The paradox of identity, Part 1

This post begins with my approximation of one of my “standard raps” (talks) as a leader of psycho-educational therapy groups – my examination of the concept of identity: “We think of identity as that which is unique to us, that which characterizes us as the singular person we are, But there’s a riddle embedded in the concept. How do we know who we really are? Think of Robinson Crusoe, or Tom Hanks’ character in “Cast Away,” alone on an island for a long time. As time goes on without human contact, how can he know who he is? How can he know if he’s kind or sensitive, or if he’s kept his sense of humor? Only when he meets Friday can Robinson Crusoe begin to reconstruct an identity.

The paradox of identity is that it relies on relationships with others to define it, and doesn’t exist in a social vacuum. No one person is the absolute authority on your identity – but neither are you, because you can’t be objective about yourself. The person your intimates know you as might not always validate your Cherished Self Image. (We all have one.) I remember one of the first times I was with my divorced first wife, Doris, in the company of my then-girlfriend Maria – my wife of twenty-seven years. (We all remain close friends.) When I made some reference to myself as a laid-back person, they both laughed loud and long.

I’m not a laid-back person by nature; that was just part of my Cherished Self Image. People who know me well know that I’m an intense person, with lots of energy. That doesn’t mean I can’t ever be laid back, just that it’s not my default mode.”

In my career as a psychotherapist I came across a number of folks who were people pleasers. I was good at spotting the insecurities that go along with being a people pleaser, because I used to be one, myself. People pleasers want to be liked by everyone – even people they don’t like. Some people in therapy with me had, or developed, insight into their compulsion to please others, even at their own expense, and made it a goal of therapy to get over their “phony” people pleasing ways. The opposite of phony-ness is “authenticity,” which can be learned with attention and practice.

As a young man, just out of four years in the Army, I felt like everybody  in the psychology program knew more than me. I hadn’t developed a secure sense of who I was. I’d gotten over some bad habits of my youth, but I had a lot of self-doubt about my fitness to be a psychotherapist. What I recognized was that when I met new people – especially if I liked or respected them – I tried to come across as the person I thought they might want me to be. I sought their approval by trying to please them. I said things I didn’t really mean, and did favors it wasn’t in my heart to do. I monitored others for signs of disapproval, so I could improve my act.

I knew I couldn’t be an effective therapist unless I stopped being phony with others. Providence supplied my mentor in this process, in the form of my gestalt therapy professor. Dr. Fred Axelberd was known for a frankness in personal encounters that some saw as brutal, but he became my primary role model for being authentic. As an example: If a grad student asked him after class, “Hey, do you want to go have a beer and finish this conversation?” and he didn’t want to , he’d simply say, “No.” and walk away. No context, no explanation, no excuse. If the student felt hurt or rejected, that was on him. Fred didn’t feel like he had to justify his social decisions to others. One day Fred looked me in the eye and asked me, “You want everyone to like you, don’t you?” I couldn’t deny it, and resolved to change.

People pleasers are excessively “polite” and have to justify any “no” they might express. They say polite/phony things rather than simply expressing their wishes. “Sorry, I’d like to stay but I can’t. I’ve got to ______.” Recognizing my own need to seek approval from everyone, I set about emulating Fred and not making excuses for my decisions about what I wanted to do with whom, when. It’s a cognitive behavioral therapy technique called “exposure,” where you confront your fear of drowning by getting in the water. I taught myself over time that if I said or did something authentic, and someone didn’t like me or disapproved as a result, it wasn’t the end of the world. I could survive someone’s disapproval.

Fred Axelberd’s “Gestalt Man” course provided fertile ground for my personal growth, as well as experiences that trained me to do therapy in the gestalt mode. One of the course requirements was being videotaped in front of the class, both as the client in a gestalt session, and as the therapist. I spent time in what gestalt therapists call “the hot seat,” and got a taste of the vulnerability that psychotherapy clients can feel. After each session, we’d all watch the videotape, which could be stopped at any point if Fred or a classmate had an observation or suggestion. It felt like being examined naked in public, but I learned a lot about myself in the process. There’ll be more about identity – and gestalt therapy – in my next post.









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