Study Materials for Religious Education
Section B4: The 'elusive self' - Psychological and social functions of personal identity
A study of the nature of personal identity, and of its psychological and social functions. It all has to do with answering the question "Who am I?" from various perspectives

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Brief overview of content of this section

Professionals who work with youth need to understand how identity is formed, as well as being able to evaluate its functions – to judge when it is healthy and when it is unhealthy. These needs are addressed in this and the following two sections.

This section looks at the construct identity in a general way, identifying its personal and cultural dimensions.

Consideration is given to of religious identity. Traditionally, religious culture had an all encompassing influence on the expression of people's lives and on their self understandings. In today's relatively secular society, religious identity resources are not given much attention by many people.

A theory of identity is proposed which interprets it as a psychological process involving interplay between internal needs, drives, and interests/(internal identity resources) and external identity resources. The suggestion that a healthy personal identity would be one that has some security and coherence but which allows room for adaptation and change. And the idea of a healthy balance between internal and external identity resources.

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The written text for this section (Study the text in conjunction with the audio lecture of 47 minutes duration)

As individuals express their life, so they are.
Karl Marx

Introduction: Example from a sense of 'identity' in animals - animals often have distinctive 'personalities'
A big picture view of identity development: The example of the stolen Polish children
What is understood by identity: How the construct is used in contemporary discourse
The emotional substrate to identity
Dimensions to personal identity
Projective and defensive functions of identity
Identity relationships with religion
A way of interpreting and defining personal identity that is useful in education
Identity health: How can it be understood

Introduction: Example from sense of 'identity' in animals -- nature and personality in identity

Human personal identity: In humans, a number of personal elements (capacities and qualities) are intimately connected with a sense of personal identity. For example: they can include self-image, self-esteem, how emotional the individual is, values, dispositions, beliefs and commitments, family and personal history, awareness of ethnicity. All of these and other aspects are woven into a complex tapestry that is personal identity. Where this is reasonably well established and healthy, individuals can have a good sense of who you are and have this sense with some self confidence, and also this helps the individual know where they 'belong'.

In what sense might animals have a sense of identity? It is interesting to see how there is a sort of parallel. Certainly not the same level of self-consciousness, but some feeling that they know who they are -- for example, pets will respond when their name is called -- they know who they are and often where they belong.

Below are examples of the behaviour of two relatively abandoned cats that illustrate something like animal 'identity development'. Moka found some 'salvation' and sense of self and self confidence, while Latte remained insecure, unattached, skittish, and a somewhat lost wanderer. They are like examples of different identities/personalities and how this affects their behaviour.

If you can interpret a sort of 'self identity' for cats, imagine how much more complicated are the personal identities of people.

French Birman cats tend to want to 'choose' where they wish to belong. Birmans, Moka and Latte, were left relatively uncared for to fend for themselves by their owners who went overseas and left a teenager to 'look after' them. They wandered the streets, tending to go in the direction of being semi-feral.

Moka from the very start choose where he wanted to be - at this place, which already was caring for 3 'orphaned ' cats (which did not get on and had to be kept separate). No matter what was done to discourage Moka (chasing, taken home each evening for 2 months, putting up netting barriers) he continually kept coming back. So after 2 years we gave up and let him in when we could (with the others separate).

Moka is not a 'pretty' cat. He looks rough and ready. His face looks like Mickey Rourke's -- beaten up and moon cratered. But he has a strong and unshakeable sense of being 'settled', and 'at home'. He was confident. Not scared of people. Very laid back. Good self-esteem, secure, even though he might be regarded by cat purists as an 'ugly' Birman -- He is playful. But he was never socialised into sitting on people -- he just wants to 'be around' -- preferably in the same room as 'his chosen people'. Moka knows who he is and responds when his name is called.

