Why identity matters, but authenticity is an illusion

Identity and authenticity are everywhere it seems. Who you are is obviously important. To you, but also to others. It determines not only who you are towards others, but also subsequently defines what is expected of you by others. And by yourself. As such, your identity can even limit you in achieving your goals and purpose. Or it can enable you to shoot for the moon. But if others co-determine who you are, isn’t ‘authenticity’ an illusion? Examining and understanding how identity ‘works’ may help you deal with this sensitive topic.

Your identity is the image you or others have of you. Getting obsessed with your own image will prevent you from meaningful engagement with others (like Narcissus).
On the other hand, being unable to express your true feelings may prevent you from fulfilling your purpose (like Echo).
Echo and Narcissus by John William Waterhouse (1903).
Identity: communicated attributes, linked to values

Who are you? How do you introduce yourself to a group of people you don’t yet know? We often start by telling our name. Some might then continue saying where they’re from and where they live, or where their roots lie. Sometimes people feel compelled to divulge their age. You might talk about hobbies, whether you have a partner or are married and have any children. You may also say something about where you work and/or what kind of work you do. This may include volunteer roles.

The way you introduce yourself may differ depending on the context: you probably tell a new neighbour other things about yourself than you do a new colleague or someone who you’ve just met at a party.

Why do we actually introduce ourselves to others? Is it merely because it’s what is expected, just like shaking hands? Part of it may be to allay the silent threat that we can perceive from strangers. Once we ‘know’ them, we can determine if there is anything to fear about them.

Opposite to allaying threats, you might want to emphasise that getting to know you may present an opportunity for fruitful collaboration; this is the purpose of business networking events or job fairs.

Sometimes we like to ‘spice up’ our introduction by telling about events or adventures we experienced that might impress our interlocutor. We expect our conversation partner to respond as such, thereby acknowledging that we are indeed ‘pretty cool’.

And then I haven’t discussed all the non-verbal communication tools we use to ‘introduce’ ourselves: clothing, jewellery, the car we drive, etc.

The examples given above are all in some shape or form about setting expectations: evaluations about the (dis)utility we might represent to others, where we ‘rank’ in a certain population or to what kind of people we want to belong.

These evaluations and rankings depend on a presumed shared set of values. If I tell you that I went hunting over the weekend and shot a wild boar, expecting you to appreciate how ‘cool’ that is, but you respond in disgust because you believe ‘shooting animals for fun’ is abhorrent: there is a difference in values. Introductions therefore also serve to determine or establish a degree of commonality in values.

So identity seems to revolve around communicated attributions of certain qualities and/or characteristics to a person in relation to a common value.

Identity revolves around communicated attributions as evaluated by others.
The ugly duckling by Miles Winter (1916).
Identity enables our social fabric to function efficiently

Why is identity not just about ourselves, but also about how we relate to others?

Like the German-American philosopher Hannah Arendt said, we humans always live together as ‘plural’ beings. When we act we “insert ourselves into the world”, expressing our “otherness and individuality”. As such our actions are always manifested in relation to someone else, who bears witness and testimony of the story of who we are.

Humans are social animals, meaning we have an inclination to collaborate. We do so in formal premeditated structures called organisations. But also in informal, spontaneous contexts. E.g. I unwittingly drop my train ticket on the platform and a stranger picks it up to hand it back to me.

Our ability to collaborate presumes certain valuations of one another and this informs what we might expect how others will behave in certain settings. So identity not only communicates certain attributes, but also sets implied expectations and boundaries on behaviour. It defines the role we play.

As such our identity ‘mediates’ how we are connected to others in order that we may effectively collaborate with them. The social fabric thus created is a key aspect of human functioning.

Your actions determine who you are. Who you are determines your actions.

How does identity influence the boundaries to our repertoire of action?

The British anthropologist and a founding father of cybernetics, Gregory Bateson, has theorised about how humans learn. Neuro-Linguistic Programming expert Robert Dilts has summarised this in the model below adding his own interpretation.

Logical levels of learning model based on the works of Gregory Bateson and Robert Dilts.

This model describes how humans ‘learn’ to achieve a certain purpose (top of the pyramid) in a given context or environment (base of the pyramid). Let’s explain this by imagining applying this to a novice tennis player, whose purpose is to be a good tennis player. We’ll start at the base of the pyramid and work our way up.

If a situation is not to our liking we will ‘act’ or perform certain ‘behaviour’ to change the situation (e.g. our tennis player tries to hit the ball harder). If our actions are not effective we need to (re)evaluate and improve our ‘capabilities’ or ‘skills’ (our tennis player learns that he needs to improve his racket grip). This is comparable to the concepts of  ‘single loop’ and ‘double loop’ learning as developed by Argyris and Schön.

