In my life, I have experienced what I recognize as a cycle of identity; a pattern of changes in my self that I can pinpoint to specific times in my life. This way of viewing identity can be applied to many peoples’ lives. We have all felt alone in our lives; like we don’t belong. And experiences where we feel isolated are the ones that affect us the deepest. I remember a time where I felt this way myself:
The sedan was filled to the gills with middle-grade girls; we were packed four deep in the brown leather backseat. We had just finished a very important travel soccer game and were still feeling the glowing euphoria of a 3-0, those were scarce for us. As the car sped along the highway somewhere in Montgomery County, So What came on the radio. Immediately the other girls roared along with P!nk’s gritty, sassy vocal: “Guess I just lost my husband, I don’t know where he went!” As my heart sunk in my chest; I pretended to sing along, mouthing some of the more predictable lyrics and hoping no one noticed. I had been given a test that everyone had studied for but me. In that moment, I felt like I would never truly be part of the team, no matter how many goals I scored on the field. My early experience as an outsider is still deeply ingrained in my identity today. I have gone through many selves, but I can pinpoint a few instances in my life when my self changed noticeably. They were catalyzed by the environment I was in at those times, and are reflected in the lives of many people in our society.
In her Ted Talk, Embracing Otherness, Embracing Myself, Thandie Newton poignantly says about selfhood: “What is real is separateness, and at some point in early babyhood, the idea of self starts to form.” The development of self is something we all experience throughout our lives. Newton is describing the first of the key phases of self. In other words, she is alluding to the fact that when we are young, we learn to first cling to the things that make us similar to other people, and we begin to mold ourselves based on those characteristics. Some things, like gender, are imposed on us from birth, used to separate us in different roles to organize society. We are very attuned to this, and tend to want to cooperate with it, taking a side on a fake dividing line. As Newton says, separateness becomes very real to us very quickly, and we instinctively want to avoid the feelings that come with not fitting in. In our early childhood, where it is clear to us we don’t have much power in our world, we cling to the things that do give us security, and that means ascribing ourselves to specific groups.
This first phase of self, for me, went unchallenged up until middle school. For most people, middle school is a time where your identity is pretty much constantly attacked, no matter who you are. This is a time where bullying is severe, where the things that make you different are put on display for everyone to see. I questioned the very essence of who I was- I stood on a ledge, a cavern of possibilities all around me, waiting to jump. Who are you? Who are your people? What do you like? These questions are all important in this second phase of self. For some people, the second phase of self leads to the rejection of certain irreversible parts of your identity, sometimes forever. It’s not safe to be different, so you deny the things about yourself you can’t change.
The second dramatic change in self that I experienced in my life was also in middle school, right after the first. Like my first change in self, it was characterized by me relating myself to other people by difference, rather than similarity. But unlike the uncertain and shameful experience of the second phase, I dug my heels into my identity. I tried so hard to stand out from my peers. Seeing how big the world is in your early teenhood completely grabs hold of you and makes you want to matter. So it was important for me for my identity to be centered around the things that made me unique. I actively sought out new music, books, and clothes, completely falling into my role as the ‘weird’ kid. I was really worried about what people thought, but I pretended I wasn’t.During the first and second phases of self, important things are set in stone. When you are very young, you are attuned to the parts of your identity that puts you into certain groups, but you sort of become ‘you’ after this third phase of self. And whether you like it or not, some of the labels society puts on you decide who you are for you. “Things change completely in adolescence,” Claudia Cappa of UNICEF says in the National Geographic article In their words: How Children are Affected by Gender Issues, “This is when you stop being a child, you become a female or a male.” There is a level of agency that you are given in your identity in the third phase of self. You have to balance the fact that, there are groups that you belong to and will get security from, but also understand that your differences are useful. In the third phase of self you feel a sense of belonging that is never solidified in the other phases. But the ‘identity cycle’ I’ve described can repeat itself many times in someone’s life, especially when parts of their identity are being forcibly suppressed. Things like gender may be something you question again and again, getting stuck in a loop of the second phase of self. But nevertheless, our identity never really settles. Sometimes, you just have to follow it along for the ride.