Moka Click or click photograph

Latte was like a lost soul. For a while, he did not seem to identify any place as 'his home'. He roamed around the neighbourhood and appeared to get food from whoever, whenever he could. He is pretty, but has a short tail, making him appear also not a 'top' Birman. He is restless. Not confident. Afraid of people. Timid and skitty. Poor self-esteem -- seems to be on the bottom of the local cat hierarchy and gets beaten up from time to time. He seeks to hide in high places and in covered holes. He does not respond to cat toys and play very much. He does not seem to want to be near any people -- he is more approachable when hungry and in search of food. Somehow he was not helped to develop a 'home base' and key people to lock onto, and therefore seems to have no secure 'internal' cat identity .

Latte does not know his name. He does not respond to it -- yet.

Latte Click or click photograph

Identity development? Identity recovery? Identity rehabilitation? Latte is an example of low cat self-esteem. Finds security in high places and holes -- may even hide in the kitty litter box. Rehabilitation has been tried -- talking to him, patting and lots of human contact (which he initially shunned).

Latte was making progress. Visited more and more frequently and seemed to be wanting to call this place 'home'. Was more responsive to affection and became more affectionate himself.

Tragedies averted. In late April, Moka was hit by a car. In June, Latte was poisoned by something he ate. Both almost died. After surgery, Moka began to recover with a steel plate in his left leg -- otherwise OK. His days of running free and climbing and jumping may be over- but he seems to have taken this in his stride. Latte was so depressed with total intestinal blockage and infection, he intended to die and hid in 'dark holes' like cats do when dying. Had a food tube through his neck to esophagus and was force fed with a syringe to keep him alive while recovering from the infection. Operation found it was not cancer -- but severe intestinal infection. He would not eat. Then, with the infection down, he was force fed a human anti-depressant which had the side effect of stimulating appetite. Almost instantly he started eating again -- even if not much.

If change in brain chemistry can be so significant for animals like cats, how much more significant would it be for humans.

Moka's personality/identity appeared to show more robustness and resilience in his adversity. Latte's identity was more prone to depression and defeat. And so rehab goes on for both with high hopes.

Latte video showing response to some 'identity rehabilitation'

2021 Update: Moka and Latte are both well and reasonably happy at their home -- which improved significantly as regards being 'cat friendly' and safe for the pets. As they got older they became more 'home bodies' and less the outdoor adventurers. They still call in almost every day and sit in the front garden. And as they look you in the eyes, you can imagine them thinking "I used to live here!!"

Some analogous ideas that might be applied to human personal identity

It appears that there are naturally going to be some aspects of personality and identity that are genetically determined. If you are naturally an introvert or an extravert in personality, whether you are shy or outgoing, whether you are naturally prone to violence or calmer, will not be something about which people have choice. They are the cards they are dealt genetically. The question is then raised to what extent can the positives and the negatives in a given personality type modified? The general answer from research is that -- significant change is usually not likely. Often people will know what they need to do to improve their personality – very few have the courage and the commitment to follow through on making significant personal change.

So, some of the underlying questions in approaching identity in this section will be about what can or cannot be changed, and what might be done to enhance the development of personal identity.

Just as in the cats, the social environment in which children and young people live, and in the way that they are treated by others, can have a positive (or negative) shaping influence on their identity -- by giving them affirmation, by enhancing self-esteem, by providing security and by giving ( and receiving) affection. If these things are important for cats than how much more important would they be for the complexity of identity in human persons. Dr Phil commented in one of his programs: "It may take 1000 'At-a-boys' to compensate for one negative humiliation".

A big picture on identity development: The example of the stolen Polish children

Watch the video on the stolen Polish children of World War II – where there was the erasing of the Polish identity for the stolen children to become German and then, in the instance of Alojzy Twardecki, to have his German identity 'erased' in efforts to 'resurrect' his Polish identity – take note of all the various identity development and identity shaping issues that emerge in the film. Note in particular the role of home, parents grandparents and of the school. School education and extending the cultural horizons of pupils. Relate to the issues raised in the introductory vides in Section 1.

