I’m fascinated by the subject of identity — that sense of ‘this is who I am’ — and how that changes over time, whether it’s a slow process or a sudden jarring one. If you could draw a map of your identity, what might it look like?
Imagine you have in front of you a great big sheet of paper, and a handful of differently coloured pens or crayons. The sheet is empty, clean and white and ready for you to begin. So. Before you put pen or crayon to paper, picture in your mind a series of circles, each a different colour and each representing a different aspect of the person that you are. For example, they might include: son, manager, religious believer, sister, lover, fishing fanatic, gourmet cook, horsewoman, family man — whatever describes you and the various aspects of your life that go to make up the person you are.
Mine would include (in no particular order!) wife, dog-lover, Scot, stepmother, counsellor, storyteller, friend, bookworm, foodie, hobby photographer and many more. At different times of day, in different contexts, one aspect or another will be paramount. When I’m in the kitchen surveying the contents of the fridge, then the foodie part of me is weighing up the options for dinner; but also with an eye on the matter at hand is wife and stepmother, because I’m usually cooking for the family and not just for myself.
So if I were to draw three circles — one representing ‘foodie’, one representing ‘wife’ and the third representing ‘stepmother’ — they would all overlap at one point; the point where ‘cooking something for dinner’ is the task ahead. When I’m writing these blogs, my ‘storyteller’ circle will overlap with my ‘counsellor’ circle because I often draw on my counselling practice for topics to write about. Other circles may never or only occasionally overlap — like ‘bookworm’ and ‘hobby photographer’, unless of course I’m reading a book about photography or one that includes images which touch the photographer in me.
If you were now to draw and label your own circles, which ones would overlap at points, and which would be discrete from the others? Why are those parts so separate? Do you want to keep them separate or would you like to find a way of overlapping them with another part of who you are? If, for example, you have a religious faith that’s an important part of your identity, how does that overlap and link with the other parts of your identity such as father, girlfriend, teacher, etc.? Which of the parts are to do with your being ‘in relationship’ with another person (or an animal, for that matter), and how many are about you as a solitary human being doing or being something that is important to you?
As we’re in search of a map of identity, we need to add some descriptive words to the paper, such as: clever, clumsy, wise, strong, graceful, shy, anxious, witty… Which words would you add to your sheet of paper, and how do they fit with the circles already there? How do the descriptive words colour the meanings and values that you attach to the aspects of your identity — for example, ‘wise father’, ‘clumsy teacher’, ‘shy friend’?
Adding to all these descriptors and aspects of identity, we add one more layer — words that describe how we are right now. For me, I’m a little thirsty, thoughtful, fidgety, cool, mildly regretful (it’s a sunny day and I’m indoors, working). These are passing things; they describe me as I am right now but are not integral to the person that I am from one day to the next. But I’ll still add them to my map.
So now you have your circles of identity, your ‘map’ of who you are. What’s missing? What makes up the glue or the connecting threads that hold it all together? Where is the essence of you in that map? I wonder, too, how different that map would be if you had drawn it at an earlier stage of your life — what aspects of you have been left behind or discarded over the years, which are the recent additions, and which have the greatest continuity over the years? How does the ‘historical you’ fit into the map you have in front of you?
I’m fascinated by the connections and continuities we have with our earlier selves; when I became disabled as a young woman, there was a sharp break in that line of continuity with the person I had been before the accident and the person that I had become — a discontinuity with my past, which over the years I gradually repaired. Discontinuities can happen for many reasons — an illness or disability that changes how we see ourselves and what we’re able to do; a bereavement or other traumatic loss; the experience of being abused or being the victim of violence, etc. Change is a part of life, but sometimes the changes can be very sudden and jarring. How might that look on our ‘identity maps’?
As you look at your identity map today, is there a part of you that you’ve left behind as you got older, a part that you’d like to reconnect with? Or is there a part of you now which it’s time to let go of and consign to the past?
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 Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .on and was last reviewed or updated by