Identity: The Power of a Name

Indian woman wearing traditional dressA name, or identity, is a powerful thing. It is a descriptor that allows people to make quick judgments and assumptions about us. While we can understand the harm of assumptions, for the human mind it is a fast way to categorize a lot of information in a short amount of time. Assumptions also give us social context for the “rules” we need to interact with new and different people.

If you are at an event and you overhear someone talking about their upcoming church event, you might make an assumption about them. Based on that assumption you may speak differently to them. Perhaps you would avoid using curse words, for instance. Or, you may avoid interacting with them altogether.

Names and identities are our first impressions. How we dress, the way we wear our hair, how we behave, and even where we go all begins with our identity and what we call ourselves. Whether it is religion, sexuality, or gender, if it is part of an identity then it will influence how you present yourself to the world and how you interact with the world. The critical factors in creating an identity are that it describes who you are and it is self-chosen.

Identity Describes Who You Are

Our names and identities describe who we currently are. It is a present-day representation of how we perceive ourselves in this world. During my first day of high school, our gym teacher took attendance. She paused when she came to a girl who she had taught since kindergarten and asked, “Is it still Susie, or is it Susan now?” Upon the transition to high school and young adulthood the teacher recognized that the student may no longer see herself as a child and may prefer a different name to the one she previously used.

The name and identity that we have at 15 years old may be different than when we are 25 or 50 years old. As we grow, change, and have new experiences what we call ourselves may change as well.

Identity Is Self-Chosen

The second important point about our identity is that it is self-chosen. Other people may give us names (e.g. our parents) and labels (e.g. society) but an identity can only come from us. An identity represents how we perceive ourselves and how we want other people to perceive us. A label is a descriptor given to us by others based on their stereotypes of us.

My father is from Nigeria (African) and my mother is from Mississippi (African-American). I am truly African-American as a blend and product of them. There are many times when I publically call myself African-American, but I also call myself black, more privately, as that term resonates with me. For me, black describes the uniqueness of my culture: growing up American, but also as a first-generation American in many ways. Black describes the complexity of my experience in a way that African-American does not.

Depending on the situation and circumstance what we call ourselves may change. Perhaps our identity changes over time. What once resonated with us no longer does. Identity is a personal process and decision about what you call yourself. It is a process that is complex and full and fluid. It may change with time, or it may change with the environment or circumstance.

For example, I make a distinction between what I am comfortable with publicly versus privately. I am uncomfortable with some people calling me black and I use the term African-American publically. Similar to people who use familiar and formal names, different relationships have different ways of relating to each other.

Consider taking time to review your own identity. What names and identities do you have today? Is your identity based on your relationships (i.e. sister, partner, father, etc.)? Is it based on your work? Is it based on your religion? Or your sexuality?

What creates the identity that you have today? Is it different than it was 10 years ago? Do you think that it will be different 10 years from now? Share your thoughts and experiences with us; we want to hear from you!

© Copyright 2013 by Tonya Ladipo, LCSW, therapist in Philadelphia, PA. All Rights Reserved.

Permission to publish granted to The preceding article was solely written by the author name above. The view and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • Thomas D

    June 26th, 2013 at 3:57 AM

    It is highly unfair to label others based on a name, don’t you think?
    I have always tried to be more open minded than that, to get to know someone before I judge them based on their name, ethnicity, religion, or anything like that.
    To judge someone before you really get to know them, to make asumptions about them based on one thing or another, well that is really limiting the number of great people that you potentially could have in your life.
    To do this, that is simply your loss, and for me, unacceptable.

  • Randi Thompson

    June 26th, 2013 at 2:17 PM

    ” While we can understand the harm of assumptions, for the human mind it is a fast way to categorize a lot of information in a short amount of time. Assumptions also give us social context for the “rules” we need to interact with new and different people.” – I’m so glad to see you mention this. We can, and often should, overcome our initial assumptions, but there is a very valid reason for why the mind works that way. Ignoring that is, I feel, a lazy shortcut to understanding the social nuances of human interactions. This article comes at a time when I have been doing a lot of self introspection, so thank you!

  • Michel

    June 26th, 2013 at 11:04 PM

    Name is just like a label – to help identify a person in a crowd or a group. It is what we do and make of ourselves that forms our identity. And identity is far more important than a name or tag on any given day.

    For me, identity is what I am and what I see myself as, not what others think of me. That is their perception, it varies from person to person. if I start to worry of that I will never be happy, not even for a single day!

  • Tonya Ladipo

    June 27th, 2013 at 5:03 PM

    Yes, these are great points! How do you fight your assumptions of others? It is natural but how do you think and act against it?

  • Jolene R

    September 29th, 2013 at 3:41 PM

    Hi Tonya, I could really identify with this post. I changed my full name by deedpoll about 18 months ago and while I’m still struggling to deal with certain aspects of my past it’s hard to describe just how freeing my name change has been for me. Some people have struggled to understand or accept the need for me to change my name but mostly I’ve had support and understanding. Every time I introduce myself to somebody new I beam as my new name confidently and happily trips off my tongue. I found this post really interesting as it resonated with my experience.

  • Katherine

    September 30th, 2013 at 5:57 AM

    I agree with the points mentioned above, but I read the article looking at it from a positive perspective. I am writing a book and have become an advocate to honor First Responders. I have several thoughts about a positive name for my new adventure.

  • Nuriye

    February 22nd, 2015 at 4:52 AM

    I have a question here. Does name change indicate identity shift? I have 2 names and decided to use my first name as opposed to the second one. Does this relate to some kind of disorder? I read a few articles about this on the internet and I am somehow concerned. The reason why I made this change is somehow to break free from my painful past and start a clean page with good intentions. Is this a bad thing? Your answers are very much appreciated

  • Tonya Ladipo

    February 23rd, 2015 at 10:06 AM

    I do believe that a name change, a change in what we call ourselves, is a shift in our identities. But I don’t think that it’s a disorder at all! Nurye, claiming a name that frees you from a painful past sounds healthy and a great thing to do for yourself. What a great way to be kind to yourself. Be proud of it!

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