Is that really you, reading these words? Or are you just a body double or stand-in for your authentic self, a clone of the identifications you make with other people? If so, you might want to learn more about how psychological identifications influence your sense of self.
Through the process of identification, we unconsciously assimilate aspects or attributes of other people, and we’re transformed to some degree by what we have absorbed.
This is okay if we’re identifying with the best attributes of others—such as their kindness, compassion, wisdom, and strength, as long as we remain our own person and know our own mind. However, much of the time we unknowingly identify with the flaws or weaknesses of others, especially the ways in which they’re being passive, needy, and disrespecting of themselves.
Not all identifications are about other people. We can also identify with our social and professional standing, with our wealth or poverty, and with our intelligence or the feeling that we are lacking in it. People also identify with their personality, body-image, athleticism, mind, and ego. Such identifications limit our intelligence and our capacity for wisdom and happiness. For this post, I’ll narrow the discussion to the identifications we make concerning other people.
Often the aspects or attributes we assimilate from others consist of negative emotions such as feeling deprived, refused, controlled, rejected, criticized, and unloved. These identifications represent our unconscious determination to hold on to these varieties of pain and suffering.
The first identification we make is with our parents. As much as we can identify with their decency and goodness, we also assimilate their weaker aspects. We begin to experience ourselves in negative ways as we identify with how weak and insecure they are or how badly they feel about themselves.
Through identification, our parents take up residence, figuratively speaking, in our psyche. Even when, as adults, we’ve left our childhood home and started our own families, these attributes of our parents are still lodged inside us to a pronounced degree.
It’s often the case that one parent is the model for a passive, defensive feeling or voice inside us, while the other parent is the model for a critical, sarcastic feeling or voice we experience. A great many people, completely unschooled in depth psychology, go through life unaware of being under the influence of these feelings or voices.
Much of this inner conflict regarding aggression and passivity is a feature of human nature. At this point in our evolution, inner conflict contaminates the human psyche. Yet awareness of the role that identifications play in maintaining inner conflict can serve as a key to help liberate us from an underachieving fate.
We often base the choice of both our romantic partner and our friends on our unconscious identification with the worst aspects of our mother or father. For instance, if a man (Clyde) felt rejected by his mother, he’s likely to become infatuated with a self-centered or cold-hearted woman with whom he’s going to experience, in a process called transference, continued feelings of rejection. Or he’ll become like his mother and do to a decent woman what his mother, in the way of rejection, did to him. While acting in a rejecting manner toward this woman, he identifies with what she is feeling, as if he himself were the one being rejected.
Though Clyde was on the receiving end of his mother’s rejection, he nonetheless identified with how she felt about herself. She would not have been cold and rejecting of him if she were not also plagued emotionally by self-rejection or even self-hatred. This is the deep, dark identification with his mother that now shapes so much of how Clyde functions in the world. Through his identification with her, he has acquired an emotional attachment (an unconscious addiction) to the feeling of being rejected. Only by acquiring awareness of this identification and the accompanying emotional attachment can he liberate himself from it. Remember, he’s fated to repeat what’s unresolved within him.
If a woman (Dora) felt ignored or unloved by her father, she’s likely to fall for a flawed guy with whom she would continue to feel these negative emotions. She’ll complain to him that he doesn’t love or support her enough, but these negative emotions are ones she’s “programmed” to go on enduring. In other words, she’s emotionally attached to feeling unloved and unworthy. Dora could just as easily establish a relationship with a passive man and then treat him the way her father treated her, as she identifies with what this boyfriend feels when he’s being devalued and unappreciated.
Dora’s father would have acknowledged her and shown her more love if he had been emotionally supportive of himself and in touch with his own inner value. As a child, Dora identified with her father in his deep repressed conviction that he lacked significance and value. That painful identification resides within her, ready and willing to be experienced in her new relationships and environments.
As youngsters, Clyde and Dora also identified with the same-sex parent. Clyde assimilated his father’s low regard for himself, while Dora resonated with her mother’s self-rejection. These identifications greatly influence Clyde and Dora as they struggle to find happiness. While all these unconscious influences appear to be messy and complicated, Clyde and Dora can sort it all out, providing they acquire deeper insight.
