My purpose was to reflect upon the nature of self identity as narrative. But then I found myself pondering three forms of narrative, each with a different style, purpose, and depth. So, I shall begin by distinguishing what it is to describe, to explain, and to justify; then on to self identity!
To describe myself I might go directly to a list of characteristics that distinguish me – skills, experience, temperament, marital status, vocation, etc. Alternatively, I might provide a personal history of where I was born, my education, my career moves, and family.
Description is a rather thin, ostensibly factual portrayal of our identity. When we speculate on how these events and experiences shaped our decisions and course of development we move beyond description to explanation; thicker in meaning than description but not yet justification.
Justification is a more substantial form of reason-giving. It can become quite important when admitting to weaknesses or when making excuses for bad behavior, failures, or flaws. Especially so when our assumption is that these weaknesses might otherwise be cause for rejection.
Now, to self identity…
Beneath each person’s identity lies a narrative. No, I believe it is more accurate to say that identity is a narrative, one of a special kind. Plainly put, we are in our most essential nature living stories, each uniquely shaped by myriad forces natural, moral, social, and emotional.
Personal narrative is subjectively constructed in experience. It is the continuity of our self over time, across situations. Much of it formed in the preverbal, pre-rational phase of life; self as mirrored back to us by Mom and Dad, then sibs and others. Identity endures, but why?
Most simply, identity narratives endure for practical reasons. Read practical as subjective truth. If my expressions of pain as a child – contorted face, crying, help-seeking – receive a comforting response, my experience of pain and my expectation of compassion are affirmed as normal.
If my help-seeking evokes a negative, annoyed, rejecting response from my parent a very different truth is revealed. “If you value my affection, attention, and concern do not make those kinds of demands on me.” Differently put, there are parts of my true self that are not acceptable.
Two patterns of interaction yield two distinct narratives. The first: my pain is real and my needs and expectations for comfort when I am in pain are normal and evoke compassion from others. The second: my pain is unwarranted and expression of it may result in rejection from others.
Our identity, then, can be unitary or split. Unitary identity allows for spontaneity and easy authenticity. Split identity requires caution and often concealment. The external (social) version of self may in the latter case differ significantly from the internal (subjective) version of self.
It is difficult to realize a fully integrated (unitary) self, even if we are blessed with great parents. However, a blessing we all are endowed with is the freedom to seek integration when the cost of living a split existence becomes too painful, self-limiting, or unfulfilling.