As I struggled to overcome my desire to punish, I understood that I was only viewing these boys through one negative lens or framework. I was not willing to see beyond that lens and felt self-justified in interpreting all current (not just past) interactions with those players through that lens. When I questioned my son about the game afterwards, he mentioned how one kid was swearing at him during the game, but that he didn’t really care any more. My young son refused to take on the role of “the bullied” and had moved on. How strange that he had moved on while I continued to choose the role that plagued me with negative feelings and the desire to punish. During the same game, he and I lived completely different experiences because of the roles and identities we chose to personally highlight.
While much more than a somewhat heated recreational sports game, in a similar way, some of our society’s woes relate to how we develop and construe our self-identities in relation to others.
There are many lenses through which we can analyze current societal trends and contentions, but I am primarily a conflict theorist and practitioner. My conflict resolution training and experience continue to impress upon me the need for greater flexibility and breadth when we consider our self-identities in order to manage differences and resolve problems with each other.
The Importance of Identity
As human beings, it is absolutely essential that we create positive self-identities in order to develop constructive social relationships with diverse people around us. We create our forms of self-identity from a myriad of sources including: our family of origin, our age, culture, educational background, gender, sexuality, race, income, language, political affiliation, occupation, religion, family status, and so on. We have considerable options to choose from, although certain identities are accentuated and valued over others in our particular culture.
While we have many sources of self-identity, somehow we have strayed from the idea of creating multiple salient identities that facilitate connection with diverse groups of people. Instead of expansion, we often are siphoned into choosing very rigid, often non-overlapping identities that inhibit finding common ground. We draw lines between ourselves and others with so-called litmus tests as if human life doesn’t flow along a spectrum of intersecting circles and connections.
In a highly individualistic society like our’s, we tend to glorify the unique choices we make as individuals. While we are blessed to even have so many personal options, we are headed toward the extreme belief that we don’t need each other to even preserve the very freedoms we enjoy. In addition, our tendency to focus on exclusive or unique individual identities, rather than shared group identities, have led us toward an increasingly rigid way of interacting with others who seemingly differ from us.
Common Responses to Threats Against Identity
When people feel that their primary identities are being threatened, they will either fight or retreat. Very rarely, will a person demonstrate a willingness to compromise about a facet of his or her identity. Naturally, as a mediator, I have witnessed how strongly people will seek to preserve their positive sense of self-identity with desperate and sincere gusto. Identity preservation is an area where humans will fight the hardest against threats and refuse to compromise even when conflict resolution seems very possible to an outsider.
As we have grown ever more inflexible individually and as a group in how we perceive ourselves and others, especially in the realm of politics, race, and culture, we are actively creating division. Yet, the reality is that we overlap with each other in so many more ways that we are allowing ourselves to perceive and experience.
Of course, we have our primary, most important identities that are central to our being. Yet, are we oversimplifying the very essence of who we are in order to further divide ourselves from each other? If we seek connection, peace, and belonging, why are we clinging to oversimplified self-identities and stereotyped perceptions of others that do not create the very peace, connection, and belonging we seek?
For example, I care deeply about the direction our country is going. I believe we all do. Yet, when elections roll around, I notice how we tend to sequester off into stereotyped and rigid political groups ready to defend our stance at any cost. In my case, I consider myself an independent voter who avoids being seen as Republican or Democrat. How strange that I am seeking to create (or preserve) self-identity by telling you what I am not rather than what I stand for! That can be very confusing for everyone as a main source of identity. I am much more than what I tell you I am not. Does that make sense?
One Remedy: Develop Multiple, Flexible Sets of our Personal Identities
As we expand our understandings and perceptions of ourselves, we allow others into our lives in new and important ways that strengthen us as individuals and as a society. Like you, I have multiple facets to my self-identity that are reflected in the various life roles I play alongside accompanying beliefs and experiences.
In family life, I am a mother, a daughter, an aunt, a sister, a daughter-in-law, a wife, and someday, hopefully, a grandmother, and a great-aunt, and so on. I adjust and adapt to each situation based on the particular people I am seeking to connect with. I do well to avoid being a mother to my siblings, who won’t necessarily appreciate that type of interaction. Yet, when interacting with my younger nieces and nephews, I may take on more of a motherly role if it fits the situation and our level of trust and intimacy.
At work, sometimes I am directly playing the role of a mediator, while other times I am an administrative assistant or a call-center specialist. In addition to these roles, I am a writer, a conflict coach, a presenter, a speaker, and a teacher. I am an assistant to my boss, but I supervise other staff who look to me for guidance. I adjust and reflect back what the situation requires of me according to my specific responsibilities and relationships. These roles are not static, but dynamic and re-negotiable as circumstances and people change.
With friends, I mostly try to be a listener, but sometimes I give advice and sometimes I am a joker, or the teacher. I check in tentatively with those I care about to see if I need to adjust the role that I am playing. I will never forget my friend, Kristen’s kind direct question during a moment of personal crisis in graduate school; she simply questioned me with the following: “Do you need a cheerleader right now or just a good listener?” She allowed me to direct her in the role that she played to help me through a personally discouraging time in my life. She was willing to be flexible in order to meet my needs and maintain the good level of connection we had already developed over time.
When I interact with others whose primary identities differ greatly from my own, I access various parts of my self-identity that create common ground. I can be a friend, a confidant, and an active listener. We may discuss our love of animals, art, or hiking. I draw from a vast reservoir of interests and perspectives that allow me to weave my life together with others. There are so many salient roles that overlap with people I care about, but who may differ with me in one or more important areas of their lives. I don’t give up or stereotype someone just because the first identity I see in someone differs from my primary sources of identity. Such stereotyping is far too simplistic a way to live life and creates throw-away people and a throw-away culture that only values sameness in particular valued areas of our cultural life.
My desire and willingness to find a variety of sources for my identity and to rely on them flexibly does not mean that I am wishy-washy or a chameleon. We throw such terms around in our society as if having multiple sources of identity dilutes the value or strength of a person and makes them less “authentic.”
In contrast, I feel so loved and connected when others seek to connect with me through our shared and overlapping identities, especially when we seem so different on the surface. We do not have to be completely the same to create connection. We only have to be willing to share a part of ourselves that forms that initial connection of similarity, or shared belief or experience.
While there is no panacea answer to the conflicts and contentions facing our society, I wanted to offer this perspective on self-identity that may help clarify ways forward to build connection with others despite escalated differences and urgent, pressing problems.
As a conflict resolution practitioner, the thoughts I have shared center on the absolute necessity of expanding the sources of our own self-identity and similarly expanding how we view others’ identities in relation to our own. We must widen our sources of self-identity and proactively seek to find overlap with seemingly different others who share our same humanity. We do not have to be the same to find areas of similarity and connection.
We simply must decide that we cannot live without each other. We must quit wasting time thinking that we are too different to ever get along. As someone wise once said, “we are different enough to need each other, but similar enough to love each other." We must really try to connect and refuse to oversimplify who we are and who the “other” is or desires to be.
For more reading conflict resolution and self-identity, please read my November 2018 blog post entitled: Understanding and Moderating Identity Conflicts: How can we satisfy our own and others' identity needs?