The story of Polish child Alojzy Twardecki. Aged 4 kidnapped by the SS and adopted out to a German family in 1939. A thoroughly 'Germanised and Nazified' teenager, he got trapped by the Communist regime in post-war Poland. Could his sense of identity which started as Polish and then became German go back to becoming Polish? How might he manage these pressures to change? What conclusions might be drawn about the influence of culture (nationalism, popular culture, family, ethnic) on personal identity development? What was the identity forming roles of his both his Polish and his German mothers? What was Twardecki's solution.

Video of the stolen Polish children of World War II


Introduction to study of the nature and psychological function of personal identity

5.1  What is understood by identity: How the construct is used in contemporary discourse

Identity is central to thinking about culture and ethnicity, as well as being a key dimension to religion. Identity is also prominent in many psychological theories, with those of Erikson and Kegan being among the most well known. While identity is a fundamental property of the human person, like spirituality, it is difficult to define, and the processes that affect its development are many and complex.

Identity has to do with answers to the question ‘who am I?' Inevitably, it has both psychological and sociological dimensions as individuals think of themselves as distinct persons while also belonging to cultural reference groups. Also inevitably, to varying degrees, culture will have a shaping influence on individuals' personal identity. Thus a key to analysing identity will be the complex interactions between individuals and cultural identity resources.

Identity is the term that indigenous peoples (such as the Native Americans and Australian Aborigines) often like to use in preference to culture or religion, as do many in the Jewish community. While all in society usually have some sense of ethnicity, the strength of the identification varies considerably, from the passionate to the indifferent. Sometimes ethnicity may be a more pronounced part of people's felt identity when they are a minority group because it helps distinguish them from the dominant groups in society. As well as being important for self-expression, ethnicity has a supportive and defensive function, particularly if the group is oppressed or marginalised. Nothing binds a group together more than a sense of being oppressed.

A common concern of ethnic communities in Westernised societies is the maintenance of their distinctiveness in terms of cultural continuity in the context of a wider culture that is secularised. They consider that the survival of ethnic identity requires the preservation of history, language, customs and religion against the eroding effects of the host culture. Of particular concern is the tendency of many youth to identify more with a global teenage culture than with their ethnic heritage; if they are ‘homogenised' into popular culture, their role as historical carriers of a distinctive tradition may be eclipsed. For some young people, the situation prompts questions like ‘How much traditional ethnic culture do we really need?' ‘Can I not retain some sense of distinctive origins while fitting in harmoniously with the popular culture?' Also, there is the possibility of conflict in values and lifestyle.By acknowledging a national identity in relatively multicultural countries, people can see their distinctive ethnicity within a wider framework. Similarly, a religious identity can be part of an ethnic identification, while it can also cut across ethnic boundaries because it includes a diversity of cultural or ethnic groups. How well and how harmoniously such identity diversity works will vary from place to place and from time to time. People can feel comfortable with it, seeing the diversity as a source of cultural riches; but it can also be uncomfortable, and in the extreme, ethnic or racial prejudices and hatreds fuel violence.

The human context or environment in which individuals' identity development takes place

This situation in multicultural countries can be summarised as follows. People develop a sense of personal identity through complex interplay between five centres of influence. The extent of the influence will vary from individual to individual:

  • 1.    the popular culture (expressed particularly in lifestyle options and consumerism)
  • 2.    distinctive ethnic and/or religious heritage
  • 3.    the national identification – the overall social and political context that hosts the component cultures
  • 4.    the personal needs, interests and ambitions of individuals
  • 5.    the family group, often displaced to a large extent by friendship groups in adolescence, which serves as a moderator of the above influences.

The particular profile of an individual's identity depends on the psychological mix from these influences. Many identity issues emerge from these interactions, for example multiculturalism, multi-faith society, intercultural communication, limits to tolerance, racism, religious prejudice, ecumenism, as well as in the more personal, psychological identity problems of individuals.

Where there is a religious dimension to personal identity

Religious identity can be an influential part of people's lives, giving members of a faith tradition a sense of belonging to a community of believers with a long history. It usually defines a pattern of desired beliefs and morals. It has access to resources in spirituality and social structures that can guide people's lives and animate local religious communities. But religious identity can also cause problems. It can be used for justifying sectarianism – and in the extreme, violence and ethnic cleansing. Of about 160 civil conflicts in the world in 1994, in about two-thirds of them religious identity was a recognisable component in the complex mixture of causes. The pattern has a long history.

