Lets Talk About Our Preoccupation with Identity

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The current emphasis on all things identity reflects in part the nature of our adolescent society. By adolescent society I mean a society whose psychic energy is bound up in the developmental tasks of humans aged 13 to 21. The developmental tasks of adolescents revolve around identity formation and belonging as they attempt to separate from the family to explore multiple narratives of self as they project themselves into possible futures outside of the family unit.

We humans dislike voids, vacuums, and empty spaces because they tend to be the sources of anxiety and stress, and as the teenager separates from the family they experience a void of belonging and turn to peers to fill this gap. In an ideal context of secure attachment to parents, teenagers need not choose between family and peers but can move unhindered between both spheres of interpersonal influence and belonging.

However, an emergent trend we clinicians see in our work with families is an overemphasis on peer-attachment, at the expense of parental attachment. One can delineate this trend starting with the countercultural movement in the west dating back to the mid-sixties when a full-blown rejection of the “wisdom of elders” was supplanted by the “wisdom of peers”.

From an attachment perspective, one can hypothesize that it all began with the baby boomers setting the tone for greater freedom and self-emancipation. Underneath their rejection of their parents’ generation of conformity was a growing awareness that their parents failed to provide them with the emotional support and guidance all children need. Their parents, having grown up during the great depression and the great wars, did not have the luxury to concern themselves with emotional safety and nurturing. Safety and nurturing were purely instrumental and represented putting food on the table and praying that their fathers and brothers would survive the horrors of war.

In the attachment vacuum that such geopolitical factors created, the baby boomers turned to each other for guidance, safety, and belonging, and the first peer-oriented generation was born. And together they dreamed up a better world, with peace and love and equality speaking volumes to their attachment histories and choosing to live in the now as a portal to a better future. By rejecting the arc of history, they created the psychology of inevitability, whereby the future is just more of the present, and history is irrelevant. It’s no wonder that Gestalt “here and now” therapies were so popular among this generation.

As a contre-poids to this ahistorical movement, we saw the popularity of white male European theories of psychology among academics further compound an alienating force from self by adhering to such obscure myth inspired, unscientific constructs as the Oedipal Complex, Anima-Animus, Borromean knot, etc. From a clinical and attachment perspective, these pseudo-scientific escapades were honest, at times insightful, but unaware attempts to circumvent the real interpersonal forces that formed these white European writers and their patients. These clinicians created a tradition of mythopoeic triangulation by postulating obscure constructs to circumvent the real interpersonal forces to explain their patients’ distress. It is no surprise that some white academic Boomers are still pounding the Jungian drum in their attempts to understand their place in the world. One could say that they are trapped and hiding out in Foucault’s 19th century Disciplinary Society, ill-equipped to navigate the digital tide foretold in Deleuze’s Postscript on the Societies of Control (1992).

Nonetheless, once becoming parents and unaware of the impact of their attachment histories, but ideologically driven towards greater freedom and protecting themselves and their kids from history, the boomer generation parented out of guilt and fear to avoid hurting their kids as they were hurt. Add to the mix higher divorces rates and the emergence of the institutional daycare economy to accommodate working parents, and the context was ripe for increased levels of parental guilt and anxiety. And their grandchildren, either Millennials or Generation Z, have evolved into the digital nomads of today.

These cohorts are attempting to fill the attachment void created by their grandparents with their preoccupation with virtual relationships. In the absence of centralized, stable, trusting and predictable parenting and caregiving relationships and rituals, these cohorts, following in their grandparents’ footsteps have turned to their peers for guidance, validation, and belonging.

This has created a peer-oriented culture where peers are exclusively deemed as reliable and trusting allies. Because the decentralized structures of single and blended families and the institutional daycare economy have failed to provide them with the optimal context in which to meet their attachment needs, the emerging peer-oriented culture has become a defining relational template for this generation. Also, in terms of changing family structures, the blended family is less stable, with higher divorce rates than nuclear families, creating a context for increased attachment volatility and anxiety among all family members. At the heart of this anxiety is the ambiguity around the new familial contract where relational trust and belonging (the need to renegotiate the relational contract beyond bloodlines within the family) is front and center in the evolving dynamic of the blended family.

The psychological fallout from this is a generation of insecure, anxious children turning to other insecure, anxious children to guide them through the labyrinth of adolescence and young adulthood. Underlying this peer-oriented tendency is a fundamental distrust in the reliability and predictability of a centralized parental authority and its surrogates to provide them with the relational-emotional context they need.

The paradox of peer-oriented relationships is that even though they may feel intense, they are more often than not void of any real intimacy. This is evidenced by the reluctance of many teenagers and young adults to reveal their vulnerabilities to their peers, even though they claim that these same peers are the most important people in their lives.

One manifestation of this peer-oriented culture is the anxious preoccupation of one’s status on social media platforms. Intimate relationships are replaced by superficial social media interactions where fear of being truly known and revealed is a defining characteristic of this medium. The repercussion of this is that self-esteem is now as volatile as weather patterns, at the mercy of innumerable faceless friends’ likes or dislikes of one’s superficial profile activities. It is no wonder that this generation suffers more from depression, anxiety, loneliness, and boredom than previous generations. However, many studies on mental health identify the importance of two to five intimate friendships along with family belonging and support as sufficient to buffer people from experiencing such distress.

