How Useful is Identity?

Identity. I've been thinking a lot lately about what this word means and how it affects our behaviour.

We all have a certain image of ourselves - beliefs about the kind of person we are. Having a strong sense of identity seems to be desirable, something that brings comfort and security . Many people seem to spend a lot of time trying to figure out who they are, what they want, and what they believe. 

And perhaps rightly so: having a strong identity certainly seems to have advantages. A clear sense of "who you are" makes it easier to connect with other similar people and groups. People with a strong identity often stand out more and are more memorable. I'd guess that the people who are most successful in life - especially people who become famous - all have pretty strong identities.

Identity also helps us to make decisions and to know how to behave. We're constantly faced with complex decisions and circumstances. With no prior beliefs about what we should do, weighing all the options and making a decision would be near impossible. Having a sense of what kind of person you are makes it much easier to decide how you should behave, and to have confidence in your choice between options. This makes decisions that would otherwise be agonising virtually effortless.

But strong identities can also be dangerous. The drive to protect your identity can be overpowering. Sometimes we can get so caught up in this that we neglect other important things: like being open-minded, truth-seeking, and kind to others. It's hard to think clearly and objectively about something that you identify strongly with, and I think this is the driving force behind a lot of conflict in the world. Paul Graham has a nice essay in which he advocates for "keeping your identity small" for this very reason - "If people can't think clearly about anything that has become part of their identity, then the best plan is to let as few things into your identity as possible."

Another problem with identity is that once established, it  can be very hard to change. If you believe that you are a certain kind of person, you'll generally be more likely to (a) act accordingly and (b) interpret your behaviour in accordance with this belief. And of course, this just acts to strengthen your sense of identity further. So, for example, if you think of yourself as an altruistic person, you're probably more likely to seek out opportunities to help people, and to interpret your behaviour as altruistically driven. Whereas if you think of yourself as a lazy person, you're probably more likely to spend whole days watching TV in bed, and to think of times that you struggle with work as being down to laziness. 

This self-reinforcing nature of identity is a double-edged sword. For positive aspects of your identity, it can be helpful - if you believe that you're altruistic, this belief is likely to make you more altruistic. But if you have parts of your identity that aren't so rosy (and don't we all?) this kind of circularity can be quite damaging, because it makes identity very difficult to change. It's hard for the person who thinks they are lazy to change this belief, because to do so he needs to change his behaviour - which is difficult to do if you identify as lazy. This loop seems pretty tough to break out of.

So what should we do about this? Simply making your identity as small as possible doesn't seem to be the solution - what you really want to do is only keep those parts of your identity that are helpful, and discard any that hold you back.

Can we clearly distinguish between "helpful" and "unhelpful" identities? Probably not. There are some clear cases - having as part of your identity things like "being open-minded", "having a growth mindset", and "being a kind and considerate person" seem to be pretty straightforwardly useful. Identifying as someone lazy or boring or stupid seem pretty uncontroversially harmful. 

But there's a lot of middle ground - especially when it comes to identities that are tied to certain groups or ideologies - identifying as right-wing or left-wing, utilitarian or deontologist, religious or atheist. Whilst these kinds of identities can be good for connecting with those similar and help with success, they can also polarize groups and cause conflict. One solution here would be to stop using identity labels, and instead just talk about beliefs - instead of asking someone "Are you Tory/Lib Dem/Labour?", we could simply ask "Do you agree with policy x?". I personally feel quite uncomfortable labelling myself as "a" anything. I tend to shy away from these kind of identity questions when asked, and focus more on what I believe. 

The approach of focusing more on beliefs seems likely to be more time consuming. It's much easier to simply attach a rough label to someone than to discern all of their different beliefs. Perhaps this is ultimately what it comes down to - identity labels make it much easier for us to model both ourselves and other people. And whilst we can try to be careful with the identities we attach to ourselves and others, it's near impossible to abandon them altogether. 

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After writing this, I also discovered two nice posts making very similar points on LessWrong that are worth reading if this seems interesting to you: Use Your Identity Carefully  and Strategic Choice of Identity.