Individuals can be said to have a ‘religious' personal identity when they evidently draw on religious elements from the culture. This often involves adherence to a particular religion or denomination, assimilating the beliefs and stated values of the religious group, and engagement with a local community of faith in formal religious practices. How much the core beliefs of the religion influence values and behaviour will vary. Some people are strongly motivated and influenced by their religious beliefs while there are others where their thinking and behaviour would indicate that their religious commitments are somewhat nominal.

5.2  The emotional substrate to identity

When the word ‘identity' is used, what is probably just as significant as its meaning is the emotion attached to its use. So it is important to know something of the feelings that are being referenced when someone uses the word. For example, talk about identity by indigenous people often carries sadness and anger that Western culture and economic exploitation have eroded their traditional way of life. For minority ethnic groups, it can be the feeling of being under siege – having to fight to prevent the erosion of distinctiveness by the dominant culture. For some religious people, it is the feeling of frustration that their faith is in decline; and that if only there was a return to authority and earlier traditions, things would improve. Understanding identity needs to include awareness of the emotional and values agenda behind people's use of the word.

Sometimes it appears that identity only becomes an issue when something is going wrong, or where there is anxiety about the present or the future. If everything seems to be going well, identity may not be questioned. But when uncertainty, rapid change or dramatic unforeseen events occur, the relative security and psychic calmness of individuals can be disturbed and it becomes evident in the questioning of identity. For example:

  • When the space shuttle Challenger blew up in 1986 and when the Columbia disintegrated during re-entry in 2003, there was some soul-searching in the United States, and not just in NASA.
  • The Vietnam war, now more than thirty years on, still tears at the American psyche – success in war had been an important part of national identity in the United States, but Vietnam called it into question; in addition, it challenged the morality of US involvement and it created identity problems for the Vietnam veterans. There were some national identity concerns over the 1991 Gulf war and even more related to the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
  • Personal trauma like loss of a job, the breakdown of a relationship, divorce or death of a family member can jolt identity, calling for a personal evaluation.
  • The persistent loss of games by one's favourite team can cause depression and may raise identity questions. Often the coach is treated like a scapegoat before a new leader is signed up to resuscitate the team identity. On the other hand, when the team is on a winning streak, the sense of identity it supports is secure and makes all of those who share it feel the success.

5.3  Dimensions to personal identity

In addition to the social questions that revolve around it, identity also has various personal dimensions. When individuals answer for themselves the question ‘Who am I?', there is both a simple answer and more complex ones. The simple answer: at a basic level I am a named person and, given ongoing good mental health, I will retain this consciousness throughout my life. The other answers: I have multiple components to my identity according to the various human groups in which I participate; I have self-knowledge with some insight into my beliefs, motives and behaviour – my moral identity; yet there are parts of me that always seem to remain mysterious and not fully understood; and I am forever changing my personal outlook on life, even if slowly, as I meet new aspects of physical ageing and new challenges in personal, social and professional life.

Personal identity is both a given, unchanging entity and at the same time a lifelong process of continual change. At some psychological level, people may spend all of their lives reflecting on, and articulating for themselves, partial answers to questions about their needs and motives.

Some of the dimensions or components to personal identity include the following:

  • Gender and family identities: As illustrated above, these components also carry both simple and complex answers about who individuals are. They may include personal agendas that require attention for considerable periods in the life cycle.
  • Group identities: Just as people join in various groups for different activities, so they have component group-related sub-identities. For example, a young person may have component identity dimensions spread across their religion, school, part-time work, social group, preferred music and entertainment, sport and leisure activity, as well as through people they admire like music and film stars, and sporting heroes and heroines.
  • Religious identity refers to the extent to which individuals draw on religious traditions to describe and live out their identity; it is the extent to which formal religion influences their lives.
  • Moral identity refers to the profile of values, beliefs, ethical code and commitments that gives direction to their lives and colours their interaction with others. The conscious moral identity may not always coincide with the lived or implied moral identity. The quotation from Karl Marx at the beginning of this chapter suggests that the way people live implies an operative moral identity: ‘as individuals express their life, so they are.'

