Identity Crisis

From where do you get your sense of identity? This question has come to the fore with the revelation that US ‘black’ activist Rachel Dolezal was in fact born a freckled white girl. John Elder in a Sunday Age article about Dolezal writes, “In a post-modernist world, identity has become a do-it-yourself project.” This week I was running a consultation with business leaders around the importance of relationships in the workplace. Inevitably at one point in our conversation, the focus turned to social media. Someone made the apt comment that everyone is now a brand. On Facebook and LinkedIn people promote themselves like advertisers promote a product or sell an image with a particular brand.

The promotion and selling of the self as a brand raises many questions; What is the true self? What is false? What do we enhance? What of these things do we believe to be true about ourselves? Do we end up believing our own lies? Concluding the same article by John Elder, Dr Monima Chadha a philosopher from Monash University says, “A deluded inauthentic identity is one which has few, if any, convergences with stories that others tell about us.”

Stephen Covey in his book 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, first published in 1989 but still very relevant today, talks about beginning with the end in mind. In this section of the book, he asks, what would you like people to say about you at your funeral? He believes that if we can get a picture of the self we want to be remembered for, it will help us shape our present, future and ultimately our identity.

So we come back to the core question, from where do you get your sense of identity? Training I first undertook in the mid nineties and still teach from time to time asks the question this way, How do we form the picture we have of ourselves? Many of the answers given are outlined below.


 Some that are missing include, the media, colleagues, achievements and natural abilities. A picture is then drawn that looks like a dunny on an island. The island is seen as the true or potential self that is fluid and changes with every encounter and experience. In contrast the dunny is seen as a fixed structure, rigid, with part of it protruding outside the real or potential self. This represents the picture that we believe to be true about ourselves, even the parts that aren’t true ie those bits outside the real self, which we call the illusion. Dr Hayakawa of San Francisco University says that we spend the majority of our time protecting, reinforcing and enhancing the picture we have of ourselves. Seems to fit with the brand culture that many portray on social media. But the diagram is not finished. A line is drawn from within the dunny stretching through the real self to the outside. This represents the difference between I can and I can’t and the fact that we base our decisions on whether we can or can’t do something on that small picture we have of ourselves.


In the Dolezal conversation it’s the illusion that is of interest. Through events in her life it seems that she has been led to feel a stronger affirmation with the ‘Black’ community than her own genetic background, even to the extent of working to change her appearance. An article in The Conversation by Clive Hamilton of Charles Sturt University ( relates, referring to work by psychologist Shelley Taylor. Taylor calls the illusion benign fictions, which are essentially the lies we deploy to defend our happiness. Linking thoughts, Hamilton sees that if we deceive ourselves about our strengths and weaknesses, we create a veil that distorts our vision of the world, rendering it more agreeable. To the extent we do this, Hamilton believes we maybe sacrificing the opportunity to find a more authentic self from which to live.

The search for the authentic self has been a live topic for me over the last 12 months. It even resulted in me leaving my role as CEO of a small not for profit to pursue writing, teaching, storytelling, study and hopefully, eventually a career in academia. This journey has not been a simple one and led me to anxiety and depression, a state it seemed that I needed to enter to begin to hear and listen to more of my authentic self.

Although the journey has not been easy I believe the benefits far outweigh the cost. Hamilton sees that if we continue to fabricate a false self in order to find happiness we become open to manipulation and ultimately we sacrifice our freedom. It’s been interesting reflecting this week with my wife and a friend, about an organisation that we were all apart of. We each recognised there were times that due to the perceived urgency of the task and its believed importance in the larger scheme of things we made choices that were not true to who we really were. At those times I believe we were operating off a false self that sort amongst other things approval and belonging.

It’s been affirming that as I’ve begun to better listen to my true self I am less susceptible to that kind of manipulation. It is with somewhat of a red face that I admit last year to being inspired by West Wing and certain that I was destined for a career in politics. So glad I never acted on that conviction. I used to be able to notice myself swaying slightly under different influences in the drive to be recognised, approved of, wanting to make a difference, these potential wanderings were made possible by not listening to my authentic self. There is a peace that comes as you settle into your own skin, who you were created to be and then act out of that realisation.

It is very obvious that for whatever reason Rachel Dolezal is not happy in her own skin and until she becomes so, she won’t have the opportunity to truly appreciate who she is and the wonderful person she was created to be. Sad really!

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