On Shedding Identity

Shedding your identity, until it is thin enough to serve you and no thicker. A short post on what I’ve learned about identity.

None of us choose the conditions in which we are born, yet some among us have a deep sense of pride for their country. They have personally not done anything to achieve the things they are proud of, but they still are. By feeling pride, in a sense they are taking credit for what their ancestors have done.

Many people are willing to give their life for their country or religion because those things are such a big part of their identity. This “us vs them” mentality is responsible for so much violence and suffering in the world. Of course, a lot of productivity could be attributed to this mentality too, like the progress of nations. But I’d argue that on the whole, having a ‘thick’ identity, as in, feeling a lot of conviction in one of your identities, or having many adjectives attached to your name causes more suffering than good.

“Nationalism is an infantile disease. It is the measles of mankind.” - Albert Einstein

The debates we see on social media have something to do with this. When you don’t have a strong sense of identity, nothing matters to you strongly enough to lead you to argue or debate intensely. But you might want to raise awareness about something that matters to you immensely, this is great, as long as you don’t get wrapped up in it. If people attack the cause, it shouldn’t feel synonymous to them attacking you.

When we have a big identity, in a way our self worth and our sense of who we are is locked up in those adjectives.

But what happens when one of those adjectives no longer belong to you, for example: you consider the word ‘runner’ as one of your identities, now you’ve received a medical diagnosis that you shouldn’t run again, or you simply lose interest. Your world is not only shattered because you can’t take part in your hobby but you also feel lost as a person. You may find yourself asking, who am I if I’m no longer a runner? Simply rephrasing “I’m a runner”, to “I run”, can make the adjustment of running to not running easier.

The person who probably first got me thinking about this was Naval Ravikant; then over time I started noticing it in myself and everyone around me. He said the following on a popular episode of The Knowledge Project podcast:

“I think that creating identities and labels locks you in and keeps you from seeing the truth…if all of your beliefs line up into neat little bundles, you should be highly suspicious because they’re prepackaged and put together. I don’t like to self-identify in almost any level anymore”

Some examples of when we take our identities a bit too seriously:

  • Caring too much about which emoji colour best matches us as opposed to using the default yellow
  • Having half a dozen adjectives attached to our “bio”/name
  • Getting defensive when someone attacks one of our tightly held adjectives

My purpose for writing this post is not to attack those who identify with the above, but to perhaps help lessen the suffering people feel as a result of holding on to their identities too tightly. The suffering that comes from micro conflicts online and offline, or the suffering that arises from losing something that once defined you.

But of course having a thick identity is not all suffering.

Positive aspects of having an identity:

  1. Create a sense of belonging in a community that identifies with a given identity.
  2. Make change easier. For instance, you want to give up meat, identifying as vegetarian creates a psychological barrier against eating meat because “vegetarians don’t eat meat”.

These are helpful in the early days, for example coming to terms with growing up as a person of colour in a ‘white’ society or picking up a new habit like giving up meat. But once we come to terms with our differences or live the desired habits, identifying strongly with things adds no value but makes us susceptible to suffering. It’s fruitful to be part of different communities; as long as they don’t define us as to leave us vulnerable.