We live in times of an increasing rich-poor gap, short-sighted policymaking, environmental problems and concerns, and reactions of various effectiveness to a global pandemic. Our beliefs about the world and our actual experiences shape our values, which in turn form our identity. What we believe is what we experience, which is why our beliefs and values have a discernible impact on our relationships and our work.
Many people like to think that their beliefs are grounded in reality, but this isn’t always true. At any rate, values are a critical component of our identity. They can be moral, cultural, or religious. They reflect our essence and our way of life.
The Importance of Individual and Group Identity
Nobody can dispute that our identity is who we are. It might seem to overlap with personality in that respect. However, the two aren’t identical by any means. Our personality traits are not unique to us. We might be communicative, sociable, ambitious, introverted, or anything else. So are millions of other people. There are quite a few in your immediate surroundings that you share certain traits with.
Identity, on the other hand, requires a certain degree of awareness. It entails some type of conscious choice. You might be involved in charity because you are altruistic, but you support Green Peace because you feel strongly about environmental protection and want to make a statement about it. Our personality traits are innate, but we are not born with an identity. We grow and develop one.
Another difference between personality and identity is that traits are constant throughout our lives, but identity is dynamic. It can change and often does as we grow. It can lead to improved or deteriorated outcomes.
When we meet someone for the first time, we ask them where they’re from or what they do. These questions are aimed at differentiating between them and other people. When we ask someone these things, we’re trying to see if they are similar or different from us. We want to get an idea of who they are, even more so with follow-up questions such as, “What do you like about your job?” or “What do you like doing in your free time?”
Where Values Meet Identity
Everyone has an image of themselves; a belief or idea about who they are as a person. It’s definitely desirable to have a strong sense of identity because it gives security and brings us comfort. Many of us spend a lot of time trying to understand what we believe, what we want, and who we are, especially when we are younger.
To complicate matters further, it suddenly dawns on us we were not who we thought we were over the past ten, 20, even 30 years; the proverbial midlife crisis. This usually happens when we achieve a major goal only to find out it hasn’t made us as happy or as satisfied as we believed it would. For example, you place great value on material belongings, but buying your first property hasn’t left you feeling quite like you hoped. Or ambition is very important to you, yet you discover being appointed general manager isn’t like you thought it would be.
There are definitely major advantages of having a strong identity. It is infinitely easier to connect with like-minded people when you have a clear sense of it. A strong identity tends to be a feature highly successful people share. It helps us tailor our behaviour according to the situation and make the best decisions in complicated circumstances. It would be impossible to make any decision, even the most trivial, without any prior beliefs about how to act.
Knowing who you are makes being confident in your decisions and choices that much easier. It can make the difference between an effortless and an agonising decision.
The Risks of a Strong Identity
Having a strong identity can be risky because such people are willing to go to excessive lengths to protect it. That’s only natural – after all, it is who they are. It is the core and the essence of their being. The problem is that they might do this at the expense of other things – being kind, being honest, or being open-minded. Being unable to think clearly about things we strongly identify with gives rise to not insignificant conflict, including on a group level. It might even seem best to limit the number of things entering one’s identity as much as possible given how difficult it is to think clearly about them.
Values are beliefs about what is important to us. Returning to the example of ambition: If you believe you are ambitious, you will act accordingly. You will be driven to go above and beyond in your professional interactions and tasks. If benevolence is one of your core values, you will always strive to be friendly and helpful. You will take every opportunity to help people, sometimes at the expense of your own welfare.
This brings us to our next and main point. What creates identity? Generally and perhaps regrettably, it’s not a matter of choice. Most people internalize their parents’ values or their cultural values. Western culture has traditionally focused on values such as power, achievement, and the pursuit of assets and pleasure. The traditional focus of Eastern culture has been on humility, respect, security, conformity, and obedience. There is some overlap but either way and in principle, the values we internalize aren’t always aligned with our true self.
How do Values Shape Identity?
In adolescence, an important part of self-development is the differentiation of values. As people mature, their values clarify and they attain a sense of coherence in their identity. Our actions and decisions are a consequence of our principles. In other words, values are part of identity. We discover our true selves as we explore and uncover our principles. Self-discovery is our right and prerogative and is key to a satisfying existence.
According to Schwartz and Bilsky, there are ten value types: benevolence, universalism (equality, environmental protection), security, tradition (humility, respect), conformity, power (dominance, authority), achievement (ambition, personal success), self-direction (creativity, independent thought), hedonism (the pursuit of pleasure), and stimulation (having a rich, exciting life). If achievement is among someone’s values, their position at work, job title, pension, and benefits package will be very important to them.
Our perception of the ideal family or partner manifests as the respectable façade covering a basic motivator. Power, sex, and money are traditionally strong drivers concealed under the layer of presentability. Intangible things can coat identity. Since politics, faith, philosophy, or world view affect our way of life, they can and do define us.
How Does Identity Change?
Assuming our values align with our true selves, thinking and acting according to them can bring us to lead more fulfilling lives. There are countless scientific conflicts and theories related to the concept of self. Psychologists Abraham Maslow and Carl Rogers established the main tenets related to self-concept in the west. According to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, people who are able to achieve the highest level in the hierarchy, that of self-actualisation, live or attempt to live in full consistency with their values.
Carl Rogers finds people want to behave, experience, and feel in ways that reflect their “ideal self”, which is their idea of who they want to be. These ways are consistent with how they really act, feel, and think; their “real-self”.
The real self is our self-image because others can see it, but we can’t always be sure of how others see us. Thus, there are three elements of self-concept: ideal self, self-esteem, and self-image. Our ideal self is who we feel we should be. Self-esteem is how we appraise ourselves emotionally. Finally, self-image is how we see ourselves.
The potential for happiness, growth, and willpower is part of a healthy self-image. The ideal self helps the self-image achieve self-actualisation by realizing a person’s full potential. This is closely linked to the concept of self-worth, the unshakeable belief that you have value and great potential because of your identity, of who you are as a person. It is the conviction that you have value no matter how you behave, how you feel, and what you think.
It’s not a common thing to have. According to Rogers, giving and receiving love underpin self-worth. Without it, one is prone to exaggerating reality and overachieving to compensate.
Closing the Gap Between Ideal Self and Self-Image
Self-alignment is when the ideal self and self-image are closely related. Great overlap between them leads to feelings of well-being and inner peace. On the other hand, a large gap between the two results in people experiencing a sense of misalignment.
Self-alignment is not achieved overnight. Rather, it is a work in progress and emotionally healthy people recognize this. With time, people come to understand a lot of things about themselves better, including their true values, how they are now, and how they want to be. There are missteps and reality checks along the way, just like with any building process.