Identity or labels?

I was volunteering recording audiobooks at Learning Ally. I read from a book about forming identity in adolescence. I learned that Erik Erikson, in the 50s and 60s, created the psychological theory of how we form our identity that had the most impact on the psychologists and scholars that followed, for decades. Erikson is the one who first used the phrase “identity crisis.” New mainstream theories followed, more current with the times, and so on and so forth. In very simple terms, the basic common ground of most of these theories is that children and adolescents form their identity solely (according to Erikson) or primarily (according to others) from role models around them, people who children and adolescents admire and aspire to be like to, or groups they ‘identify‘ with (like religions, philosophies, parties and similar).

And my brain started to feel choked, while my heart felt caught in a snare of externalities and disassociation from self. More about the snare to come.

Then I was watching Lizzy Weiss’ brilliant show, Switched At Birth.

Switched at Birth - ABC Family

Switched at Birth – ABC Family

In a beautiful, powerful and revealing scene (ep. 2.6, Human/Need/Desire), wonderful Marlee Matlin, as the teacher of a school for hearing impaired teens, asks her students in sign language (I’m paraphrasing), “If someone invented a pill… and tomorrow you could have your hearing back at once, how many of you would take it?” The camera pans on the students. None of them wants it – except for one, one of the lead characters of the show, who’s conflicted – which is dramatically great for the show. But here’s my point: when Marlee asks, “Why (wouldn’t you want your hearing fully back)?” One of the answers is, because we live a fuller, deeper life without the sense of hearing – which I understand personally, and it’s great. But another answer is, “Identity.”



And that’s when I felt the snare tear at my heart and soul.

Not because of the show, naturally. The show’s great. But because I felt it is such a widespread situation, to identify ourselves with something that we have, do or believe in. Instead of with our-self.

See, I have diabetes since the age of 7. I know exactly how much richer my life has become because of all the emotions, lessons, higher connection with myself and others, and shades of life induced by diabetes. I also know how great a compass it has been to guide me toward a healthy and balanced way of life. It made me more sensitive, more attentive, more alert, more understanding of myself and others. All wonderful things. But is diabetes my identity? Do I need diabetes to feel my identity? Absolutely not.

I AM not a diabetic. I have diabetes.
I AM not Italian. I come from Italy.
I AM not a Christian, a Jew, a Muslim, an Atheist. I believe in a religion or another, or none. I come from a culture or another.
I AM not deaf. I have a hearing condition.
I AM not a man, or a woman. I have a sex, a gender.
I AM not an actor, a writer. I do those things.

The only thing that I am is that I AM.

That’s it. And in that I find my identity. Only and absolutely. The fact that I exist, now and/or always, is my identity, and it fulfills me.

Everything else is stuff that I do, believe, or have. Everything else are labels, not identity. They aren’t me. These external things can not be me. Because, I believe, I am all those things, not just one of them.

If I identify myself with and define my identity by something or someone outside of me, then two things are certain: 1. I discriminate between me and those who don’t identify with the same thing, and, 2. I’m bound to “lose my identity” if that external thing changes. And neither of these things are the pillars for happiness, or love.

I love and loved my father, respected him, looked up to him. He was a brilliant man, an innovator, with a gigantic heart, who changed the lives of many people and families for the better. People loved him and still talk about him. I identified with him. I proudly identified with him. Then he became a drug addict and killed himself, leaving the family on the verge of financial collapse.

And that’s the first time I felt the grasp of that snare of externalities and disassociation. I felt the earth gape open under me and I felt I could’ve disappeared. My identity was gone, and not in a pretty way.

Most say identifying with a group, a religion, a belief, a profession gives us a sense of belonging. True. But if that “belonging” becomes one’s identity, then it’s the foundation for unhappiness, or “false happiness”, or stress and neurosis, because, first and above all, we have to belong to ourselves.

Obviously Erikson coined the phrase “identity crisis”, because based on that understanding of self, as soon as you need something OUTSIDE of you to define your identity, you’re bound to have a crisis, or a neurosis, or a psychosis, if you are at all awake. But there can’t be an identity crisis if your identity is YOU, the being who exists, in this moment, with all your colors, shades and dimensions.

The second I say, “I am a Catholic,” for example, I instantaneously set the ground for discrimination, judgment, separation, against anyone who isn’t. If you don’t believe me, read about the Crusades or the Spanish Inquisition. Switch religion, turn on the TV, and read about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict started almost ninety years ago. Switch point of view, and you have the holocaust.

If “I am a father/mother” and identify with it, I’m bound for an ‘identity crisis’ the instant my child leaves the house. Or I become super controlling and possessive, trying to prevent the child from ever really leaving me.

If “I am a ______ (fill in with any job title)” I constantly feel threatened by anything that might or will take my job away.

If “I am young”, I’m setting myself up for tragedy, unless I can convert my depression into something similar to the show “Nip/Tuck” and find fulfillment in it.

The instant I say, I’m an actor, and identify with it, I should immediately make reservations with a top therapist or find the closest twelve step program, for times when work fluctuates or I get a bad review.

If I say I’m a hearing impaired person, to some degree or another, I don’t connect with those who hear well, I don’t trust them, I judge them. If I find my identity in it, to whatever degree, the second I heal, I suddenly “don’t know who I am.”

Really? Can any of this be the foundation for a truly happy and loving life or world?

I don’t say, I’m a diabetic. I say, I have diabetes. That’s a wold of difference. I am me with or without diabetes. I learned from diabetes things and life lessons I probably would’ve never learned had I not had it. But would I give it up if I could? Of course. I already learned those lessons. I will not be less without it, I will continue to BE ME, and will be off to new experiences.



But there was a time when I thought, for example, “I wonder if without diabetes I’d be an addict (like my father).” And that’s when I wouldn’t have wanted to give it up, I preferred diabetes to the “unknown” of what could’ve happened. Because, back then, I didn’t have me, so I needed something ‘outside of me’ to hold-on to, to ‘keep me safe.’ And I didn’t have me because I had lost focus and got distracted and confused by all the labels I thought I had to put on, but never felt comfortable with.

This is my experience: Identity defined by something outside of myself, only creates confusion and distance, from myself and others, by definition.

I like to be good at what I do and feel fulfilled, but I’m not what I do, believe, or come from.


And that’s plenty.

I obviously am very passionate about this subject because I believe in human beings and in our happiness. I would’ve loved to communicate all this in a much lighter and more fun tone, interspersed with witty jokes and wise anecdotes. So I’m going to use this card by brilliant Chuck Lorre from his beautiful book, What Doesn’t Kill Us Makes Us Bitter. It summarizes in a pretty and tight way everything I just said, and even a bit more (click on the image to enlarge and read).

Chuck Lorre card

Chuck Lorre Productions, #7 – Dharma & Greg

From my heart to yours, I hope that at least some of what I said helps you be happier to just BE.


4 Responses to “Identity or labels?

  • I think I loved , ney adored my parents who were both alcoholics and both died young.They were my parents. I know who I am through being a mummy of a little girl who wears glasses, has the prettiest smile, the coolest little brother, oh and type 1 diabetes. we need to love ourselves for everything about us. After all, we are the only ones who really know us yet still stand to live with us. 🙂 Greatly admire your words and it must take courage to stand up and get our attention. Thank you.

  • peter, thank you thank you, i so needed to read this reminder today!! 🙂

  • Jeanette collier
    5 years ago

    I loved this. So raw & honest. Well done

  • This is so true Peter. It’s easy to get caught up in what we have and what we do or can’t/don’t do, and to lose ourselves in the process.
    We are. I am. You are. That is all. 🙂

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