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  • Writer's pictureAshley Floyd

How Your Identity Impacts Your Life

Ashley Floyd, LMFT



To contemplate our own identity is often dizzying. To put it incredibly simply, our identity is a combination of facets such as age, gender, race, relationship to others, hobbies, political views, disability, socioeconomic status, religion, sexual orientation, where we’re from, and so much more. There are so many components to our identity, which are all interconnected, making it a Herculean task to answer the question, “Who am I?”. Our identity is so important that it impacts our daily life, even if it has not been consciously considered.


Expression

Perhaps one of the most obvious ways that our identity impacts our lives is in the way we express it. When a facet of our identity is important to us, we tend to want other people to know about it too. For example, if you’re a huge Stranger Things and Dungeons and Dragons fan, you may buy and wear a Hellfire Club t-shirt to signal this. Or, if you’re a doting pet parent, you may buy and use a mug with a picture of your pet’s face on it. There are many ways that identity expression impacts our lives: what we wear, what we talk about with our friends, how we decorate our homes, what we post about on social media, and, of course, what mugs we drink out of.


Emotions

Expressing our identity is especially crucial when there are important facets of our identity that can’t be known simply by looking at us. A key example of this is sexual orientation. When we identify as non-heterosexual, expression can become critical in a society where heterosexuality is assumed until stated otherwise. (It is important to remember that not all non-heterosexual people will feel this way – identity and expression are very personal experiences.)

Also, especially in the case of sexual orientation and gender identity, expression may not always be safe. When someone has an important element of their identity that they can’t express, it can lead to feelings of distress. Identity and expression have the ability to impact our emotional experiences. It can lead to powerful feelings of joy and authenticity, and of pain.


Expectations and Behavior

Clearly identity can shape our inner (emotion) and outer (expression) worlds, but it can also shape our behavior. When we identify with a label or a defined group of people (e.g. queer, Midwestern, fans of heavy metal), we necessarily inherit the expectations of how people in that group act – and these expectations are of course impacted by cultural and social messages. For example, if you are an oldest sibling, you may have received the message that you need to be strong for your younger siblings. This may lead you to try to hide your own emotions when a younger sibling is in distress. Or, if you identify with the small Midwestern town you grew up in, you may listen to country music or choose to drink beer, even if your taste buds prefer otherwise.


Of course, our actions don’t always align with these expectations. And how could they? With so many intersecting facets of our identities, expectations are bound to contradict as well. The environment or context can also impact which facets of our identity feel most prevalent. For example, at the family barbeque in Orfordville, Wisconsin, you’ll find me drinking Miller Lite because it makes me feel connected to family. But you definitely won’t find me drinking Miller Lite anywhere else. In this way, our identities have a push and pull influence over how we act.


Interactions with Others

Lastly, let’s look at how our identities influence how we interact with other people. A human trait that we all have is the tendency to see the world in terms of “in-groups” and “out-groups”, an idea championed by Henri Tajifel. Essentially, this means that when there is a part of our identity that is important or salient, we tend to see others as belonging to that group or not. We tend to see “in-group members” as more similar to us than they are, and “out-group members” as more different from us than they are. We treat people differently when we see them as “in-group” vs. “out-group” and this can depend on how strongly we identify with the group in question.


An important example of this is race. Clearly, there is more that goes into racism and prejudice than social identity theory. This theory, though, reminds us why it is so crucial to build understanding into our implicit biases – because our identities inherently influence how we treat others. And this is especially important for those of us who are Caucasian/white because we’ve grown up in a white supremacist society that has taught us that our white identities are the “normal”. When whiteness has been taught as the defining factor for the “in-group”, it necessarily influences how we view and treat BIPOC individuals/groups.


Relationships

Another way that identity influences our interactions with others is by impacting the roles we take on in our relationships. Daily interactions shape the overarching roles we assume in relationships, both romantic and otherwise. For example, in my relationship, my husband has taken on the role of the “do-er” while I have taken on the role of the “rest-er”. He pushes us to get the important things done, and I push us to remember to take time for rest and play. This was not a conscious decision by either of us, but was shaped over time through interactions influenced by our sense of identity. These facets of our identity show up differently, and sometimes not at all, in other relationships depending on the identities of those we’re interacting with. This process influences how we communicate with others, what we choose to do with others, and how we make meaning of our own identities.


Identity clearly impacts our self-expression, our behaviors, and our interactions with others. It impacts what we buy, what we say, and how we feel. Identity is a deep, complex well that impacts virtually all aspects of our lives.

Building our understanding of our own identities can help us make sense of many areas of our lives.


If you are ready to start this exploration, and would like to do so in a therapeutic environment, please contact me for a free consultation.

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