Among the cultural resources available to people for the articulation and maintenance of their sense of identity, consumer goods and lifestyle options are particularly prominent. In this sense, people can have a retail identity where consumer goods, together with the strong media-orchestrated images that go with them, appear to make a significant contribution.

Individuals could be said to have an ‘identity profile' at any time. A snapshot of a period of their lives would show how their thinking, emotional energy and behaviour were partitioned into various component identities. The priority or relative weighting given to these components would be significant for any review of life. Some could look at their implied identity profile and say ‘Yes, that is a good picture of what I am'. Others might get a shock because what they see conflicts with the view of self they like to project – there may be elements in their behaviour they do not want to acknowledge. Perhaps for all people there will be some degree of mismatch between who they are and what sort of a person they would like to be.

The different types or components of identity refer to particular dimensions of personal life or to reference groups or situations that affect the individual.

Table 5.1 Summary of components or dimensions to a personal identity

Type of identity

Aspect of life to which it relates


Who the named individual is and what they are like as a person


Male or female or other identification

Sexual identity

Heterosexual, homosexual or other


The core values and moral code that show what the person is like


How one appears to friends and acquaintances; how one ‘presents' to others


The age group with which the person identifies


Identification with a particular family or families


How people see themselves as spiritual; how they perceive and relate to a spiritual-moral dimension to life


How religion affects people's sense of themselves as spiritual; how they are, or are not, linked with an organised religion; how religion enters into their lives


What and how individuals think about their own psychological functioning; their understanding of their idiosyncratic mixture of needs, interests, attitudes, values and patterns of behaviour; their understanding of why they behave and live as they do

Ideals, passions, commitments

Particular ideals, passions, interests and commitments that occupy the individual's attention and that illustrate the direction being taken in life


The extent to which people identify with a particular ethnic group or groups


The extent to which people refer to particular cultural groups or cultural styles in their lives

Regional and national identities

Whether regional and national reference points are prominent in the individual's makeup


How personal and social history help define the individual


The relative emphasis on dress styles and fashion; how important dress may be to self-perception


The extent to which work/employment is prominent in the individual's sense of self


How prominent are sport and sporting groups in people's thinking, interests and behaviour


The types and extent of leisure pursuits that characterise the individual


How the purchase and use of consumer goods enter into self-understanding and self-expression


How an understanding of the identity of self and others affects conflict; how identity influences the liking or disliking of other individuals or groups

Identification: Related to the role of component identities is the process of personal identification: how and why individuals link themselves with particular identities. It is a basic personality dynamic, it can contribute to the healthy development and fulfilment of individuals and it can be psychologically damaging, with both personal and social repercussions.

Take, for example, the place of identification in relation to employment. Sometimes it is said that an individual is too strongly identified with a job. Men who have invested too many personal resources in their jobs have little time or emotional space left for other aspects or people in their lives; and then, if their jobs are made redundant, or if they have a midlife crisis that results in a loss of satisfaction with their work, the result can be traumatic. There is a high frequency of suicide in men over retirement age. The tendency to define individuals' personal worth in terms of their jobs is a potentially dangerous identification. On the other hand, if individuals do not identify with their job to a minimal level, then the work itself will probably suffer because they take no pride or satisfaction in it.

What was said in Sections A1 and A2 about personal and cultural meanings can be applied to personal and group identities, acknowledging the importance of social interaction in identity development.

5.5  Projective and defensive functions of identity

Identity, in both its personal and group forms, has two key functions, projective and defensive.

Projective function of identity: This has two aspects:-

Firstly The visible actual identity This is the 'inferred' identity picture evident in the behaviour of the individual. The projective function of identity is the way in which it projects or displays the characteristics of the individual (or group). It describes or publicly announces identity and shows what the individual (or group) stands for.

