As the Palestinian man attempted to politely offer me a seat on his carpet while he remained above me in a chair, I refused to sit down. Having formally studied negotiation, I was holding my ground to try to maintain my personal power. To be polite, I peppered him with kind questions about his family and life in Jerusalem but skirted his offers for a higher price than I wanted to pay for a small chess set.
Finally, the man lost patience with me and said that I was the “hardest Mormon woman” he had ever dealt with. His comments felt like a personal compliment but also a slap in the face. While I left with the chess board at a decent price, I was furious about how he had treated me and the feelings of defeat I still felt after leaving his shop. Somehow, I had nearly gotten what I wanted, but I had simultaneously experienced discord and tension in this ancient city.
Many of my personal identities came into play during this brief experience in Jerusalem, including being a Western woman, a return traveler (i.e., not a novice), and an educated negotiator. Rather than dissect the particulars of this incident, I merely want you to notice that multiple personal identities played into what might have simply appeared to be a conflict about price.
As multi-faceted beings, each of us have many forms of identity, which we usually try to present in a positive light. As humans, we each have very real identity needs that play into how we feel, think, and interact with ourselves and others on a daily basis. Depending upon the specific environment, our personal goals, and the perceived goals of others, we choose to highlight or associate with certain personal identity labels. In short, whether consciously or unconsciously, we are often selecting from a rather large set of possible personal identities. Which personal identities we choose to focus on may play a huge role in the conflicts we perceive and engage in.
Given the amount of conflict and anger many are currently experiencing at home and in our communities, I am writing about satisfying our identity needs in ways that prevent unnecessary conflict in our individual lives and communities. We will briefly explore three areas:
(1) Defining identity needs
(2) Key concerns about satisfying identity needs
(3) Ways to moderate how we meet our identity needs to prevent intense conflict
Universal Human Needs
All human beings have needs. While we experience dramatically different economic, family, educational, and many other social conditions, we are still bound by universal human needs. Our needs range from the physical requirements for food, shelter, and clothing to the psychological aspects of love, belonging, self-esteem, and identity.
In terms of identity, I am talking about our need to present ourselves and to be thought of in desirable ways; whether that be as smart, kind, authentic, strong, or beautiful. In short, our identity needs focus on how we describe who we are and how we fit into our social groups and society over all.
Many of our identities are socially negotiated through our interactions with others but we often have large control over what identities we convey to others and what personal identities we act upon. While our specific forms of identity needs may change over time, they remain a constant need that is critical for our overall well-being.
Conflicts over Identity
Of all human needs, conflict theorists suggest that some of our most intense conflicts center around our need for a sense of identity, security and/or recognition. As explained by conflict theorists from the University of Colorado at Boulder:
“[Identity] conflicts occur when a person or a group feels that his or her sense of self--who one is--is threatened, or denied legitimacy or respect. One's sense of self is so fundamental and so important, not only to one's self-esteem but also to how one interprets the rest of the world, that any threat to identity is likely to produce a strong response. Typically, this response is both aggressive and defensive, and can escalate quickly into an intractable conflict.
The tricky part about identity conflicts is that in order to resolve such conflicts, ways must be found to provide these needs for all individuals and groups without compromise--as human needs "are not for trading."(https://www.colorado.edu/conflict/peace/problem/denyid.htm Accessed October 2017).
Given the constant need for meeting our identity needs in relation to others, I am writing in hopes that you will begin to:
(1) Notice the negative tendencies we have toward meeting legitimate identity needs.
(2) Consider specific ways that you can flexibly and expansively meet your identity needs that allow others to have their legitimate identity needs met as well.
Where are we going wrong about identity in our culture?
Both individually and collectively, we are perpetuating several problematic tendencies for satisfying our identity needs, which may lead to intense conflict.
1. Our tendency to narrowly define ourselves and others
First, we have tended to narrow and confine our identities to a few key identities that are more exclusive and isolated than in recent years.
We have pared down our number of terms for ourselves and others and isolated ourselves from potential overlaps with many who share common traits, experiences, and needs with us.
Examples of Narrowly Defining Ourselves
Within this table, you will see a broad identity category on the left with narrower definitions on the right. While specific terms of identity serve to create authenticity to meet identity needs, we often overlook our connection through the broad categories of terms like “American” and view ourselves as completely dissimilar to others within the broad identity categories we share.
Broad Identity to Narrow Identity Categories
Southerner, New Yorker, Californian, Mid-Westerner, rural, urban, Texan
Tree hugger, Big Business, conservationist, NRA member
Liberal, conservative, libertarian, anarchist, activist
Atheist, Evangelical, Protestant, Catholic, Muslim, and so on
High school drop-out, prep schooler, Harvard grad, MBA, community college, technical school, self-made
Urban poor, intellectual elite, Wall Street banker, yuppie, from the slums, on welfare
From a broad category like American, I can draw hundreds to thousands of distinctions for more specifically satisfying my identity needs. So, rather than identifying as an American or a believer in democracy, I can divide up along much more narrow, specific lines.
While the specifics of our lives do matter and create varied experience and identity fulfillment, when we narrowly define ourselves, we often fail to see how our identities overlap with others who share common traits and experiences.
