that I associate with shamans and I am "putting on the shaman's cloak." I am taking on those attributes that I associate with shamans. There is great usefulness is doing this. Life tends to look like something that is much more subject to our influence if we come at it as shamans. There is a great sense of power and effectiveness as shamans. However, let us not miss the downside. Any time we take on an identity, we are creating a box. We are saying this is who I am and that this is how I behave. As shamans we can access the Fourth Level, that of the Mystic, and consciously change our identities at will. There is huge power in this. Even the practice of changing identities helps to loosen our unconscious identities, very necessary for growth, but we are still playing with identities that have limitations.

What happens when we stop identifying with our tribe or with any tribe? Who are we if we have no group to which we belong? Without an independent sense of self we can get very afraid. Afraid of what? Well, certainly, for some it is the fear of the loss or lack of being loved. That for many people is the most terrifying thing they can contemplate. Others apparently feel afraid of not existing, annihilation or disintegration. We might call this the "ego's" fear of its own death. I use the word "ego" here as that sense of self that is the sum of all our facades that hold anxieties and fears at bay.

So how can we use identity management effectively? I think there are three basic elements. The first is to be aware that our identities are not fixed; they can be changed, added to or retired as needed. There is a common belief that we have one intrinsic self and that as we get older we learn better how to access this "true self" for wisdom and happiness. What modern scientists have discovered through looking at the brain when the two hemispheres are divided is that there are many centers of self. The dominant one is the one that carries most of the sense of "I." However, we all know that we can come from different places within ourselves and have totally different experiences of who we are. Not only do we have the choice as to which place we come from, that is, which place we let our focus rest on, but we have the ability to redefine that place any way we choose. Just as we can take an experience that ordinarily might be called painful and have an entirely different experience if we simply call it intense sensation. By simply redefining our description of ourselves we redefine our experience.

The second is to be conscious of our identities and evaluate their effectiveness in our lives. It can often be quite difficult to see all of one's identities, they are so ingrained in us and wrapped up in habits and beliefs that it becomes like telling a fish what water is all about. Just the same an intention to uncover our identities can take us far. A willingness to see if there might not be better ways to conceive of ourselves can be quite powerful. If, indeed, there are no limits, then what is the very best that I can imagine for myself and others? Can I change my self perceptions to reflect that? I think we can.

And the third is to practice changing our identities in order to become skilled at trying on new identities that might bring us more health, pleasure and happiness. This, of course, is a form of shapeshifting and it is both fun and enlightening. It unlocks imagination and opens up a vast array of perspectives. And it is in this realm that we can be most effective as shamans. It is here that we can use our influence to change the outer world, be it identifying as approaching storms and shifting the path or identifying as bodily organs and taking in love and health.

I think that putting on identities is extremely useful, healthy and wonderful. We get to explore different realities and ways of being. We can get great insight into our desires and fears with them. They can teach us a great deal about what is effective and what is not in our lives. However, I think they need to be taken off from time to time. Perhaps they need to be cleaned, by looking at how much pleasure or pain we get from them. Do they truly add to our enjoyment of life? Perhaps they need to be thrown away to make room for even better ones. And sometimes, it is just wonderful to sit quietly without any identity at all. Most of us cannot go without identities for long, but taking a nudist approach to identities and going without them for awhile can give us a great sense of freedom and joy.

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