How they behave and what they look like are evident to an observer. Some individuals are not good at being aware of how they are projecting a particular identity profile. They may have little self-knowledge. What people are really like is difficult to hide for any length of time. But people also vary in their capacity to 'see' and 'read' the behaviour of people.

Secondly, there is the Intentional projected identity. Not everyone does a lot of this intentional projection. But it occurs where individuals consciously try to project a particular identity profile. It may or may not be congruent with the visible actual identity -- therefore not truthful. There may be a considerable discrepancy between the two.

Some people try very hard to project a particular image/identity. Others may not care much about creating impressions and give little thought to what others may think. Concern about projecting a particular image can lead to what Alain de Botton calls Status Anxiety. (A de Botton, 2004 Status Anxiety. London: Hamish Hamilton -- later editions published by Penguin). Click here or the photo for follow up info and videos by de Botton about status anxiety.

Protective / defensive function of identity:

At the same time as it signals the characteristics of the individual, identity definition provides psychological protection. Identity includes internal resources that the individual can fall back on in times of stress or trouble. It is what literature describes as people's ‘true mettle' or character. The defensive or protective function of identity comes into play when individuals feel that they are under attack, whether physical or psychological or both. In particular it is internal identity resources that can sustain the individual when under stress.

5.6.2  Identity relationships with religion

The headlines of a recent newspaper article reporting church strategies to increase membership read: ‘Christianity is fine, but please don't mention the church'.

A marketing agency, commissioned by the Bible Society, found evidence from its focus groups that the idea of Christianity and its central gospel message were well accepted, but that for a number of reasons the image of the organised church was far from attractive. The article suggested: ‘The church is virtually the last image that should be used by Christian organisations to attract followers to God.' A list of reasons for the poor image included: abuse of children, intolerance, narrow views on sexuality, hypocrisy, being too judgmental, and prejudice against women. The report said that the findings were not unexpected. Also prominent in the report was reference to a contemporary spirituality that was less tied to institutional structures, church attendance and teachings (see Chapter 8). The findings applied to all age groups, but particularly to youth.

It is ironic that one of the cultural agencies that ought be able to offer a place of support, affirmation and community to adolescents is seen by many of them as an alien space. Their experience of the local church is not one where they feel a democratic, egalitarian atmosphere that welcomes them and makes them feel at home, or where their ideas and contributions are regarded as valuable. As a consequence, they tend not to draw on their traditional religion to help them formulate a sense of identity and belonging.

This situation applies to all the mainline Christian churches in Australia. But Catholic schools still remain attractive to the Catholic community – indeed they cannot accommodate all who would like to enrol. It is apparent that what the schools are offering is regarded as desirable, while the Church itself is not. See the complete section on the Catholic Identity of Catholic schools -- Section C10

The reasons for hesitation about a role for religion in personal identity are complex. Hence there is no simple formula for successfully getting youth to participate in church life. Not all are ready to assimilate the Church's theology, life-wisdom and liturgy.

Any efforts to communicate a particular religious identity, or indeed a particular set of values, needs to acknowledge that it is not a simple communication process: it ultimately involves a free personal affirmation and acceptance by the receiver, and it involves more than the communication of knowledge. Attempts to make a particular religious identity accessible to young people is likely to be more attractive (and probably more effective) if they are not exclusivist. Trying to promote a ‘package deal' that precludes individuals' growing involvement in a more autonomous, reflective process of spirituality and identity development will only tend to alienate them. The religious identity that an adult group wishes to hand on to its young people needs to be kept open to evaluation. Thus the identity the group desires to communicate would not be a hidden agenda.

The beliefs and values of religious traditions can be interpreted as a basic starting point or repository of resources for young people's search for meaning, identity and community. There can be the hope that they might later embrace (and even enhance) the religious identity that an older generation believes to be of value for them, but what eventuates will be theirs to determine.