2. Our tendency to think in dualities that oppose each other rather than move along spectrums that overlap in many potent and viable ways
Remember the World War II terms of “the Allies” and “the Axis.” We often use (at least unconsciously) the same concepts of the “good guys” and “the bad guys” to understand our own and others’ identities. We may oversimplify identities and consider ourselves and others in terms of simple dualities of good and bad, liberal and conservative, rich and poor, and so on.
While creating dualities simplifies our thinking, we put ourselves at risk for stereotyping, prejudice and even dehumanization when we have too narrowly downsized the groups which we believe are good and broadened the large groups of people that we consider to be bad. Because we have narrowed our concept of ourselves, we often think that those who are not like us cannot possibly share any of the same values with us. We treat our values as if they are exclusive because our identities are so narrowly defined.
3. Our tendency to create self-identity in opposition to someone else’s identity
Sometimes, we create identities for ourselves based on what we are not. For example, I have been surprised by the strength of the “church member” or “not church member” identities since moving to Utah. I have always been in a religious minority wherever I have lived, so I often relied on other sources of identity to mix with groups that didn’t relate to my religious identity.
In Utah, I find that many people will try to create a whole identity by saying they’re “not Mormon” when they have many other important identities and experiences that may overlap with the church members they oppose. This is very common in majority versus minority group situations and is not specific to religious majorities.
What happens when the person who opposes any majority group moves to a new place where there is no similar majority identification to oppose? What happens to the dissident or rebel's ability to meet their identity needs? Of course, we may create meaning and identity through our other social relationships, but just beware of creating your most important identities in opposition to another person’s or group’s identity.
4. Our tendency to rigidly guard our identities without looking for overlap
Finally, we are growing increasingly rigid in terms of defining and defending our identity needs in light of other’s potentially conflicting identity needs.
We have become a society on the defensive, almost looking for difference rather than overlap. I firmly believe that we will find what we’re looking for with identity overlap or difference. According to the confirmation bias, if we are looking for reasons to demonstrate how we are too different to ever get along, we will find that evidence.
However, if we are looking to flexibly expand and understand our self-identity concepts in relation to others, we may very well find that we overlap in many areas of values, experiences, and goals.
Where can we shift our thinking to allow for our own and others’ identity needs?
1. Gain Awareness of Our Identity Needs & Understand How We’re Currently Seeking to Satisfy Them
First, we need to become aware of our identity needs and how we are seeking to satisfy those needs.
All of us, no matter who we are, have a need to be seen as “good people” meaning that we are consistent in our thoughts and actions in relation to positive values or characteristics. According to the theory of cognitive dissonance, we cannot thrive under conditions where our thoughts and actions are not in synch with each other. When our actions go against our beliefs, we can either correct our actions or change our beliefs. Too often, we are unwilling to admit a wrong about our actions, but instead change our beliefs to justify our action.
For example, can I still be “good” if you are my nice neighbor voting for the opposite party? Can we both still be “good” people?
Questions to ask yourself:
- Have I been seeking to satisfy my needs in ways that inhibit others meeting their own identity needs?
- Do my actions threaten the fulfillment of other’s authentic identity needs?
2. Widen Your Vision of Self-identities and Possibilities for Others
I am a writer. I am a mother. I am a mediator. I am a wife. I am a speaker. I am a daughter. I am funny (sometimes). I am intense. I am compassionate. I am artistic. I am intellectual. I am spiritual. I care about the environment. I don’t like affiliating with any political party. I have German and English ancestors. I am short with freckles all over my face. I straighten my curly hair that’s turning gray….
Looking into each major facet of my life, I realize that I have multiple credible and important identities that satisfy my basic needs for love, belonging, and importance. If I move from the narrow identities I have used to define myself into broader categories, I begin to see my overlap with all of humanity. As human beings, we share a myriad of attributes, aspirations, and experiences.
Expand Your Perspective on Yourself: From Narrow to Broad Self-Identity Concepts
I am a Caucasian mother of five children
I am a mother, I am a parent, I have children, I am a woman, I nurture life, I am human,
I am a member of a particular Christian Church
I am a Christian, I believe in a surpreme being, I am a religious person, I am a spiritual person, I believe in the worth of each person
I am a mediator
I work in the mental health field, I am a teacher, I am a speaker, I give workshops, I try to help people communicate with each other, I am a peacemaker
I am from Palo Alto
I am from the Bay Area, I am a Californian, I am from the West, I am an American, I am from the developed world, I have traveled throughout the world and love learning languages, I am a human desiring to connect with diverse peoples and cultures.
To find common ground and understanding with others, we not only need to broaden our own self-identity concepts but widen our concepts of others’ identities. We also need to see beyond the particularities of what individuals and groups broadcast and present about themselves to see where we overlap.
All of us will continue to have strong identity needs, but how we go about fulfilling these needs will greatly influence the personal and wider conflicts we experience in our daily personal and community lives. We can choose to combat the four common negative tendencies in meeting identity needs in two important ways:
(1) Gain an awareness of our own identity needs and how we’re currently trying to satisfy them.
(2) We can widen our vision of our own self-identities and the possibilities for overlap with others close by and around the world.
While simply a beginning of the identity and conflict conversation, please look for more information in the weeks to come about this important topic in future blog posts.