We face an epidemic of personal identity crises in the western world. I outlined the five modern challenges to personal identity in a previous article. In a crisis, we tend to return to questions like ‘who am I?’, and ‘why am I here?’. Questions about identity and purpose of life. Our identity matters because we can't truly be ourselves if we don't even know who we are.

In this epidemic, I have noticed three common strategies for coping with it, that appear to be gaining in popularity. They are attempts to give ourselves a sense of our own unique personal identity, and to establish our purpose.

All three strategies have two things in common. First, they ignore how we feel right now. Second, they all fail as strategies for reaching a real identity for ourselves.

To help you to make up your mind on this, I'm going to explore each of these strategies in more detail. For now, let's title them as follows:

Back to the past.

Back to the future.

Retreat to the positive

Back to the Past

The retreat to the past is about genealogy. It is an attempt to find our identity by going back to our own ancestry, answering the question 'where did I come from?' So we find out our own family tree, and depending on how much knowledge is still out there, we may be able to go back hundreds of years and many generations. So it is that we discover who was connected to who, where the generational skeletons are in the family cupboards, what it is that different people did for a living, and where in the world different branches of our family came from.

This last piece of information seems to give us particularly strong identities. As the joke goes, there are about 800 million Irish people in the world, judging by those who claim Irish ancestry! Behind this, there is great desire to find our identity from the past, and then to embrace it. We may also hold onto family traits and professions, e.g. “we’re an army family”, or “We’ve always had a great sense of fun!”. We may indeed have a genetic disposition to behave in certain ways, or to do certain things. However, this does not make us who we are! Our identity is different from this, it is unique to each of us, as we are all unique.

Some of us may be genuinely interested in our family history out of curiosity. However, researching our family tree to gain a sense of who we really are wont work.

Back to the future

This isn’t a remake of the Marty McFly movie of 1980’s fame. Instead, it describes a second tendency I’ve noticed – and to a degree experienced myself. How many people do you know that, when they go into crisis (mid-life or other) suddenly start to develop an interest in the future, particularly through spirituality? Life after death, talking to the dead, and spirituality become things we’re interested in finding more about. It’s almost as if we have to develop an understanding of where we go after death to make any sense of this life here right now.

So religious and spiritual investigation takes off, and we try to gain our identity from the future. After all, if we know where we’re going (or at least develop some faith of where we’re going) then we can work out why we’re here, or what we’re here to do.

This can, in extreme cases (often with people low in self esteem) end up in cults being joined, where the person’s identity simply becomes that of the cult, and their purpose becomes one of serving that cult.

In the nineteenth century, Karl Marx famously described religion as ‘the opiate of the people’. By this, he meant that the promise of a better life after death was held out as the reward for putting up with an intolerable life right now. At that time, life for many workers in Western Europe was pretty intolerable, in Victorian factories and mills.

In those days, life was intolerable due to working conditions. In a different way, life has become intolerable due to the impact on the self and our loss of identity. So it is in the same way that spirituality has become the opiate of the people. The means to come to terms with who we really are. It doesn’t work.

Trying to gain a sense of self-identity through this route won't work any more successfully than the genealogy route. Again, I am not saying that exploring religion and spiritual beliefs is not a worthwhile pursuit. But it won't help you get a self identity.

The third strategy is slightly different, but no less pervasive in the modern era. It is to the land of the positive that we go!

Retreat to the positive

In some ways, the Secret is the best example of this trend, though it is far from the only example. ‘The Secret’ is a book, which subsequently became a DVD and CD collection that promotes the idea that what we expect, we’ll get. So the key to happiness and prosperity is to think positively, and you will get positive results.

As with many ideas, there is a grain of truth in it. However, it also translates the message into an urge not to engage in any negative thinking at all. Negative thought will translate into bad results. The result? A large group of people who suppress negative thinking and emotion, and only think and talk positively. The law of attraction and the ideas around unconditional positive regard also have a similar impact.

In this sense, we gain an identity, as someone who is positive, nice to be around, and never has a bad word to say about anything or anyone around them. Problems become opportunities or challenges, no one and nothing is bad, and smiling is mandatory. There’s only one problem when it comes to this and personal identity. It is this. We are choosing to ignore a whole side of our being, the side that is grisly, grumpy and negative. This will simply not do. Yet a whole flotilla of thinking has grown up around the idea that you must never be negative.

But negative things are present in the universe. Without electrons, charged negative particles, there would be no life. The universe would not hang together. However, we conveniently ignore this when it comes to our psyche. It’s not okay to have a negative thought, so we have only positive ones because we want to be okay. If we think negatively too often, why we may be encouraged to go to a therapist!

Let me be absolutely clear on this one. Thinking and talking only the positive and suppressing negative traits is bad for us. You know the saying ‘it’s nice people that die young’. It’s true – or to be more accurate, it’s the ‘over-nice’ that often die young. What your soul doesn’t recognise and your mouth doesn’t say will be pushed down inside your body, to be channelled into stress and illness. Maybe even death. This is not to say that positive thinking isn’t a good thing. But I am saying that denying a key part of who we are is definitely a bad thing. We are only really identifying who we’re not, not who we are.

It is clear from all this that we need to find ourselves, and the above three strategies won't achieve that. Finding our purpose from trying to connect to spirit or to source is hardly going to work when we can’t even connect with ourselves properly. Finding, and reintegrating ourselves is key to establishing any deeper connections, not to mention being crucial to our happiness.

So if the past, the future, and the positive are not routes to a true sense of who we are, that leaves one question hanging in the air. How do we connect with ourselves? This will be the focus in my third article in this series.

Author's Bio: 

A published author and coach consultant, Mark has 25 years experience of helping people develop their leadership, power and career to become the best they can be. His motto is 'bringing personality to work, and work to life'. He owns Brilliant Futures, and can be found at http://www.brilliantfutures.net/