Self-Identity and The Importance of Being Able to Be Yourself

As a young adult at one point or another, you’ve likely had questions about your self-identity. It’s normal. We all wonder about who we are at some point in our lives. As a result of what we discover, though, we can sometimes wonder if we’re “normal.” This is especially true if your self-identity falls outside of what society has deemed to be “normal.”

So in this blog post, I’ll be looking more closely at self-identity and why it’s important to accept who you are. As well I’ll look at why it’s important for society to be able to accept people as they are. In those cases where that doesn’t seem possible, I’ll also highlight some ways that therapy can help you if your mental well-being is being affected by how society responds to who you are and how you identify as a person.

Defining Self-Identity

Firstly, let’s look more closely at self-identity. It’s not a one-dimensional thing, even though we may sometimes forget what all makes up who we are. Self-identity involves a variety of dimensions that intersect to form our unique selves. Some of these are innate to who we are. While some of these are influenced by society or culture at large.

One way of remembering these dimensions is through the handy acronym ADRESSING [1]. ADRESSING stands for:

group of diverse young people with different appearances
Photo by Gabby K on Pexels.com

A – Age
D – Disability status
R – Religion
E – Ethnicity/race
S – Sexual orientation
S – Socioeconomic status
I – Indigenous background
N – National origin
G – Gender

A Closer Look at 5 Dimensions of Self-Identity

For the sake of this post, I’m going to narrow this list down and focus on the 5 dimensions I encounter the most in my work as a therapist. In this closer look, I’ve included some questions that you can ask yourself about how these dimensions shape your self-identity. With this, I also highlight ways in which therapy can help if you’re having a hard time in any of these areas of your identity. These are:

Sexual Orientation

Who are you attracted to romantically or sexually?

Sexual orientation, along with gender identity, has become a lot more fluid over the last 10-20 years. No longer are people seen as either heterosexual or homosexual. Bisexuality, pansexuality, and asexuality are talked about more. There are characters in TV shows, books, and movies that don’t identify just as heterosexual or homosexual. More and more you see LGBTQIA+ musicians and artists creating art on the public stage.

Your sexual orientation doesn’t define you, but it is a big part of your identity. Fortunately, now a good chunk of society accepts sexual orientation beyond heterosexuality. But there are many people out there who haven’t. How can you still find or be your authentic self when society tells you you’re different and that’s bad? Working with an affirming therapist can help you figure out how you can reconcile your sexual orientation when there are people out there who disagree with this part of who you are.

Gender Identity

What is your personal sense of your gender?

I’ve noticed in my work with young adults that many of my clients have a much more fluid definition of their gender identity than ever before. Gender is not binary, as society is just now trying to understand. This can be hard for some, though.

Pronouns are one way that gender affects identity. What do you identify as? What do you want to be called? Society is still catching up with this one. Having to label your gender identity when you don’t have a label just to fit into society’s mold is impossible. It can feel uncomfortable. How you identify is all that matters, not what you call it.

In a New York Times article, Daniel Bergner highlights individuals who identify as neither a man nor a woman. One individual, in particular, struggled to get their loved ones to understand, so they decided to pretend to be a transgendered woman, rather than embrace who they truly are. The article highlights therapy sessions with this individual, whose pronouns are “they.” They decide to come up with a new name that reflects who they are and their identity. [3]

Ethnicity/Race

Where did your family originate from?

This is a question that we all should ask ourselves. The truth is that our country was founded on colonialism. As a result, just about everyone has ancestors that came from somewhere else. Some people’s ancestors came here by choice, while others didn’t.

People sometimes think of ethnicity and race as being the same thing. However, there there is a difference between the two terms. According to the American Sociological Association (ASA), ethnicity is a “shared culture, such as language, ancestry, practices, and beliefs.” Race is the “physical differences that groups and cultures consider socially significant.” [4]

Unfortunately, our current climate is very racially charged. In spite of advances made to civil rights over the last 50+ years, people of certain ethnicities still experience discrimination. The sad reality is that if you’re of a different race or ethnicity than caucasian and white, you’re not guaranteed acceptance. How do you stay true to your ethnic background when the dominant culture may want you to give it up and assimilate?

At the same time, there is also an increase in the representation of different ethnicities in society these days. There are more BIPOC people on television, in movies, and in books. People are talking about race and ethnicity more. You may see more people who identify how you identify in the mainstream media. Of course, there are also BIPOC musicians telling their stories through music.

Disability in the Form of Neurodivergence

How is your brain wired?

Neurodivergence represents the different ways people’s brains can be wired. People who are neurodivergent have experienced atypical development. This is also known as being neurodiverse. [5] However, I want to emphasize that this doesn’t mean that the brains are of neurodivergent people are “broken” in need of “fixing.” It does impact how the person understands and experiences the world, though. As such, you could consider it a disability.

Some groups that are considered neurodiverse are people on the autism spectrum, people with ADHD, people with mood disorders, and people with developmental disorders and mental health diagnoses.

If you have a diagnosis like this, it can be a big part of who you think you are and how you self-identify. Some people identify with their disability or diagnosis and claim it as part of who they are. For example, some people with bipolar disorder identify as bipolar. Whereas other people may distance themselves from the label and refer to themself as a person with bipolar disorder. Both reflect how the person identifies themselves within the context of their diagnosis. As a therapist, I will refer to you how you want to be referred and see you as the person you are.

Religion/Spirituality

What do you believe?