Not Belonging

I’ve been thinking about how a fear of “not belonging” is quite central to a lot of what makes me uncomfortable. Some of the times I feel most uncomfortable are when I’m somewhere new or where I don’t quite fit in, and I start worrying that people will be judging me because I stand out. Conversely, the times when I feel most secure and comfortable are when I’m in familiar places or situations with people I know well, places I feel I fully “belong.” This realisation was prompted by a regular trip to the gym earlier in the week.

Feeling you don't belong

Whenever I go the gym, I tend to stick to machines I’ve used before. Part of what holds me back from trying different machines or areas is not knowing exactly how they work and not wanting to look like an idiot using things wrong. This comes down to being afraid of looking stupid again.

But it's the free weights room which is the epitome of discomfort for me. Why? I think because I feel like I “don’t belong there.” It tends to be packed with big men lifting heavy weights - I rarely see any girls in there, so I’d certainly stand out. So what am I afraid of? I’m afraid that people will be thinking  “what is that girl with her tiny weak arms and 2kg weights doing in here? Doesn’t she realise she’s in the wrong place?” I know rationally that I have every right to be there - and that even if people are judging me, it doesn’t really matter - but my intuitive reaction is still highly aversive. I realised this aversion was pretty strong the other day, and that it’s actually quite a hindrance. So I decided to face the fear and venture into the terrifying pit of sweaty, muscled men.

Now, before I talk about my experience and what I learned, I’d just like to clarify that this is not going to end in me talking about equal rights in the free weights room and labelling myself a gym feminist. You may be reading this thinking that a room in the gym really doesn’t sound that scary or uncomfortable. But this post isn’t really about the gym. It’s about feeling like an outsider, like you don’t belong somewhere and are being judged for that - and I challenge anyone to say they aren’t or haven’t once been afraid of this.

Going into the free weights room

I picked a particularly bad time of day (or good for really pushing myself, depending on how you look at it!) when the gym, including the weights room, was completely packed. I started with a nice, comfortable, run on the cross trainer, whilst I debated whether I was going to go in or not. I’d been telling a friend beforehand about how I wanted to get over this aversion, so I’d somewhat committed myself, although not strongly so - I don’t think he would have been too reprimanding if I’d told him I hadn’t done it. But when I thought about seeing him next and saying “yeah, I went in!” rather than saying “nah, I was too uncomfortable...” the former felt a *lot* better, which definitely helped to motivate me. I pumped myself up by pushing myself to run just a bit longer and faster than I normally would - I think this got me into a “I can push myself to do things that are a bit of a challenge, and it actually feels good” mindset, which also helped to motivate me.

But I almost didn’t go in. Whilst on the treadmill, watching my thought patterns was quite interesting - I was going back and forth between “just go in, nothing bad will happen, and you’ll feel good about it” and “errr but... no... I don’t want to!” This made me think back to what I was saying a couple of weeks ago about making excuses - often we have an intuitive aversion to something which causes us to look for reasons it might be a bad idea, and it can be hard to tell if these reasons are good ones or mere excuses. What was interesting here was that, unlike before, I barely started coming up with reasons - perhaps because there weren’t any good ones, or perhaps because I’m now more aware of my tendency to make excuses - but the intuitive aversion still had quite a lot of force. When I stopped running, I decided to just walk towards the exit and the free weights as they were in the same place, and then make a snap decision when I got there. I’m pretty sure if the exit had been on the other side I probably would have just left at this point. But conveniently, it wasn’t, and somehow when I got closer it was like my body just walked into the free weights room before I could even think about it. And once I was a few steps in, I’d look even more stupid turning around, so I was pretty much committed.

The experience itself was about every bit as uncomfortable as I thought it would be. The place was packed and I was the only girl in there amongst at least 30 guys. I had to weave my way through to find some weight and find a tiny corner to stand in. I felt about as self-conscious as I expected. But part of me also felt determined not to let this stop me - so I stood there telling myself that I had every right to be there, and that I didn’t care if people were judging me. I tried to act as if I felt completely comfortable there, walking confidently and taking up as much space as I could/needed, which helped a little. I didn’t stay in there that long (maybe 5 minutes or a little more), but the fact I went in at all felt like a pretty big achievement for me.

