Elements of Identity

In mathematics, an identity equation holds true regardless of the values chosen. By definition, the two sides of the equation are interchangeable so that one can be replaced by the other at any time.

In humans, identity refers to the character qualities, personality traits, and routine behaviors that define an individual.

In both cases, input equals output.

Familiar Formulas for Identities

Before we dive into the structure of what comprises our own identities, consider an objective surface analysis of familiar stereotypes. These days the word stereotype is often perceived as a negative label to describe a snap judgment or unfair assessment or of a person or thing, but stereotypes are typically formed for valid reasons, as they illustrate common constructs and generalized traits that are repeatedly observed. The word stereotype originates from the French to describe the printing process of replicating pages from a block template. Stereotypes provide us with a cognitive shortcut, as certain people tend to demonstrate characteristics that fit into familiar categories, and we as humans are naturally inclined to label and sort in an attempt to make sense of what we observe. We group like with like, and so forth.

I’ve long tried to buck stereotypes and evade labels and have prided myself over the years on my perceived ability to elude stereotypes in how I dress or the music I enjoy. More accurately, I’m a bit of a curious chameleon, often quiet and cautious, and tend to dart around and intermingle with a wide range of people in stereotypical groups who don’t characteristically mix: hippies and punks, conservative and liberal, high-brow and low-brow, spiritual and agnostic, classical and modern, etc. and so on. I’ve tried to avoid complete assimilation with any one group, but instead sought to understand a variety of people and cultures in order to cull the wheat from the chaff.

This isn’t to say that I don’t value being a part of a group or tribe, though I do try to remain conscious and resistant to herd mentality. There are many benefits in associating with a group that shares common interests and values, as these relationships tend to strengthen and reinforce our identities. However, sometimes we find ourselves enmeshed in a group that is no longer in alignment with our core beliefs and aspirations, and we are faced with a choice of whether to spend less time with a particular group in order to pursue new interests and directions, or to remain in something comforting and familiar even though it’s at the risk of stagnation or worse, backtracking. It’s critical to recognize when certain associations are no longer wise for you to maintain. Life is short, and if you want to modify your identity or shed a stereotype, ultimately you will have to pick and choose where you want to focus your time and attention.

It’s completely possible to be an incredibly unique individual and still be labeled by certain stereotypes. We’re all statistics one way or another, no matter how you slice the pie of human existence. If you have difficulty disassociating negativity with the word stereotype, try substituting the word archetype instead when exploring characteristics commonly associated with a particular identity.

Costume Constructs

Consider the fundamentals of costume design: at the core, the designer’s job is to visually convey a character’s identity through specific wardrobe choices, and this process often hinges on stereotypes. In order to dress the characters, you have to define identities; the resulting wardrobe choices are often stylized representations of particular archetypes.

I have a BA in Costume Design, yet I don’t identify as a designer. Instead, I consider myself a garment technician who uses creativity to engineer the solutions required to make a designer’s vision become reality. I’ve designed a grand total of two stage productions, and both were during my years at the College of Charleston: Shakespeare’s Merry Wives of Windsor and C.O.T.O.

The latter is an obscure contemporary play: C.O.T.O (Chocolate on the Outside) has a small cast of 4 characters – all of whom are black. Our version was directed by Joy Vandervort-Cobb, professor of African American Theatre at CofC, and specifically examined identities and stereotypes within a racial context.

This review of our production gives a brief overview of the identity-centric theme:

Best CofC Mainstage Play: C.O.T.O. (Chocolate on the Outside), October 2005
April Turner’s play C.O.T.O., while dealing specifically with African-American experiences, proved a challenging work to all races and individuals as it confronted the audience with how they look at others and themselves. Skillful acting, engaging direction, and influential design provided a well-rounded production of Turner’s tight script, which placed big themes in the context of individual bickering. C.O.T.O. raised many questions: What does it mean to be black? What does it do to categorize and pigeonhole other people? How do you remain an individual yet fit in? And the play left you to think about how you’d answer and if you’ll change the way you think and act. The College of Charleston’s theatre department really showed their stuff on this one.

