Building a Whole Self: Multidimensional Identities

Silhouettes of peopleHow many times have you found yourself in the situation of being worried or anxious about sharing a part of yourself with others? Too often we’re forced to choose one part of ourselves that we want to share over another part that might be equally as important. This can be extreme or subtle.

For example, teenagers who are both gay and Christian might feel like they can’t be both at the same time. These conflicting identities create a bind for them. At church the young person might be given a very direct message that being gay is wrong. For these teens they know that if they want to celebrate their Christianity with their community, they need to pretend to be straight. Gay community can be equally as complicated. After years of oppression from churches many people who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, or queer have struggled with Christianity. In this situation these teens might not feel able to express their strong religious beliefs within the gay community. For them, there is no place where they feel totally accepted, totally themselves. This example of split identities is very clear; however, sometimes the ways in which we’re forced to hide parts of ourselves is much more subtle.

In my work, I frequently find men who are struggling with a conflict of identity around gender and gender role. What happens when a straight man has interests or beliefs that are labeled as feminine? For example, if he doesn’t want to fight or he prefers conversations with women over watching sports with men. In our culture there is an assumption that men are going to act masculine. Often men are forced to hide parts of their identity that are not seen as masculine enough. This identity bind is much more subtle but still painful.

We face situations like these every day. Our identities have many facets including our ethnicity, race, religion, and sexual orientation as well as other ways we define ourselves, such as pacifist, good listener, or caregiver. Each of us has parts of our identities that we feel comfortable sharing with strangers and other parts that we only want to share with friends. There are things we are proud of and things we are ashamed of. Our identities are multidimensional; they have many layers and many meanings. Sometimes these identities are hierarchical, and one identity may be more important than all of the others. Understanding what our own multidimensional identity looks like can help us in those moments when not sharing our full self makes us feel invisible.

How do you introduce yourself to someone new after you tell them your name? In the United States we often use our professions to describe who we are to other people, “I’m a teacher/lawyer/electrician/therapist/writer.” As a culture we put a lot of value on employment and jobs, so much that sometimes our jobs become our identities. If you could describe yourself to a stranger as something other than your occupation, what would it be? Maybe it would be a description of an important relationship, such as “I’m a dad/mom/sister/uncle/grandma.” These are only two ways in which we might identify ourselves.

Take a moment and list the first five of your identities that you can think of. What made the top five? Are you surprised at any of the ones that are there? Are there any identities missing that you wish were on that top five list? And are there any identities on your list that you have felt you need to hide?

Being proud of ourselves is often much harder than it sounds. We live in a world filled with expectations, some spoken and some unspoken. But just because a part of our identity can’t be seen does not mean that it’s not there. It does mean that you might have to work a little bit harder to give it it’s time in the sun—to find a safe space to share the parts of you that feel invisible. Finding these spaces is an important step towards integrating our identities and feeling whole.

Related articles:
Gender Rules: How Does That Make You Feel?
Learning How to Support Gay Students
The Tiger Hunter

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  • stressmom

    July 19th, 2012 at 11:39 AM

    When we are forced to assign a label to ourselves and others it really does limit what we feel like we can be and how we see ourselves through the eyes of others.
    I have always taught my children that not everything has to have a lable, and that this is okay. It is not about assigning some pre set identity to someone, this life should be all about finding out who you are, what unique traits that you have, and the most valuable ways to share that with others.

  • james

    July 19th, 2012 at 3:43 PM

    I love how someone’s quirks and faults and attributes all rolled up into one makes everyone so dynamic and different- that’s what keeps life interesting!


    July 19th, 2012 at 7:28 PM

    Thank you so much for mentioning about expectations from men. Everybody expects us to be masculine at every single thing we do. just because we are en does not mean we cannot cry, that we cannot have deep emotions, and various other things that can be included in a list that will out-run a marathon track.

    If everybody stopped being so critical of others then maybe we would have a world where people would no more hide parts of themselves from others for fear of being ridiculed or labelled something!

  • Sawyer F

    July 20th, 2012 at 4:25 AM

    I totally get that teens especially could have a hard time dealing with what they would feel like are conflicting, sometimes even dueling, aspects of their personality.

    I really relate to the example about how they wonder how they can be gay and a Christian, because that’s the exact thing that I have been working with on myself for a while now.

    At forst, when I finally opened up and realized that this is who I am, I struggled, thinking that I could only be one or the other, but that both could not allow me to live in peace. It was not until I found a church and a minister who expressed to me that this was how God made me, so why should I deny that, that I was fully able to look in the mirror and be happy with what I saw.

    I no longer felt forced to live a lie.

  • Damon Constantinides

    August 2nd, 2012 at 1:42 PM

    Sawyer, Thanks for sharing your personal experience. I feel like it’s something we don’t talk about enough. So many people that I work with struggle with the intersection of their sexual or gender identity and their religion.

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