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Forming Identity — Beliefs & Biology

We take on aspects of identity at varying levels. You likely include things like your race and gender as part of the “who” that you are, but also perhaps your math ability, your dried flower collection, your preference for yellow sneakers…

[This is a politics-free article]

Belief Systems — keep it real

The identity comes from belief systems, which in turn come from reality.

The closer that belief is to reality, the more robust and advantageous it is to the person. To see why, imagine the opposite — someone who truly believes that they can fly is bound to hurt themself. As well as being dangerous, then, this belief — far removed from the reality — is not robust because each fall and each failed attempt to fly challenges the beliefs, shakes one’s belief in flying. Having your belief system challenged is very, well, very challenging.

Whereas a belief that’s maybe closer to the truth, or at least harder to disprove, the belief system will serve you well to shape the identity put on yourselves. This is actually at the heart of the horribly-named “fake it ’til you make it” concept. Whilst I’ll never advocate being a fraud to yourself, modelling (that’s why psychologists call mimicking) your behaviour on how you want to be, and believing in it enough to be convincing, is a way of shunting your belief system toward something you aim to be.

A crucial part of that belief system that is expanded is the comfort zone — practice being a rock-star on stage enough times, and do it convincingly (to yourself, and to others), and one day you will BE that rock-star.

Levels of Identity — deeper than I thought?

At the top level, we have identification with minutiae — what one collects, music tastes, ice-cream preference — peripheral aspects of our identity; things you might mention on second date, but won’t influence which political party you vote for.

Further down at the social level we get what a lot of adolescents are testing out — sub-cultures. US high-school sit-coms love this, categorising teens into quick clichés such as the nerd, the jock, the art-geek, the goth, etc etc.

Going deeper, and by “deeper” here I mean things that are not learnt later in life, things that are more innate; going deeper we can see there are aspects of our identity that are essentially fixed from birth.

Genetic Code —> Phenotypic Goad

At the deepest levels, our genes connect quite clearly with a reality, and the resulting phenotype (i.e. the physical expression of the genotype) becomes part of our identity. So, rather than preferences or skills, you have identity that presents physically. Identities such as “I’m tall”, “I have oily hair”, or “Blue cheese doesn’t not agree with me”.

At this deep level, beliefs play little role, because the reality is very difficult to deny, distort, or simply remain ignorant of.
But note: there may be secondary beliefs attached to the gene-based identity, such as “I’m ugly, because so I’m tall”, which in turn becomes an identity in itself – “I’m an ugly person.”

Beliefs are obviously powerful things, and they CAN be changed. So it’s worthwhile discussing this more in a later article.

Bio-Identity — (no Elon Musk chip implants required)

The deepest level of our identity is the machine of biological life itself. Our instincts are quite universal to all mammals, and also characterise what we are (quite different to bacteria, or a rock). This is the lowest, most primal level of identity, because to expand the area of concern outside this identity (i.e. to include also rocks) is to open up the concept of identity to non-living physical objects. Inanimate objects hold no narrative, no agency, they cannot “identify”, or indeed do anything active. They have identity only insofar as others (we humans) attribute it to them. Thus, their identity is only ever projections of the beliefs and ideas of others.

And this most fundamental of identities is the one we can always come back to, and which is futile denying. Whatever you may think of yourself, or another for that matter — what you’re good at, what you prefer, what you identify with — behind all this is the identity shared with living beings — you’re a thing that wants to survive, to thrive, to express yourself, and to be recognised by others. Just you. Just like me.


Published by WanderingMindfulness

The peripatetic psychologist - old wisdom, new perspectives 🐾️

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