A Focus on Identity

When it comes to our relationship with ourselves, a common feeling of existential dread or internal conflict seems to almost always be that of identity, and asking the larger question of “who am I?” and “where do I belong?” While it is perfectly human to desire mental clarity on the matter, such fixation on concretely defining who we are isn’t always the best allocation of thought and resources, and can even lead to more confusing, equally existential questions.

As a collective society, we have become a little obsessed with labels. They are convenient, simple words and adjectives we can use to neatly define ourselves and others. From something as prominent as your political party affiliation to something as little as your zodiac sign, labels allow us to take nuanced and complex personalities and beliefs and place them into well-defined, simple boxes.

However, this enthusiasm surrounding the use of external sources in defining ourselves prompts the question of whether or not such excessive labelling is healthy to ourselves and others in the long run.

“We use a variety of external affiliations to identify ourselves, it’s human nature,” Theory of Knowledge teacher Edis Moreno said. “Our brain is wired and conditioned in a way that the more something fits in somewhere, the more comfortable you are with that and that’s just the way that we are.”

So, while it’s naturally instinctive to find comfort in labels, there still is the  possibility that putting ourselves and others into these boxes makes it difficult for us to ever get out of them and evolve.

“For some, you do find comfort and joy, and you find freedom in those identifications and labels, and for others, there are a lot of constraints,” Moreno said.

Some of those constraints may include feeling as though you don’t have any room to grow, or feeling tied down to a certain label, especially when that label was placed on you by someone else.

This dilemma prompts the larger question of where does our obsession with identity come from in the first place? Obviously there is a natural element to this, but it seems as though our fixation with such a personal issue has only accelerated in the past few years, and seems to have become more so linked with insecurity than natural curiosity.

The process and development of identity begins right at early childhood development.

“From a young age, you’re very impressionable,” Moreno said. We are naturally curious when we’re younger, and as a result we’re curious about ourselves, and our environment helps to play a role in deciding how we grow up to be as individuals.

One of the most prominent environmental factors are the numerous social media platforms and applications most of us have in our pockets. Our psychology is constantly being manipulated so that we focus most of our attention on what these apps have to offer us, which in most cases is a fabricated landscape that can portray superficial labels and stereotypes.

However, it is important to note the positives of social media, and how it can sometimes enable us to have more freedom in expressing ourselves to the world. Social media gives us the tools to portray ourselves however we want, and for a lot of people that can provide a lot of comfort and clarity.

“There are some ways that social media can help individuals in their identification and in them feeling comfortable with themselves,” Moreno said. “But at the same time, it’s important to acknowledge the other side of the coin and that is the fact that it does perpetuate those same labels, affiliations, bubbles, etc.”

An increasingly worrisome issue revolving around social media is the surge of personal biases that come with it, with individuals being exposed to customized news feeds designed to confirm predisposed biases and assumptions, forcing us into these social bubbles where anyone outside that bubble can be seen as a threat.

This issue is more prominent in the political landscape, but it can still perpetuate false narratives and perceptions towards other people, their preferences, and their way of presenting themselves. It is extremely important that we are aware of such programming, and are able to break out of such a mindset, for it will only reinforce the stigmas and stereotypes perpetuated in our society.

“By examining bias, we’re able to have more meaningful conversations, we’re able to break the stigmas around identity and labels, or maybe even bring it to the light and make it more of the center of conversation,” Moreno said.

Our identity is constantly evolving and developing as we take in new experiences and new knowledge, and further explore ourselves and the world around us. Yet the process of figuring out ourselves can sometimes feel incredibly overwhelming, especially in social environments such as high school.

In high school the pressure to fit into a label can feel immediate, when in reality we should be focusing on our singularity, with a disregard for conforming or settling on one’s identity so quickly.

“Once you stop worrying about where other people want to place you and the labels other people want to give you, it’s extremely freeing, and you’re able to love yourself better, you’re able to embrace your individuality,” Moreno said.

While this fixation of finding a sense of self or sense of belonging can lead to insecurity and internal conflict, and stigmas are still present in our culture, it is important to realize and give credit to the recent shift taking place in how we view our obsession with identity, particularly amongst younger generations.

“Historically, there’s been a suppression of identity. And now, it’s turning into celebrating your uniqueness, and identifying it, and being proud of it,” Moreno said. “Yes, there is an obsession with identity, but I think that obsession is slowly turning from more of a negative light, into more of a positive light.”