Why is “feeling like you don’t belong” so uncomfortable?

This made me think more generally about a lot of other situations where we’re held back from fear of feeling like we don’t fit in. I think it’s a big part of why we are often afraid to try new things e.g. going to meetups where we don’t know anyone. It might lead to staying in a job where we feel comfortable but that isn’t pushing us anymore. It’s why people quickly form friendship groups at school that they stick closely to, and why it would seem weird to suddenly one day go and eat lunch with a group of people who you don’t know - you don’t “belong” to their group. But in all these cases, is this fear helping us, or holding us back? It seems like a lot of the time fear of not belonging can lead to inertia and prevent us from trying new things or meeting new people.

“Love/Belonging” is the third most fundamental level in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs - the only needs more fundamental than this are the need for safety and physiological needs (oxygen, food, water, etc!) The need to have a strong sense of belonging makes sense from an evolutionary perspective - at one point, it would have been essential for survival! Nowadays it seems like this is more central to our sense of self-identity: in a social world, the group we belong to or identify with plays a key role in defining who we see ourselves to be. How we feel others view us inevitably feeds into our self-image and self-esteem: acceptance and recognition from others is crucial for having a positive self-image. If I feel like I don’t fit in, people don’t value or recognise who I am, I’m inevitably going to start to doubt myself and feel insecure. The need to belong, and fear of not belonging, is only natural.

Sometimes we can take this too far, though: once we’ve found somewhere we feel we belong, it’s easy to just stay there and never leave. But it’s ok not to fit into every group we ever encounter and spend time with, it doesn’t matter if not everyone likes and values us, as long as we have a fundamental sense of belonging and security. It doesn’t matter that I don’t “fit in” in the free weights room, really - it’s certainly not integral to my self-image or self-esteem when I really think about it. But it’s almost like there’s something hardwired in my brain to make me avoid any situations in which I might feel like an outsider, which, whilst useful in some situations, does seem to be holding me back in many others.

How can you overcome this?

How can we overcome this fear of not belonging when it’s holding us back from doing new things? One strategy would be to use reinforcement: remind yourself of people and places that do make you feel like you belong, before trying to do anything that might threaten that.

For example, if, before I’d gone into the free weights room, I’d thought about a group in which I feel a real sense of belonging, thought about some positive feedback or a compliment I’d received recently, or spent time with some people who make me feel valued and accepted, I might have found it much easier to just go in. Essentially what’s uncomfortable about putting ourselves in situations where we feel we don’t belong, I think, is that it threatens our self-image or self-esteem. So if we can pump up our self-esteem and sense of belonging beforehand, then doubts will find it harder to penetrate.There’s a psychology study (thanks Nick Beckstead!) that suggests that this kind of “self-affirmation” technique makes people more likely to accept information they might otherwise view as threatening, and subsequently change their beliefs and behaviour in a way that would be beneficial.

I’m going to try this next week and see if it makes doing things outside my comfort zone any easier.

In summary:

  • Having a sense of “belonging” seems to be a fundamental need and central to having a positive self-image

  • However, this need can sometimes hold us back, because it makes us fear (and so avoid) new situations where we might not fit in

  • I found this earlier this week when I realised just how uncomfortable I was in the free weights section of the gym!

  • One technique that might help, if you feel held back from doing something that might be beneficial out of fear of “not fitting in” is to use a technique of “self-affirmation”, before you do something outside of your comfort zone. Ways to do this might include (but are not limited to!)

    • Writing or thinking about relationships that make you feel good about yourself

    • Writing or thinking about a time recently when you felt a strong sense of belonging

    • Spending time with a person or a group who make you feel good about yourself

    • Writing or thinking about some positive feedback you received recently

    If you try using this technique and find that it helps (or that it doesn't!) please let me know!