As we can see, identifications such as these produce a disconnect from one’s authentic self. Our identifications are the asymmetrical self-portraits we hang in the gallery of our psyche.
We often identify with people who are entangled in self-defeating or self-damaging behaviors. That’s because we feel their weakness and vulnerability inside ourselves. It’s well-known fact that moviegoers often show sympathy and support for bank robbers and other rogues and bad guys depicted onscreen, particularly when these flawed characters are “little” people fighting the “system” and aren’t overtly evil. (When it comes to truly evil characters, we’re very likely to identify with those who are trying to defeat them.) The moviegoers, when identifying with small-fry villains, are resonating with the grim helpless feeling of being caught and punished for naughty behavior, which we all experienced in childhood and still carry in our emotional memory banks.
There are two basic kinds of identification, primary and secondary. The primary one is usually based on what the child experiences through his mother, father, or early caretakers. The secondary one is based on what the adult person has adopted in the way of a persona or behavior to compensate for (and to cover up or defend against) the first identification. Let’s return to Clyde and Dora to understand what happens here. Clyde, in a self-defeating manner that is in no way his fault, identifies with his father’s weakness and passivity. He sees his father slip into depression and become an addictive personality. He observes that his father fails to represent himself effectively around friends and allows himself to be bossed around by his wife. By the time Clyde is a teenager, he’s likely to be experiencing self-criticism and self-rejection associated with his own lack of strength and confidence.
Clyde now finds himself attracted to teenage friends who are bullies and mischief-makers. He identifies with their bluster and bravado, and feels empowered himself by modeling their characteristics. This is the secondary identification, and it’s adopted as a defense and cover-up of the underlying passivity associated with the first identification. He’s now able to say in his unconscious defense: “I’m not passive like my father. I’m a tough guy, and I really like that aggressive feeling.”
I remember strongly identifying, as a young teenager in the 1950’s, with the actor James Dean after he appeared in his starring role as a juvenile delinquent in “Rebel Without a Cause.” That identification was a testament to my extensive self-doubt and passivity. My primary identification was with my father, while my secondary identification, with James Dean, was adopted to help me feel strong and rebellious in compensation for the underlying passivity of the primary identification—but also to deny and cover-up my emotional attachment to that weakness.
Our secondary identifications can easily change and shift as we go through life. My identification with James Dean probably lasted less than a year. Secondary identifications came and went over the years, until I was able over time to shift away from my primary identification. Primary identifications are likely to remain constant unless we address through insight and therapy the emotional attachments associated with them.
Dora also adopts a secondary identification that has a strong influence on her personality. She identifies with insecure women, and she acquires women friends who are floundering with self-regulation issues. She becomes a codependent enabler of them. This enables her to feel a bit superior, which is a coping mechanism as well as a defense. She generates some sense of value in feeling needed by others. She can also say as a defense, “I’m not interested in feeling devalued and insecure. I’m the one who’s stronger. Look at how good I feel in being able to help others.” Meanwhile, she unconsciously identifies with the low self-esteem that plagues her friends.
Through identification, we’re quick to feel precisely what we imagine someone else is feeling, no matter how painful that might be. Children do so with respect to their parents, and parents are also quick to absorb emotionally what they sense their children are experiencing. We can feel each other’s shame, guilt, self-doubt, and passivity, and we then absorb those negative feelings directly into our emotional life.
What’s the remedy for this? It’s all about acquiring self-knowledge. The best depth psychology presents a coherent plan to boost our consciousness. We need to become aware that, when experiencing and acting out what is negative or painful, we’re making an unconscious choice to indulge in or entertain the underlying negative emotions. Understanding identifications as they apply to us personally helps us to localize and identify those negative emotions. It’s another way to make visible and bring into focus the opaque world of our psyche.
We’re sharpening our inner vision. This enables us recognize that critical moment when the inner choice presents itself. Do we take the painful path of least resistance into the old identification and its corresponding negative emotions? Or do we seek another way, one that leads us away from such negativity and, at some point, to a deep connection with our authentic self? We’re striving to learn, having added more detail to our inner map, how to come to our own rescue.
See also, “Westerners Who Identify with Terrorists.”