Tag Archives: identity

Identity, change and consistency

I can tell you a story of my life in terms of change. What I was not able to do as a child that I can do now. What I was able to do in my teens that I can’t do now – all those late night things, and coping without sleep. I can tell you stories of constancy, how things from my childhood are still with me, how things that I consider integral to myself have been with me a long time. All of those stories would be true. It’s like observing light as a wave or a particle.

Every experience I have lived through has influenced me in some way. Every opportunity, every setback, every person I’ve interacted with. I’ve changed, year on year. Some of that change was good, and some of it has taken me years to unpick and recover from. As those experiences shape and shift me, I behave differently, react differently, feel differently and that in turn forms part of how the world seems to me. My own behaviour and responses shape the world I inhabit – for years now I’ve been getting faster at removing myself from drama. If I find someone exhausting to deal with to no good purpose, I step away. I say yes, emphatically, to activities and people that make me happy. As a consequence my life is calmer and richer than ever before. I feel more secure.

At any moment, who we are can seem like a substantial thing. Pressure to change is often threatening. There’s good reason to be wary of anything or anyone that demands you change against your will. Being asked or told to be what you are not is seldom good news. However, the opportunity to grow, stretch and change is usually a blessing. Given room to be more than we were, we can evolve on our own terms. We can flourish. That kind of change often comes slowly and feels more natural.

We are all full of potential and possibility. If life gives us scope to explore those possibilities, we can grow into identities that feel more real than where we started from. We are born into contexts of stories, history, opportunity or lack thereof. We are born into other people’s ideas about who we should be. Given time, space and opportunity we may find we aren’t the person we started out as. That can be a great relief, a shedding of unwanted and restrictive skin. Each choice we make can set us on a new path – and there is always scope to come back and change direction.

It’s when you’re changing that you can most easily see what doesn’t shift. We may label those qualities as virtues and vices, styles of being. “I’m a kind person with a strong work ethic.” “I’m easy come, easy go.” “I’ve got a short temper, I’m wild and passionate” and so forth. These are interesting things, but I think fairly superficial aspects of self. I don’t have a language to talk about my sense of inner self, any more than I have language to talk about the essence of a flame or a river.

I know there are some traditions that identify the core self as absence, emptiness. I don’t experience it that way. For all that I change and flicker, grow taller or smaller, changing shape in response to breezes, the quality of my flame remains flame. Or whatever it actually is. If I explore something new, I soon know what is for me and what is not. I know what fits me and what does not. I know what I respond to. It’s not something I can express in words, although I can dance it, and sometimes I can find tunes that reflect it.


What makes me female?

To the best of my knowledge, I have been identified as female from the moment of my birth. At that point, it was the absence of a penis and balls that defined my gender. What is it that makes me a woman? It’s a question I’ve been asking a lot. I have a body that looks female, (I have breasts, hips and so forth) I have given birth to a child, I have lactated. But the inside of my head has a lot of difficulty with a female gender identity, and certainly doesn’t want a male gender identity either.

Do my breasts make me female? Obviously not, because women can have mastectomies and still be female.

Does my womb make me female? Again, a hysterectomy does not cause a woman to stop being a woman, so clearly that isn’t it.

Does my capacity to have babies make me female? No, because not all women are able to carry a child to term, or even to conceive. The possibility of reproduction cannot therefore be the defining quality.

Does my genitalia make me female? I think not, because many gender-ambiguous babies have been mutilated to give them the appearance of femininity even when the internal body parts don’t support that appearance at all. Genitals cannot therefore be the defining thing either.

It can’t be my chromosomes, because XXY is also a thing. A person may appear XX but also have a Y in there.

It definitely can’t be my brain structure because the inside of my head is undoubtedly the least gender-conforming bit of me.

Equally, a man who loses his penis or balls to accident or illness is still a man. A man who carries enough fat on his body to have something resembling breasts, is still a man.

How do we know? How much of gender is what we agree to present to the world and how we agree to read those presentations? If you give children the same sorts of haircuts and put them in gender-neutral clothes, it can be very hard to identify their genders just by looking at them. As adults, some of us remain able to pass ourselves off as the gender we don’t normally present as, or to confuse anyone looking at us.

Historically, gender has been very much tied up with power and with who can do what. However, if you have equality, do you need easy visual guides to gender? Do you need gender identity? I’m increasingly inclined to think that the answer is no. Which would leave us representing ourselves visually as the kind of people we our – practical, sensual, sporty, outdoorsy, arty, delicate, powerful… whatever you want to be, with no assumption of any ‘natural’ relationship between how you look and what you’ve got in your pants.

