David W. Jensen


WHO DO YOU THINK YOU ARE?—Happiness and Healing Through an Understanding of Personal Identity
David W. Jensen, CMHC, SUDC

Personal identity is an often misunderstood concept. Some perceive individual roles as their identity. Others, consider specific behaviors to be such. And for still others, the haves and have-nots in their lives become the conceptualization of who they are. Over the years, in my work as a counselor, I have developed a much different understanding of personal identity than these common misconceptions. I often use this carefully considered model of identity to give my clients a much more accurate understanding of self-concept and to challenge deficits in self-esteem that have been developed over the period of many years.
We begin this life, born into an imperfect world, to imperfect parents, and continuously develop in the midst of siblings, peers, and supposed mentors, often with similar human failings, along with their own variety of personal opinions. Dr. William Fletcher, one of my mentors during my mental health training, described this process as being born into the world as pure love, then having the loving shell that surrounds us fractured by negative events and interactions. We then begin an attempt to control our world and either distance or, in other ways, protect ourselves from such negative experiences. As children, we often tended to trust, or at least defer to, the judgments of those close to us, especially those who were supposedly older and wiser than us or those with whom we had developed a close relationship. When such judgments or interactions in a child’s life are consistently negative (or if they greatly exceed positive interactions) and appear to attack one personally, he or she may develop an understanding of self that, if unchallenged, can remain with the child into and throughout adulthood.  Such a self-concept often invokes negative self-esteem, anxiety, depression, and robs a man or woman of a large share of success and happiness within life’s experience.
Dr. Carl Rogers, a pioneer in personality theory, termed an individual’s true identity as “true self,” or the self that you actually are. Often, many people have a hard time separating true identity or true self from their own negative or undesirable behaviors of the past. These are usually events that if they could, they would go back and act differently. Unfortunately, no one gets a redo; the hands of time are set and will not move backward. Two concepts are at work in this scenario, guilt and shame. Guilt can be functional if it helps us move forward with a recognition that we have acted in opposition to our own personal values and beliefs. Therefore, we can say to ourselves: “I made a mistake. I don’t like the way this feels. I don’t agree with my own course of action. Therefore, the next time, I will act differently.” We can, then, move forward with a new proactive outlook toward future success and happiness. Conversely, shame is destructive. It speaks of being stuck, hopeless, void of any solution, because it denotes: “I am the mistake. I am broken and cannot be fixed. I am hopeless and devoid of any solution. I am worthless.” Shame implies a false identity, a set of lies that degrade your true self, either to a small fraction of who you truly are, or to someone who doesn’t even resemble your true identity.  Such a self-perspective halts progression, and leaves a person stuck, without any volition toward positive change.
In my study, I discovered the website of psychologist Jenna LeJeune, who asked: “What do you want your life to stand for? If you could choose, what would you have your life be about? Did you move in that direction today?”  There is a Chinese saying, “If we don’t decide where we are going, we’re bound to end up where we are headed.” Dr. LeJeune asks questions which lead to the discovery of, and acting upon, personal values. The Chinese saying that she cites seems to indicate that, at times, we may behave in opposition to our personal values, yet we are capable of reevaluating and making the decision to realign our behavior with these values.
We are all human beings with human failings. Not one of us has made it through life without, in some way, at some time, compromising our own beliefs and values in an attempt to get something that we wanted. Yet, I believe that it is these key values and beliefs that largely define us. They comprise our true identity, our true self. In other words, we are human beings, each with an individual personality and a set of governing values and beliefs.
Take “honesty” for example, which is commonly one of the top values that I have heard from those with whom I have worked. Some have indicated: “I thought honesty was one of my values, but that can’t be right because last week I was given too much change at the grocery store and I kept it.” My response may be: “How do you feel about keeping the money?” Most often the answer would be that he or she feels bad about it, which indicates to me that honesty is one of his or her values.
It is important to realize that when we have behavior that reflects our core values, we feel inner peace and satisfaction; we feel good. Conversely, when our behavior goes against these values, we may feel anxiety or depression; we feel bad. We may even think that we don’t like ourselves, but “we don’t like our behavior” would be more accurate. The values, or in other words, our identity, our true self, did not change. We are simply reaping the natural feelings from the behavior that we sowed, behavior that contradicted what we value, believe, and hold dear.
The list of possible value violations is much too long and much too personal to list here. You know them because you have lived them and have felt the regret that naturally results when you have strayed from them. The important thing is that, when mistakes occur, you must use the guilt model, as described previously, and avoid shame like the vicious plague that it is. Understand that occasional poor judgment and making errors are part of the human condition and learning process and do not dictate your individual worth or identity, even though someone may have taught you the opposite in the past. That person either taught you a lie or you misperceived their meaning due to youth or some other factor that was likely out of your control. Therefore, allow yourself to make mistakes and still be okay. Remember that an apology to someone you may have offended in some way, whether justified or merely perceived, can be not only healing, but further validation of a personal value to show respect to others around you.
An accurate understanding of and respect for who you truly are can be the beginning of a very productive and healing process that dispels the lies and degradation of shame, promotes a positive self-image based in truth, and may allow you to move forward proactively toward a life of increased inner peace, contentment, resilience, achievement, success, and happiness. Begin defining, understanding, and pondering, your top five or six core values today. (Decide what is really important to you.) Next, define your meaning for each of the values or characteristics. (Determine what you understand them to be.) Finally, write down two behaviors, events, things that you have done or plan to do that reflect the value and show the importance of the value to you. (Demonstrate active use of your values.) Once all this is done, I would suggest that you ponder the thought: “If another person has these same values, would they be someone I could respect and look up to?” If the answer is yes, wouldn’t it be wise to allow yourself that same admiration? I hope so, because that is what you truly deserve.
Dave Jensen is a Clinical Mental Health Counselor and Substance Use Disorder Counselor specializing in Positive Psychology, Self-esteem, Substance and Behavioral Addiction, and practices in Salt Lake, Davis, and Utah Counties.