What is Identity and Why is it Important?

By Amanda Polster, LMSW

“The strongest force in the universe is a human being living consistently with [their] identity.”

~Tony Robbins

Our identities helps make up and define who we are. Our identities are comprised of both our personal lived experiences and environments (nurture), and our biological and genetic composition (nature). Our identities are made up of the intersection and layers of various characteristics, including gender, social class, age, sexual orientation, race and ethnicity, religion, age and disability to just name a few. These characteristics play a significant role in how we understand and experience the world, as well as shape the type of opportunities and/or challenges we face. Identities are very complicated, and can also vary based on the situation or circumstances we encounter.

As part of our identity, it is important to acknowledge that we all have certain biases that we have learned through our experiences and environments. Malcolm Gladwell, a well-known author and researcher, helps us identify that although we all come with certain biases, we have an ability to [unlearn] some of these assumptions by changing our perspectives, beliefs, and experiences (Gladwell, 2005).

Let’s look at a riddle below:

A father and son are in a car accident and are both badly hurt. They are both taken to separate hospitals. When the boy is taken in for an operation, the surgeon (doctor) says “I can not do the surgery because this is my son.”

How is this possible?

Now if you first guessed that the surgeon is the boy’s gay, second father, you could be right. However, a less common, yet accurate guess to this riddle is that the surgeon is the boy’s mother.

This riddle has been used in many studies to identify gender biases, and during these studies, only about 15% of individuals are able to identify that the boy’s surgeon is his mother (Barlow, 2014).

It is important that we acknowledge our own biases and assumptions to increase our openness and connection towards others. The more grounded we are in our own identities, the more openness and acceptance we can have towards others.

Tips to help us feel more grounded in our identities

Using mindfulness to enhance self awareness

Identity formation is a key part of life, and evolves and shifts over time. It is easy to feel insecure at times, especially when we find ourselves in challenging transitions (i.e. new relationship, moving to a new city, starting a new job, etc.) To help improve self-confidence, we can begin to learn ways of feeling more secure with our identity.

We can ask ourselves questions that prompt greater self-awareness:      

1.       What part of my identity am I insecure about?

2.       What have I experienced in the past that impacts my identity?

3.       What am I currently going through that can be impacting my identity now?

4.       What do I need right now to feel more grounded?

5.       Who can I seek help from to work through these challenges?

If these questions are too challenging in the moment, this is a perfect opportunity to use mindfulness techniques to be present and accepting of this challenge. Take a few moments to breathe into the discomfort of not knowing how to overcome challenges, and validate yourself for being courageous to learn ways of building self awareness.

Using affirming self talk can help reframe challenges we may have when attempting to feel grounded in our identity. We can use some of these statements to help us think about our relationship with ourselves and with others as learning experiences and opportunities to enhance our self awareness and overall confidence:

        1. “I reflect and explore pieces of me to learn about my talents, capabilities, and growth.”

        2. “Exploring my identity in comparison to others helps me learn new cultures and experiences.”

        3. “When I feel less secure, this is a normal human experience and part of me learning about


Using CBT to become more self aware and grounded

One way for us to feel more connected with our identity is to reflect on our beliefs, values, and actions. When we understand the beliefs and values that we feel closely connected with, we can assess whether our actions are in accordance with these values - i.e. if generosity is an important value to our identity,  do we treat others with generosity? If we find ourselves acting in ways that contrast our values - i.e. saying hurtful things during an argument - we can use these moments as opportunities to learn more about our triggers, become more self aware of what these triggers mean, and assess how they impact our behavior.


Asking better questions to get better answers

We all have the right to identity the way we prefer. When we generalize how we identify with others, we might be making assumptions about other people’s identities. These assumptions often come from our comfortability of wanting someone to identify the way we believe is most acceptable. We naturally categorize people into boxes to help us relate to them, yet we might be oversimplifying their identity or identifying them incorrectly. Although the intention of assuming identities may come from a place of wanting to connect with someone, we might be harming someone or minimizing their preferred identity through this process.

We can ask these questions to reflect on our experience with assumed identities

1.    “Have I ever assumed someone’s identity? (i.e. assumed someone’s gender)”

2. “What can I do in the future to prevent this from happening”

3. “Has someone ever assumed my identity? (i.e. assumed my race of ethnicity)”

4.  “What do I need in moments when I believe someone is making assumptions about me, and how can I communicate that appropriately?”

We all experience the ebbs and flows of forming our identity. While identities are naturally complicated, we have many opportunities to lean into our identity to increase overall self confidence and acceptance.

Barlow, Rich. 2014. BU Research: A Riddle Reveals Depth of Gender Bias. https://www.bu.edu/today/2014/bu-research-riddle-reveals-the-depth-of-gender-bias/

Gladwell, Malcolm. 2005. Blink. Malcolm Gladwell.