This interpretation is not a bland endorsement of the view that youth should be encouraged to feel free to piece together their own idiosyncratic religious identity according to their needs and interests, whether or not this has much congruence with orthodoxy in their faith tradition.  However, it does acknowledge that in the interplay between individual and faith tradition there will inevitably be the exercise of personal freedom and a resultant distinctive, personal religious identity profile. The colourings of personal religious identity will be diverse; for some it will be strongly linked with religion; for others it will not.

A way of interpreting and defining personal identity that can be useful for education

The purpose here is to develop a simple but robust interpretation of personal identity, or working hypothesis of the self, that includes both a sense of subjective ‘identity permanence' and the ongoing process/capacity to change and develop.

For most, identity will remain fairly stable, with gradual modifications across the life cycle resulting from experience; this applies especially to those whose self-understanding is confirmed positively by others. For some, the self-hypothesis may at times be insecure. While some may try to change aspects of their identity in response to new circumstances, including education, others may resist change, consciously reinforcing their established sene of self and self-image.

For educational purposes, personal identity can be conceptualised as a process in which individuals draw on both personal / internal and cultural / external resources for their self-understanding and self-expression.

This conceptualisation sees identity as a dynamic interplay between internal/personal and external/cultural elements; the externals are relevant to identity when they serve as reference points and resources for self-understanding and self-expression – that is, as cultural identity resources. They can be appropriated and further developed for the construction of meaning. This view highlights people's integration of ideas, beliefs, values and images as internal identity resources to make sense of their lives – that is, making sense of both their inner experience and their interactions with the world and people. Cultural identity resources can be used in two ways: they can be assimilated (as noted above), resourcing self-understanding; and they can be utilised for purposes of distinctive self-expression, that is, helping individuals express themselves in ways they feel are consistent with their identity.

It is interesting to think about how this interpretation of identity would have applied say to Medieval Christians. In the lives of most people at the time (but not necessarily for the aristocrats, clerics and members of religious orders), the scope of cultural identity resources would have been much smaller. And what would have loomed large was the pervasive Christian religion. It was the predominant meaning system and it conveyed a powerful religious narrative about life and its purposes. This was particularly evident in the artistic visual imagery in the churches and cathedrals.

On the façade of the cathedral in Cittadella in northern Italy is a Latin inscription which summed up the role of the church: “Domus Dei et Porta Coeli ” – The House of God and the Gate of Heaven. In a sense, at that time in Europe the church dominated the ‘personal identity resources market'.


New shop in one of the new consumer cathedrals
it is evident that religion has much, much more ‘competition' than ever before in supplying personal identity resources to people. And of special interest for the study of identity are various cultural narratives about life that can be very popular and pervasive.

This is all about secularisation which is discussed elsewhere in the Religious Education resources.

This notion of both process and content in identity suggests that it makes use of external elements of culture (family life, heroes and heroines, peers, religion, school, artifacts, work, lifestyle, leisure, television, consumer products), in relationship with internal elements (needs, beliefs, values, ideals, attitudes, emotions and moods), to fashion the ‘internal clothing' of individuals through which they identify and understand their own characteristics as a person. It is meshed with their sense of individuality and uniqueness. When individuals think about their identity, these self-defining elements come to mind as reference points.

Identity Health: How can this be understood

From this perspective, identity health can be regarded as a harmonious balance between internal and external identity resources. It is proposed as a value judgment that personal identity should be based primarily on internal resources like beliefs, values and commitments. These can be thought of as spiritual resources; they may or may not include religious elements. Too great an identification with externals weakens individuals' autonomy and makes them slaves to expectations from outside, rather than being inner-directed. However, it would be unrealistic to expect people to be so spiritually strong and independent as to rely exclusively on their own internal resources for identity and meaning. It would be even more unrealistic to expect this of children and adolescents.

External reference points and links with culture (family, peers, cultural groups, film and television, and social media) are fundamentally important for personal identity. It is a basic part of the human condition to need the help of others, and access to cultural resources, for making sense of life, for achieving a worthwhile sense of self, and for the experience of happiness and fulfilment. Identity development and maintenance have an important interpersonal component. Some identity problems may be interpreted as too great a dependence on externals, or too much dependence on internals. Identity is displayed by what individuals think of themselves and what they do to express themselves.

