The Story of Your Identity

Mom, Writer, Therapist, Wife, Self …

My blog has shifted a little in the nine months since it began.  I’m writing more and more about parenting, less lately about body image.  My Mom-identity—as multifaceted as that is—is really dominant lately.  I’m restarting my therapy practice, so I’ll be home less—which, ironically, is why motherhood is so much on my writing-mind right now.  I’m aware of the upcoming changes, preparing to miss being home as much as I am now, yet exhilarated by the idea of all the adventures my kids will have to share with me when we’re together.   In any case, my mom-self has been driving this blog lately.  So today I thought I’d go back to basics—and do a post about identity itself.

The subject of identity is so broad; so much has been written on it.  There’s gender identity, racial and religious identity, national identity.   Your identity comes, not just from the place you live in, but also from your place in the family.   Were you the parentified first-born?   Were you the “troubled middle child?” Were you the baby?

Think about your roles too.  How different you are with your colleagues, with your friends, your spouse, your children.  Do you surprise yourself by regressing every time you visit your parents’ home?   Or maybe you manage an office full of employees, yet have to stand on your head while singing Old MacDonald just to get your toddler to try a single mouthful of peas.

Children have different identities too.  Think of the little girl who’s quiet and shy at school, but a wild, silly cut-up at home?  She’s cautious in the school environment where “good” behavior is stressed, then lets loose where she knows she’s safest.  (Both sides to her are normal and healthy.  You only worry when she seems anxious and withdrawn in the place where she’s usually at ease.)  It’s good to be flexible, adapting the different sides of you to the situation at hand.

In addition to being a mother, I am a daughter, a wife, a writer.  I am a therapist, a friend, a former dancer.   I’m the old friend who makes you laugh. I’m a city kid, an only child, a Biracial Jew, and a member of two different PTAs.  My identity is made of all these pieces and more.

Heidi W. Durrow, the author of Bellwether Prize winning The Girl Who Fell From the Sky, a favorite biracial author (right up there with Zadie Smith) describes her identity in an NPR interview as “a story.”  She is talking about her parents’ backgrounds, how they met, how she grew up–how all that added up to who she is today.   I love this description.  I believe we are all stories.

When I was doing my post-grad work at the Ackerman Institute, we studied Gregory Bateson and the Milan Group and learned about “Circular Questioning,”  also the work of David Epston and Michael White on Narrative Therapy or Re-storying.  We’d encourage families to tell the stories of their problems, asking for different perspectives from the different members present.  Sometimes a client would have difficulty breaking out of a destructive behavioral pattern and we’d find this linked to an inner personal narrative.

“I’m the lazy one in the family,” or “I’ve always been the trouble maker.”

We’d ask, “Who in the family might have a different description of you?”  “Who might tell another story?”

A pause, some thought.  “Well Grandpa always said I was a late bloomer, a diamond in the rough.”

The idea was that thinking about yourself in a new way stretches your identity and opens up new doors.

Sometimes you get to tell the story of your identity; sometimes it comes from others you know.  Sometimes it’s something pinned on you that you take issue with.  For example, when one sister is called “the beauty” and the other is called “the brains.”   No matter how unfair or limiting those designations might be, they are still part of each sister’s identity–if only as something she’ll want to break free from one day.

Sometimes the part of your identity that feels most difficult to bear, or most threatened or most outnumbered, is the one you’re most aware of.  For example, if you’re the only woman in a room full of men, if you’re the only grown-up in a mini-van full of rowdy tweens, the thing that sets you apart is the identity you’re most connected to.

Which parts of you come into play the most?  Which piece of your identity is dominant right now?

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14 responses to “The Story of Your Identity

  1. Reading that post was good therapy for me….thanks Lisa!

  2. Fascinating Lisa. I like to think of myself as a woman heading towards cronedom! Being biracial is and always has been huge and for many years a problem – but not any more. Interestingly the first thing I thought when I saw your photo was our skin is a similar shade and hair similar texture! I hope you don’t think I’m rude, it’s because I grew up in a white family in a small city where everyone was white.

  3. Gilly, not rude at all! In fact it makes me smile. As an only child and a biracial one at that, I have always enjoyed sharing features with people, a connection, as in: Hey, there goes a girl with my hair! Instant kinship.