Religion and spirituality can be loaded topics. Yet, they are also important aspects of who we are. They can inform our sense of identity. Although we’ve come a long way with religious freedom, religious identity can still be complicated for many young adults. For some people, religion was something that was required of them. They had to go to church, synagogue, or mosque. In doing so, they may have found solace or shame as a result. While for other people, religion had no part in their life, but they may feel driftless. They may feel a lack of meaning in their lives.

Now that you’re in your 20s and are living an adult life, you get to decide how you feel about religion. What feels true to you? What helps you find greater meaning and purpose in your life?

But it’s not just the question of are you religious or are you spiritual? It comes down to how much your religion or spirituality defines you as a person. Maybe you embrace Judaism in your mid-20s and discover a whole new way of being in the world. Or maybe you grew up Catholic and realize you no longer identify as that and become an atheist. More spiritual and less religious paths might appeal to you. You might “mix and match” belief systems and practices.

What matters is what your religious or spiritual identity means to you. As a therapist who holds a transpersonal view, I honor all beliefs and recognize how such beliefs can support people’s mental well-being.

What Impact Does Identity Play In Your Life?

There are pros and cons to identifying with certain labels. On the one hand, labels give you a sense of identity and self-acceptance. On the other hand, if your identity or aspects of your identity isn’t accepted by society, you face a tough struggle in finding or being able to live as your authentic self. 

There are many factors that contribute to a strong or weak sense of identity. Some of them are [6]:

  • Acceptance
  • Love
  • Self-esteem
  • Self-worth
  • Abilities
  • Likes and dislikes
  • Motivators
  • Moral code

These are all elements that make us who we are. As well they influence how we present ourselves in society. Does society accept all of us? How can you be your authentic self and still manage to live in a society that may not understand you?

Why Is Understanding Your Self-Identity Important?

rebellious tattooed lady relaxing in skate park on sunny day. she feels confident in her self-identity.
Photo by Gabriela Moraes on Pexels.com

This is why understanding your self-identity is important. Finding your identity puts you one step closer to accessing your authentic self. It can also lead to better relationships because you are able to express what you want and need. Furthermore, it can help you to enforce the boundaries you need to take to be able to care for yourself and to be able to show care towards others.

However, getting to this place can be hard sometimes. This is especially true if you don’t feel safe in being yourself because of how society may view aspects of who you are. This sort of conflict can lead to issues where you try to deny who you are or worse, where you hate who you are.

Self-Identity and Young Adults

woman in white tank top holding a gay pride flag
Photo by Anna Shvets on Pexels.com

When you’re in your 20s, you’re figuring out who you are. You’re identifying what you believe in and what matters to you. What are you willing to go to the mat for when it comes to fighting for who you are and what you believe in?

Starting out as an adult in the world, you may wonder where do you fit into society and the workforce? Finding your identity is about breaking through societal impasses. It’s about being able to recognize that gender identity seems to be fluid for a lot of young people. Young adults are exploring their sexuality. Young people are dealing with race and spiritual practices in terms of discrimination with goals of transformation and change. They want to live in a world of justice. Finding your space in this world and your authentic self means finding and exploring your identity.

Self Identity and Society

man wearing makeup
Photo by Jameson Mallari Atenta on Pexels.com

Doing this, in turn, has an influence on society. Societies change when people can be themselves openly. We create more inclusive communities when there’s a greater acceptance of different ways of being in the world. While some places are making progress, not all places are the same in this regard. Discrimination and bigotry still exist in – ranging from the overt to the covert.

So because of this depending on where you live, questions may have come up for you as you reflect on who you are and how comfortable you feel presenting as yourself to the world. For example, does the way you identify fit into society’s views? Or have you felt like an outsider most or all of your life? Do you see examples of your identity in society? How you answer those questions can influence how safe or unsafe you feel in being able to present fully as who you are.

Working On Self-Identity Through Therapy

One way you can work through self-identity issues and how they affect your life is to attend therapy with an affirming therapist. An affirming therapist is important because otherwise, you may find yourself feeling judged by the very person you’re going to for help. Find a therapist who recognizes all the dimensions of identity and with whom you feel safe and at ease.

One of the things I pride myself on is being able to help young people figure out how they identify and navigate self-identity and society. I attribute this in part because I have music as my “co-therapist” and a belief in the innate basic goodness of others. Also as someone who always tends to “march to the beat of their own drummer,” I especially enjoy working with those young people who don’t feel like they fit in with the crowd. I recognize the ways in which society can put up barriers to people being able to be who they are.

Because of these things, I work with people in whatever ways they identify to help them find their authentic selves. 

How Can We Support You As You Explore Your Self-Identity?

At SoundWell Music Therapy, both CJ and I offer support to people to help them recognize the full dimensions of identity. People often think of themselves or each other as one-dimensional. There are a lot of labels that combine together and inform our unique selves, and we’re here to help you find what resonates for you. 

If you’re ready to take a step toward exploring your identity in a safe, non-judgmental space, be sure to contact us. We offer a free 15-minute phone consultation during which we can talk more about what your needs are. You can schedule here.

References: 

[1]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gBaTbiWKB0w

[2]https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/observations/clearing-up-some-misconceptions-about-neurodiversity/

[3]https://www.nytimes.com/2019/06/04/magazine/gender-nonbinary.html

[4]https://www.asanet.org/topics/race-and-ethnicity

[5]https://www.disabled-world.com/disability/awareness/neurodiversity/  

[6]https://www.healthline.com/health/sense-of-self#:~:text=Personality%20traits%2C%20abilities%2C%20likes%20and,sense%20of%20who%20they%20are

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