A healthy identity is mainly self-validated. It does not need to be continually propped up somewhat artificially by externals, such as the approval of others or identity-related consumerism. Also, a healthy identity does not require too much energy for its maintenance, allowing for personal energies to be directed outwards and not tied up in self-analysis and self-assurance.

All of this reinforces the truism that people are born human but they only become persons through human interaction . This is just as true for personal identity. It needs social interaction and some sense of community to enhance and sustain it. You can't really be a good, happy person totally by yourself. This is crucial for any study of the need for human community.

This view of identity and identity health is useful for education and the care of youth in a number of ways:

  • It readily allows for an educational role in helping give young people access to cultural resources to assist with their development of self-understanding and self-expression.
  • It is a useful construct for the interpretation of behaviour in the light of identity motivations.
  • It has a strong psychological focus and is related to self-knowledge and self-esteem, and to purpose and meaning in life.
  • Yet it retains significant links with social interactions and cultural identity resources.
  • It allows for the identification of ‘identity content' that is open to moral evaluation.

This interpretation of identity is like ‘meaning' viewed from the perspective of self-expression and self-understanding. It regards identity as the consistent moral picture of people that emerges from their behaviour; it is an expression of what sort of a person they are, of what they think of themselves and what sense they make of life. Identity has a momentum about it; it is relatively fixed, but it can change. It can be influenced by new experience coupled with personal reflection and interpretation. It can be affected by perceptions of what others think of the individual; also, it can change in the light of perceptions of the identity of others, especially if they are favoured role models. Personal identity can be influenced and sustained by social interaction, including relationships with groups and institutions.

This view includes the Ricoeur-inspired notion of identity as personal interpretation arising from reflection. But it suggests that identity is not just a process of reflection that articulates the current working hypothesis of self; it acknowledges that externals and social interaction are crucial reference points and raw material for identity. For some, the problem with identity is precisely a lack of the sort of reflection that Ricoeur saw as constituting identity. They may give little or no thought to identity but may live with the stereotypes and values they have absorbed unconsciously. They are less consciously involved in their identity construction – it could be said that they display an identity by default.

Personal identity development needs some basic socialisation into the beliefs, values and culture of the individual's family and immediate community, and into some sense of the identities of the groups in which they will participate – hopefully positive and non-exclusive. These components should not be fixed and unchangeable, but open to confirmation, evaluation and modification.

This view of identity and identity health can be expanded within a values framework. A strong sense of personal identity can be the driving force behind idealistic and humane action; it can reinforce links with others from various groups; and it can serve as a source of courage in adversity. But at times, for various reasons, individuals can feel fragile and uncertain about their identity. A diffuse identity can be related to erratic and immoral behaviour.

A natural interest in maintaining and enhancing identity is healthy, though a concern to project a particular identity may be a facade protecting inner uncertainty. Individuals may appeal to a particular identity to justify their actions – both moral and immoral ones. Anxiety about identity can be caused by various things ranging from, for example, the poor form of one's favourite sporting team to fear that immigrants may threaten one's jobs and lifestyle.

How individuals and groups define themselves, and what cultural elements they draw on to do this, will reveal something about their values and their understanding of what it means to be human.

This view of identity health stresses the importance of inner identity resources. It shows identity intimately linked with meaning and spirituality. The advice that Polonius gave to Laertes is pertinent here: ‘To thine own self be true; then it follows as surely as the day follows the night that thou shalt not be false to any man.'

Inner truth is achieved first by knowing what one's moral identity and values are; then there is the equally important and decisive factor – fidelity to those commitments. And courage is needed for this.

Additional resource and reference
click here to download the follow-up resource text: The Elusive self: psychological and social functions of personal identity, chapter 5 from the book Reasons for Living: Education and young people's search for meaning, identity and spirituality. Can also be downloaded from the Book section Reasons for living

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