When in sixth grade (and 11 years old), I was informed by my teacher that I was to give one of the graduation speeches. Topics were assigned; mine was “Who am I? And where am I going?”
This was, admittedly, a little over my head. In fact, I have a very clear recollection of complete incomprehension. Even today, the existential nature of these questions gives me pause. Certainly I am not alone.
So – who are we? What factors influence and form our identities?
One factor is genetics. We are all born with a particular disposition that will probably change little during our lifetime. Recently, Oliver Sacks, in a lovely column reflecting on his life, stated, “I am sorry to be as agonizingly shy at 80 as I was at 20”. Closer to home, my nieces are both kind and spirited little girls. Yet, one is defined by her sweetness; she is caring, empathic, and consistently shows concern for others. The other is fearless, strong-willed, and feisty. These characteristics have been apparent since they began walking and talking. Barring a terrible trauma, these traits may be tempered, but will most likely remain consistent throughout their lives.
Families-of-origin also influence identity. Ideally, parents and caretakers help shape identity by nurturing children’s unique interests, strengths, and talents. Other family-of-origin influences on identity include the teaching (or not) of basic morals and ethics, as well as the fundamental manner in which children are regarded, e.g. with respect, contempt, etc. The now-classic poems, All I Ever Really Needed to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, by Robert Fulgham, and Children Learn What They Live, by Dorothy Law Nolte, wonderfully summarize these influences, both found here.
Yet, identity development is fluid, and does not stop with genetics and early experiences. We progress, change, and grow throughout our lifespan, and many factors impact how we think and feel about ourselves. One of the most significant influences on identity during adulthood is our interpersonal relationships. Social relations are prime instigators of emotions, and much of how we think and feel about ourselves forms through interactions with others. Our “selves” are built upon responses to us made by others, and our psychological well-being is largely dependent on relationships with and connectedness to others.
Our best relationships help us feel whole and complete, and reflect back to us the best parts of ourselves. This affirms identity. When these relationships are off, we feel bad because we are receiving feedback that we are, if only in that moment, undesirable, unwanted, unloved.
All our relationships have the ability to influence our identity, including marriages and romantic relationships, as well as interactions with friends, family and work colleagues. Even strangers can impact identity, if only temporarily. La Belette Rouge beautifully captures this here, when an interaction with a stranger suddenly transports her back to junior high school.
So – genetics, families-of-origin, and relationships all contribute to identity. Of course, there are other factors (e.g. societal influences, cultural norms), and the interplay between all these aspects is complex and ultimately unknowable. Most importantly, it is exciting to know that growth lasts a lifetime. We are never fully “cooked” if we don’t want to be.
And – that speech from sixth grade? Just finished it.