 –Jennifer Corley for Charleston City Paper

One particular element of designing this show will stand out to me forever. As I worked closely with the director to understand her vision for the characters — one of whom was pegged as a young clean-cut businessman who wore sharp, stylish suits — Joy suggested my inspiration research include looking up images of a certain well-spoken and fresh-faced politician from Illinois who’d been elected as a senator a few months prior and was garnering attention in the media. This was my first exposure to the name and image of Barack Obama, over 3 years before he would go on to be elected President.

Needless to say, Obama’s now iconic persona was indeed a great source of style inspiration for dressing my character, as his identity clearly communicated the archetype we sought to portray. If only I could track down a picture of his doppelganger on the CofC stage!

The Multiplicative Identity of 1

Now that I’ve set the stage with stereotypes, it’s time for a brief math lesson. Mathematical law states that the number 1 is the identity element of multiplication: any number multiplied by 1 remains unchanged.

7 x 1 = 7

82 x 1 = 82

A x 1 = A

1(A+9) = A+9

You can put together any combination of variables and constants, multiply it by 1 (ie., yourself in this instance of Metaphoric Math), and the result defines you, same as it would be if you modify the expression of variables and constants to produce a completely different equation. You are you, and will always be uniquely you, regardless of how you spin it. The way you choose to combine the variables and constants creates a reflection of your individuality, and it is entirely possible to reinvent yourself several times over the course of your lifetime while remaining true to yourself.

Our identity is how we choose to define ourselves. It becomes more clearly expressed as we grow and mature and make choices – whether consciously or not — that ultimately determine a great deal about the sort of person we become, including how we dress, who we associate with, what we eat and drink, where we call home, and how we spend our time and money. There are many variables involved, and in large part, we choose our destiny. One choice leads to another, and years down the road, the myriad of choices defines and reinforces our identity.

Variables and Constants

Sometimes we blur the line between variables and constants when it comes to evaluating the structure of the equations that comprise our identities.

Some elements that catalyze our identities are evident at an early age. Our instinctive nature is influenced by both our DNA and environment from the beginning and takes shape as we grow and mature and learn to exert our free will.

There are aspects of our personality that are constants; we are fundamentally wired a particular way. These tendencies include basic characteristics such as where we fall on the introversion – extroversion spectrum, and what sorts of things energize or deplete us: the people, projects, passions, and places we’re drawn to stem from deeper roots. 

I’ve been fascinated by the study of personality types and tendencies since I started reading about the topic as a teenager years ago, and I continue to study behavior models, both to understand my own nature better as well as to inform my approaches and interactions with others. This ongoing interest has me currently working through an in-depth course on understanding my Sparketype, which is a fascinating and relatively new framework for discovering your core tendencies and what makes you come alive with purpose and meaning.

Developed by author and teacher Jonathan Fields of The Good Life Project (an inspiring podcast I’ve followed for years), the Sparketype assessment is a free tool for identifying what drives you and helps you understand the essential nature of the work you are wired to do. I’m a Maven / Advisor, which comes as no surprise to me at all, even though my years of hands-on work as a garment technician might give the surface appearance that I’m driven by Maker tendencies instead. I’m excited to dig deeper into this material to learn more about myself as well as the other 9 known Sparketypes.

When was the last time you examined your inner wiring and explored what sparks you? The more you can drill down to understand your talents and strengths and the basic framework that shapes your identity, the better informed you can be when it comes to changing aspects that aren’t in alignment with the identity you desire. This process takes thoughtful experimentation and openness to new ways of thinking and being. In the process, you are likely to find something that feels contrary to your wiring. Can you or should you accept that, or try to push through to change? What aspects of your current identity are deeply ingrained learned behaviors disguised as innate tendencies? What can you do to be in better alignment with your core needs and drivers?

Our innate tendencies don’t warrant judgment; while you may want to change some of your tendencies, it’s far easier to explore ways to influence related behavior changes that work with, not against, our nature. Don’t focus on assigning positive or negative aspects to your deeply ingrained traits. You are not fundamentally flawed. Sure, we all have habits and thought patterns that can be reprogrammed and upgraded, and our systems will inevitably crash from time to time. You possess traits that can be double-edged swords of strength and weakness depending on how you wield them. Most things that you don’t particularly like about your tendencies can be sorted out in time; skills can be developed to support and compensate, and you can also learn to love and accept yourself more fully.

