Our Search for Identity

I believe that the discovery of meaning and values is essentially related to our achievement of identity as persons. The search for identity entails a dedication to give birth to ourselves by
scrutinizing the meaning of our uniqueness and humanness. A major problem for many people is that they have lost a sense of self, because they have directed their search for identity outside themselves. In their attempt to be liked and accepted by everyone, they have become finely tuned to what others expect of them but alienated from their own inner desires and feelings. As May observes, "they are able to respond but not to choose." He even sees inner emptiness as the chief problem in contemporary society; too many of us, have become "hollow people" who have very little discernment of who are we and what we feel. May cites one person’s succinct description of the experience of "hollow people": I’m just a collection of mirrors, reflecting what everyone expects of me".

Moustakas describes the same type of alienation fr0m self that May talks about. For Moustakas, alienation is the "developing of a life outlined and determined by others, rather than a life based on one’s own inner experience." If we become alienated from ourselves, we don’t trust our own feelings but retort automatically to others as we conceive they want us to retort. As a result, we live a world devoid of excitement, risk, and meaning.

In order to find out who we are, we may have to let parts of us die. We may need to shed old roles and identities that no longer give us exuberance. Doing so may necessitate a period of affliction for our old selves. Most people who have battled with shedding sophomoric and dependent facade and presumptuous a more active stance toward life know that such rebirth isn’t easy and that it may entail pain as well as joy.

Jourard (1971) makes a point that I find stimulating. He maintains that we begin to cease living when meaning vanishes from life. Yet too often we are encouraged to believe that we have only one identity, one role, one way to be, and one purpose to fulfill in a lifetime. This way of thinking can be figuratively deadly, for when our one ground for being alive is outgrown or lost, we may begin to die psychologically instead of obtaining the challenge of reinventing ourselves anew. In order to keep ourselves from dying spiritually, we need to permit ourselves to imagine new ways of being, to plan new goals to live for, to search for new and more achieving meanings, to acquire new identities, and to reinvent our relationships with others. In essence, we need to allow parts of us die in order to experience the rebirth that is necessary for growth.

To me, then, attaining identity doesn’t necessarily mean contentiously adhering to a certain way of thinking or behaving. Instead, it may involve trusting ourselves enough to become open to new potentialities. Nor is an identity something we achieve for all time; rather, we need to be persistently willing to reexamine our patterns and priorities, our habits and our relationships. Above all, we need to develop the ability to listen to our inner selves and trust what we hear. To take just one example, I’ve friends for whom academic life has become stale and empty and who have chosen to leave it in response to their inner feelings. Some have opted to travel and live modestly for a time, taking in new cultures and even digesting into them for awhile. They may not be directly betrothed in preparing for a career and, in that sense, "establishing" themselves, but I believe they are attaining their own identities by being open to new experiences and ways of being. For some of them, it may take real courage to defy the demand to settle down in a career or "complete" their education.

Our search for identity implicates three key existential questions, none of which has easy or definite answers; "Who am I?" "where am I going?" "Why?"

The question "Who am I?" Is never settled once and for all, for it can be answered differently at different times in our life. We need to transform life, especially when old identities no longer seem to supply a significance or give us guidance. As we have seen, we must decide whether to let others tell us who we are or take a stand and define ourselves.

"Where am I going?" this issue relates to our plans for a lifetime and the means we expect to use in achieving our goals. Like the previous question, this one requires periodic review. Our life goals are not set once and for all. Again, we do show the valor it takes to determine for ourselves where we are going, or do we look for a mentor to show us where to go?

Asking the question "Why" and searching for reasons are characteristics of being a human. We face fastly changing world in which old values give way to new ones or to none at all. Part of molding an identity connotes that we are actively searching for meaning, trying to make rationality of the world in which we find ourselves.