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How much control do we have in shaping our own identity? Do we have one identity or many?

Updated on April 10, 2013

To be in control of our own identity we need to know our goal in life. We have to know what it is we need and then must develop the essential skills and make the right decisions.

For most of us the biggest decision we make will be what kind of trade or profession we intend to follow; it is nearly always the first question we are asked on meeting someone new. We are thus identified in the first instance by this.

One way is to “visualize” ourselves. G. H. Mead in his book, “Mind, Self and Society” wrote that we are in control and we “symbolize” ourselves by our outward appearance and the way we talk. We decide the image we want to convey to others. In this way we change our outward identity by our mood. Judith Williamson, who wrote “Consuming Passions” talked about how, as she looked in her wardrobe, depending on what she decided to wear, she realised that this would be how she was judged. She talked about the audacity of others determining who she was by what she wore. It is a fact, though, that we are so judged.

Class is another part of identity. The class a person was born into used to be fixed and almost impossible to change but in these days the class system is much more fluid than it used to be. We can change our class by our efforts. We have more choices in education nowadays; we don’t have to be rich to get a university education. This used to be the prerogative of the rich. An education gives someone from a working class home the possibility by better employment and income to move up a level and become middle class.

As we grow from childhood to adulthood we can change our identity. We can decide that the company we kept as children doesn’t suit our place in society. So we look for friends who “fit in”. Even our consumption usually fits our identity. Someone from a poor background is obviously limited in what he can buy but as we become more prosperous we can satisfy the material needs that are considered necessities in modern times.

If we are to be in control of shaping our identity we have to be conscious of doing it. We must look at our outward selves as well as the inward. For example, a married woman with children is defined by this. Maybe she stays at home to care for them while they are growing up, then when she feels they are not dependant on her any longer she decides to return to her earlier employment. On the other hand she discovers she has time available to her and goes to college to study. This is a conscious decision to change her identity.

Or a man loses his job and instead of looking for the same kind of work again makes the decision to go in a completely different direction. There are many mature students, who for various reasons did not study at a younger age and in middle age decide it is time to finally finish their education. They want to change themselves and their opportunities. Maybe they are tired of being overlooked because they cannot point to something which is considered by many to be a vital part of identity; a degree or qualification. In my opinion it is not, but on the other hand it gives a feeling of pride in achievement.

Who we are with can make a difference to our identity. For instance, at work we may be efficient, the kind of person that everyone depends on but at home we may be the complete opposite. In our personal life we may have one identity which does not match up to our social identity. I think that normally there is not such a great difference between our personal and social sides and that they are interrelated because if our main identity is formed by our profession then it stands to reason that it determines the kind of social life we have. It is our income, tastes and abilities that help us to choose our work and the position we have in the social class.

To come back to how we relate to other people; I would like to say that one day someone told me that they had noticed that I was different with everyone I spoke to. I had not really noticed that but realised that I changed my way of speaking, depending on who I was with. I was told by this person that it was not good and that I should be the same with everyone.

I think this was a natural reaction on my part, because everyone is different and so their feelings have to be taken into consideration, too. Not just mine.

If this is true of me, it must be true of most people. If we think about this, what is identity? Can we possibly have one, or does it change many times. Does every person that we know give us a different identity?

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