Thursday, 15 November 2012



The question about how much of  our identity is shaped by nature (our genes) and how much by nurture (our environment and upbringing) has long been one of the hottest debates.   Were we born this way or made this way?

It’s probably a  combination of both nature and nurture that goes into making us who we are.  Outwardly ,our identity is made up of  genetic details like our race, gender, appearance and age, whereas our inner  qualities and characteristics are  developed through  the influence of our cultural background, family beliefs, upbringing and education. 

Recent research  however into ‘epigenetics’ shows that circumstances undergone by our ancestors are ‘imprinted’ onto our  genes and therefore it could be genetics which are responsible for some of our sub-conscious behaviour and characteristics. Perhaps the ‘epigenetics’ theory goes some way to explaining why some men may still feel driven to act in the role of ‘provider’ or ‘hunter/gatherer’ and feel of no value when they are unable to perform this role.   

Although the nature/nurture debate is an interesting one, identity can also been seen as a mix of  how we perceive ourselves and how others perceive us.  Much of our identity is about the roles and labels we are given by ourselves and others and more importantly,  how we choose to respond to these.

For many of us, the beliefs we have about ourselves come from our upbringing and family background.  If we have always been labelled by our family as ‘the difficult one’ or the perceived by our family as ‘the clever one’ we spend much of our life trying to live up to our ‘label’.  We can also use our label as a means of limiting ourselves to a certain set up of  behaviours and actions – ‘I can’t do that, it’s not the way I’m made’.

For many people, a major part of their self-definition is the roles they take on as a boss, a parent, a father or a carer for example. Many people simply define themselves by the job they do. Once these roles are taken away or change they become confused and depressed about losing such a crucial part of their identity,

In my practise as a coach, I see many clients who either consciously or unconsciously relate to identities given to them by others and spend much of their time trying to fit into them. For example, one of my clients was seen by his family as ‘the fixer’ and would always call on him to do DIY tasks.. In reality, he found the tasks really difficult and stressful to do but didn’t want to stop doing them as he would lose the credibility and praise which came with his ability to live up to the role.  When challenged to look at the consequences of  taking on this ‘false’ identity, my client was able to realise that establishing his own identity would release a lot of pressure and tension built up through trying to meet unrealistic expectations put on him by others and himself.

In today’s society, outward labels (literally!) are used to make judgement calls and assumptions about our identity.  How we dress, what car we drive, where we shop, what job we do,  where we go on holiday can be used by other people to label us as a certain type of person.  We can end up shaping ourselves to ‘fit in’.

Alternatively, we can take control of  how we wish to be perceived by others or how we wish to label and define ourselves.  We can choose different labels and different roles at different times dependent on the circumstances and the outcome we want to achieve. By remaining fluid in our identity we can open up a world of possibilities rather than limiting ourselves by  the ‘labels’ we give ourselves.

I used the example of a client in my last blog who only saw himself as ‘depressed’ .  He had become defined by his illness.  It was not until he opened up his perception of himself in other roles like a golfer, a father and a friend that he was able to start to move away from his depression and embrace his other identities which gave him more positive results.  

Our different identities are a mis-mash of  nature, nurture, self-beliefs and the perception of others.  Becoming aware of these different identities, where they come from and what we do with them gives us the opportunity to become responsible for ourselves .  By acknowledging each different aspect of our identity we can take control of  our constituent parts and decide how to best use them – or not as the case may be.  We might not like our role as ‘bossy older sister’, but at least in becoming aware of it and why its part of our identity we can decide whether to embrace it, change it or ditch it. 

So where do the different parts of your identity come from,  who is in control of  them  and how are you going to use them?