The better you understand your tendencies, the easier it is to answer big questions such as: Who am I? What am I here to do? How am I best suited to contribute to the world around me, be it my family, social circle, workplace, community, country, or planet? I touched on the ripple effect a few weeks back when describing circles of influence. Focus on your identity at the center of the circle – everything radiates out from there.

Hopefully by now it’s clear that we all have certain deeply ingrained tendencies that play a significant role in forming our identities. Many of our preferences cause corresponding habits to form unconsciously in our youth that subsequently propel us down paths into the future, as if on autopilot.

These are often things we take for granted. We may be able to recognize some of our preferences as constants, but we also have ingrained variables in the form of habits and routines that initially developed out of a preference for a certain rewarding element of ease or enjoyment. In many cases we do not consciously choose to continue focusing our time and energy in a particular direction or mode of moving through the world; things just evolve. It could be as simple as how we make coffee or brush our teeth or shop for groceries or answer the phone, or as complex as how we communicate with our closest friends or plan a trip or get ready for a music event.

Identity is related, but not identical to your fundamental inclinations. Many variables are involved in constructing an identity. There is a difference in accepting what is not likely to change about your inner nature, and how that manifests in your outer identity. Beware of self-limiting beliefs, but also embrace your own unique characteristics that comprise your nature and personality. Some aspects of our personalities are more malleable than others. While it is certainly possible to completely reinvent your life and become a different person, this is a daunting task for many. Start with small behavior changes and see where those lead.

You might be surprised to find out who you are underneath all the layers you’ve put on based on outside influences. Strip down to your skivvies. Unpeel the onion. At the core, you may find you’ve assumed an identity based on perceived expectations and influences from others, and perhaps that identity isn’t serving you and could actually be hindering you from your potential.

Habits are the Variables to Rewrite Your Identity Equation

Your identity is a multi-faceted collection of behaviors and interests. It is constantly shifting, which is good news because that means it’s completely possible to reinvent yourself.

If you’re not sure how to describe your identity, try checking your social media profiles. Chances are you use some key words to describe yourself in your bio, as well as follow people and post topics that you identify with – your tribes and beliefs, if you will. Are you proud of your identity as a community citizen or member of a subculture?

When you step back and realize how integral our identity is in our choices, you can step back even further and examine how you feel about your own identity. Is it authentic to the core? Do you like how you feel about your identity? It is something you want to reinforce? Is it serving you? Do you want to be defined by that particular identity? The incredible thing about a personal identity is that it can be redefined. You can choose your identity, and you can change your identity.

In fact, changing your identity is a critical component of long-term behavior change. We all have stories that we tell ourselves, and in many cases, we are so familiar with these stories that we lose perspective that some of the stories we cling to may not even be true; there are plenty of alternative stories that can be written instead.

Your habits reinforce your identity, and your identity reinforces your habits.

The principle is circular. If you want to get to the root of behavior change, you have to examine the stories you tell yourself. We tend to operate in accordance with our identities, and in order for behavior change to last, the reason for our actions needs to become a part of our identity.

For instance, if you say: “I’m not a math person,” you will have a tendency to avoid anything to do with math and not even give it a chance. In doing so, you will miss out on new ways of thinking about problem solving that could enhance your understanding of the world around you.

I challenge you to experiment with rewriting the script that you use to define yourself by reframing various aspirational archetypes:

  • When you spend time practicing an instrument, you are a musician.
  • When you devote attention to a book, you are a reader.
  • When you focus effort on the craft of stringing words together, you are a writer.
  • When you exercise, you are a person who values physical fitness.
  • When you eat a healthy meal, you are a person who cares about nutrition.
  • When you show up on time, you are punctual.

The stories we tell ourselves contain powerful prose. The narratives influence our outcomes. What if so called “limiting beliefs” could be upended by redefining how we label ourselves? Could it be as simple as identifying the kind of person we want to be, and then reverse engineering the behaviors and characteristics often associated with that sort of person?

For instance, if we aspire to be in great physical shape, what sort of choices does a person in exceptional physical condition make? What do they eat? How often do they exercise? Who do they hang out with? What are their morning rituals? Can you begin to assume any of these identifying behaviors in your own routines?

This is where habit arithmetic comes into play. Studying your identity equation could be the most important math lesson you’ll ever learn. Remember: there is no right or wrong answer, but you’ll get bonus points if you show your work to express your identity.