Evaluate the claim that personal identity is self- defined

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4 March 2016

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Your identity is what makes you who you are and what makes you unique as an individual and different from other people. Identities are not static but dynamic and constantly changing. A personal identity is made up of several different aspects, and can be defined by culture (nationality, religion and gender) as well as family and career. Your identity is defined by how you see yourself and also by how you are seen by others. It is part given and part taken and also can be something we are born with. In some instances an identity may be something you are given and may not be through choice. I am going to look at what makes a personal identity and is it self-defined and made without the assistance of anyone else. I am also going to compare the opinion of the theorists Erik Erikson and Sigmund Freud and I will be using the case findings of the research project into becoming a mother for the first time and more importantly the case of Silma and her experiences, this was a research programme which included detailed interviews as well as observational research.

There are numerous ways in which our Identity can change, for example our bodies change and how we look alters as we get older but our appearance and our bodies can also be changed by choice for example hair colour, cosmetic surgery etc. (chapter 4, Exploring Social Lives) Our identities also change through practices and when there is an upset to our normal routines and we need to establish new ones or learn new skills, this also has an impact on our identity. This is the case when practices turn into routines and we no longer need to think about doing them as they become second nature. Finally we also experience relationship changes where our views on who we think we are is influenced by the opinions of other people and how they see us. We become who we are and modify ourselves through the way others treat us and respond to us. This is witnessed when a woman becomes a mother, she may be treated differently by her parents as a result of moving to parenthood herself.

This was the claim for theorist Erik Erikson who studied that our identity changes are influenced by past experiences, the moment-by-moment activities and relationships we have daily. This is spanned over a lifetime and although can happen at any time, Erikson defined 8 stages in which identity is transformed in unique ways, as transition was not a smooth process, these stages he called “identity crises”. These stages were seen as times when conflict was introduced, conflict is contending with happenings in everyday life that stops life running as smoothly as before. Conflict is being faced with choices, feeling confused and although he uses the example of passing from adolescence into adulthood it could also mean becoming middle aged, old or moving into parenthood. (chapter 4, Exploring Social Lives) Everyone experiences conflicts and in turn experiencing conflicts make us who we are and give us an identity

One way our identity can change is through identification, which is what it is called when we “try on” someone else’s persona. We try on other people’s identity and see life through their eyes and empathise with how they felt at a certain time, for example when you become a mother you can empathise and understand how other mothers feel. This was the case with Liyanna, she used to look at pictures of her mother with her sister and the mother daughter relationship meant nothing to her, however now she is a mother herself she looks at the photo differently and can identify with the love and the emotion her mother was feeling when the photo was taken. She says that now she looks at the photo and “she knows exactly what her mum was feeling”, she sees her mother in a new light and because of her own experiences can now put herself in her mother’s shoes. She is now identifying with her mother.

The theorist Billig looks at identification and associates it with groups of people and how they are connected by the common quality or interest that they share. Sigmund Freud also claims that identification is the expression of an emotional tie with another person, an identity can be borrowed from someone else. The theory suggests that there are two kinds of identification, projection which is the message we give off and introjection which is the messages we take in. Both are done unintentionally and unconsciously to furnish ones identity. (chapter 4, Exploring Social Lives).

All these theories can be backed up by the case study completed on first time mothers and in particular Silma’s case. Silma’s identity begins to change with practices, she has had to learn a whole new routine which will need to adapt as her baby grows. She also has a new relationship to establish as mother and daughter with her new baby, the relationship with her husband and family will also change. Silma has also to deal with the conflict of becoming a new mother, this conflict between being the “indulged eldest daughter” to motherhood and also between pleasing yourself and having to put your baby first are all aspects of defining her new identity.

Silma is also seen differently not only by her neighbours but also by her family and in particular her aunts and her sister. Silma feels she is treated with more respect by her aunts and is now welcomed into their group as a mother. This is a generational shift for Silma and where she once thought of her aunts as boring who only talked about babies she now finds this interesting and likes to stay around them and can actually relate to them and now sees herself more like them.

Silma also starts to behave differently and sees herself differently because people are treating her differently. Silma admits that she has left her wild days behind and become more mature and motherly and spends more time with her family. This has also had an effect on her choice of clothes and prior to becoming a mother Silma preferred to wear jeans but now she is a mother her choice of clothing is now the traditional salwaar kameez, she refers to these clothes as “normal” and now feels less comfortable in jeans. Silma received several gifts of salwaar kameez for her birthday after becoming a mother which may have encouraged her decision.

Silma’s new identity has also caused conflict with her sister who now sees her as becoming like her aunts and gives Silma a hard time for being boring and because she prefers the aunts company. Silma has also taken on the identity as a mother and this is implemented in her concern for her younger sister and the way she behaves, she worries that by staying out late she may get hurt but in actual fact this was the same way Silma used to behave prior to becoming a mother. Silma’s sister makes reference to the fact that Silma “used to be worse than me” but Silma puts this down to her having changed. Silma talks about meeting up with old friends at McDonalds and although we cannot assume that she would wear the salwaar kameez this is a clear distinction of how Silma has changed and her new identity as a mother is the dominant one.

We have looked at various theories on what makes up personal identity and it is clear that self- definition on its own is not sufficient. Personal identity is made up through interacting with others and through projection and introjection, it’s a two way thing people see you differently so you behave differently. When we use identification it can only be done through another person to allow you to identify, this is not self-defined as you need another person to be able to do it. You need to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and yourself definition shifts when you look at someone else. Also some identities are already defined by others and you are moved into this social category without choice, as was the case for Silma when she became a mother, this identity is social and it is defined by how a mother should behave. If we require others to create our identity then our personal identity cannot be self-defined.

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