And self-esteem is central to our experience of identity, as is emotional awareness. From birth on, if the parent is emotionally attuned to their child, they will name and reflect their child’s emotional states back to them. This process is called mirroring and appears to be a latent process wired into the human brain. Mirroring both verbal and non-verbal cues grounds the evolving identity of the child in reality and gives it meaning. The parental mirror being the portal to reality and identity, and ultimately lays the foundation for moral development. If the parental mirror is fragmented due to acute, historical or transgenerational neglect or trauma, then the child’s sense of self will also become fragmented. But if the parental mirror is relatively intact, the child will be affirmed that their subjective experience of themselves exists as real, valid, good and worthy, and by extension fosters empathy and compassion for others.

This process is at the core of what is commonly referred to as self-esteem, which is qualitatively different from self-confidence. Self-confidence is trust in my ability to perform a specific task, whereas self-esteem is trusting that my feelings and perceptions are true for me. I may lack self-confidence on the hockey rink, but not doubt that my poor performance is a reflection of who I am. Because the core sense of who I am is rooted in the trust that my feelings and perceptions are true and valid for me, irrespective of my performance on a specific task.

Over time, we could say that high self-esteem becomes centralized within the self, whereas low self-esteem becomes decentralized in the eyes of others who are assessing our performance. Or in other words, low self-esteem reflecting our fragmented sense of self and metaphorically, we become compulsively dependent on others to reassemble our fragmented mirror. And it is from our intact or fragmented mirrors, and consequently our sense of self and identity, that we weave meaning into our lives.

Our current peer-attached culture is ripe for obsessing about identity, which is occupying a more prominent place in the public sphere as we struggle to understand our place in this brave new digital world. And our sense of identity is intrinsically linked to our sense of belonging with belonging being the soil in which identity takes root. Historically, belonging to the tribe guaranteed my physical survival whereas exclusion from the tribe meant certain physical death at the claws and teeth of roaming carnivorous predators. Hence, without secure belonging, one’s psychic energy is predominantly preoccupied with survival. Whereas today the threat is no longer a physical one, but an existential one and the initial promises of social media platforms to connect us in revolutionary ways have inevitably stunted us.

By inevitably I mean that most people have no idea what freedoms and control they are signing over when they press “agree” to access their apps. And even if they do know, most people really don’t care because their immediate need is to “exist” online and be seen, heard, belong, responded and reacted to. Ease of access to “exist” on the digital plane is their primary goal for which they are willing to sacrifice more fundamental needs and values. Whereas concerns about privacy, control over content, the commodification of users, changes in governance structures, transparency, and corporate accountability etc, pale in comparison to the pseudo-existential imperative to “exist” and “belong” in this brave new world. Ultimately what is sacrificed in this seamless exchange between the impersonal corporation and the individual user is the “I“ in identity, and by extension, the “In” in the individual.

The false and naive promise of social media as purveyors of non-toxic digital interpersonal binding agents fuels our attempts to fill the gaps between the fragments of our identity and belonging and explains the levels of psychological distress associated with withdrawal when users unplug. However, recent studies indicate an increase in well being over time after social media users unplug.

It is not by accident that Facebook is the foil par excellence for reflecting this fragmentation of identity and belonging because an adolescent developed it in his attempt to navigate his struggles with identity and belonging. That billions of people have signed on to Facebook is indicative of the adolescent developmental stage of our society.

Also, the popularity of pop psychology YouTube gurus that millennials and their younger peers are turning to for guidance highlights their attempts to soothe the unsoothable: searching in vain in the infinite space of virtual impersonal connection to fill the void that only real flesh and body connections and lived experience can provide. And through these gurus they are attempting to emulate them in their search for identity, swallowing whole the values of others through prescriptive 12 step programs of rules or lessons for life that sacrifice process for prescription.

And emulation is quintessentially adolescent, as is prescription over process. For a concrete illustration of the current emphasis on prescription over process, we just need to look to the epidemic of medicating children for a range of psychological issues including anxiety, depression, and ADHD, which one could argue are some of the many symptoms of an insecure attachment style in children. Unfortunately, today’s children are the canaries in the modern-day fragmented digital mineshaft.

Finally, in our digital age identity has become liquefied, translucent and movable, permeable and fragile, reflecting back to us the fragmentation of our epoch, just as adolescence does. It is no surprise that populist strongmen leaders who appeal to our base fears around divisive issues of identity and belonging are on the rise. They present us with monolithic narratives that attempt to soothe our uncertain nervous systems by prescribing the poison as an antidote to our fragmented collective malaise. And the fire burning beneath the fury of identity politics may be a simple yearning to belong within a neoliberal capitalist society where impersonal multinational corporations are vying to share the same rights and freedoms as we humans.


Lets Talk About Our Preoccupation with Identity was originally published in Hacker Noon on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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