Our church has a special class on Thursday nights that has helped me overcome my bad habits and has gotten me more insight into living in a more godly way. Last Thursday, in that class, the teacher–Pastor Jack Lezza– taught on identity. One of the questions he posed to us was this: Why do children dress up on Halloween? Well, why does anyone like dressing up in a costume? He said that people dress up because they want to pretend that they are someone else. This is the many wonders of children’s imagination. The problem becomes when adults morph into identities that negatively influence their behaviors and course of life. Take Cesar Sayoc, who mailed bombs to kill various government officials that he hated, for instance. He wanted to be a crusader that got rid of what he saw he were “evil” people in this country. His identity and those he identified his enemies as had great influence on the destructive behaviors that have now landed him in prison.
I believe that most of us start seriously identifying who we will become as adults in our adolescent years. We start asking ourselves, mostly subconsciously, the question–“Who am I?” Some teens rebel against their parents’ rules because they are trying to solidify their own identity, apart from who their parents, or anyone else, for that matter, would like them to be. This is also the time when most parents give their children significantly more independence, like the ability to drive a car, for instance. Teens also look for a peer group, often called “cliques” that they identify with and with which they want to belong.
However, sometimes during that time, and even, in some cases, during childhood, we can start claiming identities for ourselves that have the potential to be a destructive influence on our behavior and course of life. I call these broken or destructive identities because of their negative impact on one’s behavior. For instance, for a long time, I have believed (and am continuing to struggle to let go of) the identity of “Miss Never-Good Enough.” Yes, this identity has helped me to have high expectations of myself and not be lazy, but the destructive part of this identity is that it has not allowed me to make mistakes, even as part of the learning process. This broken identity also has caused me, in the past, to be too reluctant to learn how to do things that I wasn’t confident in doing. Thus, I had a hard time moving forward in my learning process because of my tendency towards perfectionism and my claimed identity of “Never Good Enough.” I had claimed this identity because many people didn’t believe in my God-given abilities to do certain things and because of many years of bullying by some of my peers.
We can claim broken or destructive identities mainly through negative experiences, especially if we were being verbally abused by people who we had once admired or had great authority over you—such as a teacher or close relative. This verbal abuse greatly influences us to believe and claim these broken and destructive identities and eventually becomes part of who we are (or believe we are) as a person.
In order to change these identities, we need to change the way we think about ourselves. We need people on our side that will encourage us to live in a more positive identity and will not reinforce our broken identity in any way. For instance, in my case, I have some good friends at church, my mentor J, and also some at my job who encourage me to break up with the “Miss Never Good Enough” identity by reminding me of the good I have done and how I have positively impacted their lives. Without these people, I wouldn’t be able to be where I am today. We also need to constantly remind ourselves that we can make a positive difference in others’ lives and that we don’t have to be said broken identity, whether it is Ms. Or Mr. Not-Good-Enough or the false, destructive identity of Ms., Mrs., or Mr. Worthless, or any other destructive identities that we have believed ourselves to be. We need to replace these broken and destructive identities with a positive identity that will help us to be successful and more motivated to be who we were meant to be.
Positive identities are those that encourage us to live out who we were meant to be all along. These true, positive identities may include such identifiers as Mr. or Ms. Kind, Compassionate, Caring, Intelligent, Generous, Gracious, and Forgiving. My personal favorite identity is “Child of God” and “Ms. Perseverance.” One way you can cultivate a positive identity for yourself is to think of things that others like about you and make yourself a name tag that has that personality characteristic on it. For instance, if others say you are a thoughtful person, make yourself a name tag, “Ms.” or “Mr. Thoughtful” and put it somewhere prominent where you will be reminded to live out this identity.
How we identify others also has great impact on us and our behaviors. When people develop prejudices against others, for instance, their negative identification of a group of people other than them impacts how they treat them and those around them. For instance, the gunman who recently murdered 11 people in a synagogue had deep-seated hatred for Jewish people. If said gunman instead had served and loved Jewish people or didn’t have any prejudices against Jews, this incident would have never happened.
So, how exactly do we overcome our prejudices? First of all, when we get prejudiced ideas about a particular group of people, it is best to learn about them and their ways. When we learn more about the people we had hatred or prejudice against before, we often find that they are not that different from us. Moreover, we can understand them better and their true identity, and often find beauty in their identity.
Another way we can overcome prejudice and placing negative identities on another person or people, is to replace these with positive identities. For instance, there were several people at work that I did not get along with in the past, but when I purposely tried to see the light in them, that is, their positive personality characteristics, I was able to have more love and compassion for them than I have ever had before! This helped me get along with these people a lot better. When we strive to identify, even our enemies, positively, instead of negatively, we can change the world for the better.
As you can see, identities—both the ones we give ourselves and the ones we assign to others-greatly influences our behavior. When we cultivate negative identities for ourselves and others, we only cultivate destruction and negativity. However, when we cultivate positive identities for ourselves and others, we can better live out what we were meant to be.