Now suppose that there is nothing wrong with our skills (anymore), but we still don’t manage to reach our goal. Perhaps we need to adapt our values and beliefs of how we ought to interact with the environment (our tennis player, who exhausts himself running for every ball, learns that even when his racket grip is fine, he doesn’t need to win every point in order to win a game). At the next level, identity, he learns that a good tennis player is one who ‘picks his battles’, i.e. picks the balls he will run for and those he won’t. He doesn’t have to demonstrate absolute superiority after every service ball. He’s learnt to play a different ‘role’. At the top level, purpose, he has learned that demonstrating that one is a good tennis player by winning matches, is not about who gains the most points based on superior play, but that it is about who concedes the least points based on dealing with one’s inevitable shortcomings.

This is a very simple and brief explanation of this model. It is interesting to note that the lower levels of the pyramid contribute to and compose our identity. We could say that who we are is determined by how we act and everything in between. And conversely, if we want to fundamentally change our behaviour, we sometimes have to re-evaluate our purpose and who we are in relation to this and in relation to others: which role it is that we have to play.

Therefore our identity to a large extent determines what we are able to achieve. And/or if we can be satisfied with what are achieving.

Not challenging your own beliefs, but challenging those of others instead, may prevent you from learning the right lesson.
John McEnroe arguing with an umpire at Wimbledon 1982.
You don’t always get what you want; you can’t always be who you are

However, we have previously seen how our identity is not something we fully control ourselves. We need others to confirm our identity in order that we may interact in a social context effectively. This in a nutshell is a human being’s unrelenting balancing act: 1) to be who you need to be (to yourself) in order to realise your purpose in concrete achievements, whilst at the same time; 2) being acknowledged by others to be who you need to be (to them) and thereby be empowered to achieve your purpose. Echo needs Narcissus.

Some tragic examples of this: the talented worker who is continually denied a promotion by their superiors because they don’t perform ‘leadership’ in the style they would. The person who is not allowed to love another person, because it goes against society’s expectations of ‘normal’ love relations. The person who has a perfectly acceptable resume, but who is not invited for a job interview, because their last name indicates a foreign culture of origin.

The reason this is tragic, is because the person concerned cannot do anything to change these fundamental aspects of their personhood ‘to play a different role’, yet is impaired in realising their full potential. But it is also tragic because the authoritative groups involved also have to apply some sort of normative system of rules in order to function, which they can’t simply set aside. It’s not that these rules can’t change; it’s just that it requires a collective, and hence slow, learning process of changing convictions (beliefs/values) in order to change societal behaviour.

Society learns slowly. A 1940s advertisement featuring a ‘doctor’ demonstrating an attitude to smoking that is different to commonly held views about smoking today.
The illusion of authenticity

One’s identity has always been important, as it is fundamental to human’s collaborative nature as may be clear from the above. However, identity and authenticity seem to be topics garnering obsessive levels of attention even though individuals have arguably been more empowered to be who they want to be than ever before.

I wonder if this freedom and empowerment is actually part of the problem. Churches, governments, schools, parents and other institutions that used to have authoritative power to determine how we ought to behave and therefore determine who we ought to be, no longer have this power – which I think, is generally a good thing. We are constantly being told that we should be whoever we want to be. However, one’s identity is always relational and therefore co-dependent on others’ acquiescence and acknowledgement. It is who we are to others.

I wonder if this false freedom of supposed authentic self-determination does not create a vacuum in which (particularly young) people struggle to find purpose in their lives when there are no expectations (from others).

Where society has become less densely populated with peculiar values and norms, this degree of authentic self-determination also requires a commensurate level of indifference by the rest of society, making it a more anonymous and perhaps more meaningless place (because our actions often only become meaningful for what they mean to others, as Hannah Arendt and Viktor Frankl have explained).

However, society’s invitation to determine one’s own identity and be ‘authentic’ is also contradictory, because whilst society promotes ‘being who you want to be’, it presumes society is value free and unbiased, which it isn’t, because it can’t be: society needs values and norms in order to facilitate effective collaboration.

Lastly, once somebody claims a certain ‘authentic’ identity, based on their ‘right to self-determination’, many appear to expect that others are obliged to accept and even appreciate this identity. Given that identity is relational, this is an unrealistic expectation, albeit an understandable wish. Demanding that someone accepts you, reasonable though it sounds, also precludes that person from exercising their right to their own opinions. Although it is of course silly to disapprove of something in another person that they can’t change.

The common denominator throughout these issues is that of ‘judging others’. If we can perceive others without judgement, a lot more room is created for peaceful co-existence. It requires courage to be different. But it also requires courage to tolerate difference. It also requires inventiveness to look at challenges and the means and roles to solve them differently. Next to patience, which is required to have a calm dialogue about each other’s needs.

We have come a long way. But the goal is not achieving authentic self-determination; it’s learning to live in interdependence.

And we would do ourselves a favour by letting go of the need to define oneself, as who we are depends on the context we’re in, which is everchanging. It’s better to get (less un)comfortable with change and allow ourselves to adapt to the circumstances accordingly.

Even if stranded on a deserted island we need to relate to something that can acknowledge who we are.
Still from the film Cast Away (2000), in which actor Tom Hanks’s character, Chuck Noland, is stranded on a deserted island and turns a volleyball into his ‘companion’ Wilson. (AP Photo/20th Century Fox and Dreamworks LLC).

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