  4. So thought-provoking, as always, Lisa. I especially like the reference to our identities as our stories. I recently reconnected with my elementary and high school chums across the Pacific Ocean from me. It’s been 33 years. We have a secret page on Facebook where are stories are spilling out, furiously for some, like long pent-up voices, and slowly for others, listening and lurking to see if we can be trusted with their stories.

    We as writers have the enviable privilege of being storytellers anyway, and thus able to tell and retell our stories as the need arises. It may be how I have averted the identity crisis at midlife!

  5. Thanks, Scrollwork. That secret Facebook page sounds like such a treasure. There is nothing like time and distance to bring people together. Definitely something to be said for social media under the right circumstances.
    And I agree, storytelling is therapeutic for me too!

  6. Great post. The one identity that has stayed with me since a child is ‘writer’. It’s always been there, in the shadows a lof the time until the last five years or so. A major role in my life at the moment (and for the last decade) has been mother. I see my children growing up so quickly and while I love the individuals that they are becoming, I do my best to let them find their own identities. I need to reclaim the identity of ‘woman’ by taking more time to look after myself and I’m getting there. My other main identity is wife and again, I need to return to this role more now the children are a little older. We need more couple time. Thank you for sharing this thought-provoking discussion.

    • Fi, thank you for this thoughtful comment. It is so true that different identities shift in and out of the spotlight with the lifecycle.
      Also, good point that sometimes there are pieces of us that we neglect and have to actively focus on getting back to.

  7. While it’s easy for me to say the obvious for non-family roles and just to state I am a lst born of 6 over 50 yrs., I do feel my role is no longer buttressed by one of my sisters who died (suicide) a few yrs. ago. It was deeply shocking and still is. She was 1 year younger than I.

    So the sudden loss of a sibling does result in a gap, an identity that still is real, but sort of has lost a limb..forever. Or maybe that phantom limb does come back somehow.

    I could go on about my identity as a Canadian-born Chinese which is easier and has been a long journey that I do occasionally touch in my blog. But as a daughter, I was the absent-minded one, dreamy and little remote lost in books, writing poetry and doing bits of art. It was an escape from responsiblities of looking after younger sibs. (along with the sister who died). I liked taking charge but grew weary of always being “first”, to pave the trail for the younger ones. So at 16 yrs. or so, I quit being the bossy sister. It was a conscious decision and a relief.

    But that never truly went away, since in my career, most of my jobs required I manage a dept. except for current job.

    My blog to my family, doesn’t surprise them..because it is partially a manifestiation of what I’ve always enjoyed writing, art/photography, etc.

    I am also partner to my beloved who’s German-Canadian. I am an aunt of 7 nieces and nephews from 3 sisters. 4 of them are biracial.

    Sorry it is hard to separate racial,ethnic, national and familial identity. Scattered response.

    • Jean, First–I am so sorry for the loss of your sister. I cannot imagine what it must be like, someone so close in age, whom you shared so much with. One thing I didn’t mention is that losses are a big part of identity. Your description of feeling like you lost a limb says so much.
      Thanks so much for this thoughtful and detailed comment. (Not scattered, just rich…) Your family sounds so interesting. I look forward to checking out your blog!

  8. Great post on identity. I think it ties in nicely with our Race project. For me, right now, it’s my age. As you know I just had a birthday. It’s not a milestone one, but close, so it’s weighing on me because it’s hard for me to believe I’m this age, when I “feel” so much younger. I hate the label of “age” especially when you’ve fallen into a bracket that is no longer desirable in many circles (advertisers, television, pop culture). I’m approaching my “sell by” date and I don’t like it, especially since, at work I’m surrounded by youth. Sigh. It’s frustrating.

    • Monica, I’m convinced: there IS no sell-by date. You are as young as you feel. And you are! Although my daughter just asked me: what’s the limit of “Young?” She’d just heard the expression ‘years young’ describing someone who was 75. I said there was no limit, though I don’t think she agrees. It is hard to be surrounded by youth though! But I think women have the advantage of being able to reinvent ourselves at any age.

  9. “Sometimes the part of your identity that feels most difficult to bear, or most threatened or most outnumbered, is the one you’re most aware of.” -Absolutely!

  10. You seem like a r1, J, e1b1a, e1b1b

    Basically white, semetic gysie, African American (Hebrew), with hamitic African in your gypsie Jew people.

    Bwaaah, I’m usually right .

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