Sensual, not sexualised

We all get a barrage of information about how we are supposed to be sexually, and what we are supposed to find attractive. I grew up in a hetra-normative environment, and like many queer people my age and older, I had no words for how I am for too long. I grew up with clear messages about what my apparently female body should look like and do, that my clothes could be my consent, and that my clothes should be sexualised and consenting. And that at the same time it wasn’t ok to be a slut.

All the things I’ve been told to find attractive in men – status symbols, big muscles, dominating personalities – I don’t find sexy in anyone. There’s nothing I find more unattractive than the ‘alpha male’ who takes without asking. The person bold enough to ask for what they want? Now, that’s sexy.

At the personal level, there have been plenty of people in the past – some who were lovers, some were not – who wanted to tell me who I was and what it meant. People who wanted to define my identity for me, describe my sexual identity for me, translate my presence on sexual terms for me – and I think this is normal, because mainstream culture is rife with it and it is what we learn to do to each other.

For a while now I’ve been asking what happens if I reject all notions of the male gaze when considering what to wear. The male gaze of my bloke isn’t an issue on this score, he likes me, and he likes me being happy, all I have to do is show up. I don’t have to dress and act a part for him.

I’ve started asking what happens if I have a sexual identity that begins with how I feel, and not with anything coming at me from outside. A sense of physical self rooted in how my body is and what it enjoys and responds to, not what the culture I live in would have me believe I should enjoy and respond to. What immediately struck me as soon as I began exploring this, is that what comes from me is a far more sensual state of being than a sexual one.

Part of this is practical. With the best will in the world, actual shagging can only take up so much of a person’s time. Issues of chaffing and energy and all that. A sensual state of being is much more available, and much more possible in all kinds of contexts. I realise that I want to form a more tactile relationship with the world around me. I want to touch more – plants, stones and soil especially. I recognise how affected I am by sun and wind on skin, by being in water.

For many reasons, I did not have a very tactile relationship with the world as a child. I expect I’m not alone in that. Adults certainly aren’t supposed to paddle in puddles, stroke trees, put their faces against rocks just for the joy of doing it. We are to dress for how it looks, not for how it feels. We are to touch other humans for sexual purposes or not at all. We are allowed to have sensual, non-sexual relationships with our pets.

I go forth to experiment, to find out who I am if I just put the whole notion of sexual identity down for a while and explore sensual identity instead. I’ll report back if there are any interesting discoveries along the way.

People we pretend to be

We all put on masks, take up fictional identities and dabble with ideas of who we could be. Sometimes it’s a response to the company we’re in – your work persona may not be your Friday night social life persona. Sometimes it is a more deliberate process – role play games, computer games, acting, writing, cosplaying, and other such events can allow us to be people we otherwise are not. It’s a relatively safe way to explore who we might be, or to play out the fantasies of who we wish we were.

I know a number of Druids who started out playing Druids in games. On the other side, I don’t know anyone who has become a ninja or a great military leader by playing computer games.  I know I tested my notions of honour and appropriate behaviour extensively in role play games as a teenager, it helped me figure out who I wanted to be. People use other forms of creative identity to let out the parts of them that can’t otherwise find expression. It may be that many authors of horror and violence are able to be perfectly lovely people because they’ve found a safe space for that part of themselves.

I think it’s worth taking this stuff seriously. Who we pretend to be can all too easily become who we are. So many people get to their middle years and find that their roles – domestic and workish – have become their identities and they don’t much like how that’s working out. Pretending to be someone you aren’t can wear away at your soul over time, and those who hide to fit in can pay a hefty price for doing so.

Who we pretend to be, and the spaces we create by doing so, have massive consequences in our lives and the lives of the people around us. I offer examples – the set of people who are all pretending to be professional and businesslike to operate in the same workspace. The group of people who are living their Pagan identity for a weekend at a camp. The group of people in a pub who are imagining how they’d live if their brand of antisocial politics got into power. All of these things form our lives, and can colour our sense of self even when we tell ourselves we’re only playing at it. The people we pretend to be can take over our lives, and may not take us in the directions we wanted to follow.

I’m wrangling with this a bit on the steampunk side at the moment. Most of the people who get into steampunk want to play with the extravagant period dress. It’s just that this is often about jamming on the fashions of the rich. I don’t want to play at being upper class. I don’t want to be part of that wealth and class system even in an imaginary and often subversive context. I’ve been looking at images of working class women from the Victorian era, the shawls and the bonnets, the absence of bling and glamour. I’m trying to find a way to be that lets me honour my investment in being a working person, and a thinking, creative person.

It’s good to pretend and play, adults need it as much as children do. I think we all play dress up and pretend to be certain kinds of grownups in situations, and sometimes it feels to me more like a child pretending to be a grownup. And often it feels good to take off the grownup uniforms and get back into my mud and tree seeking attire. It’s important to know when we’re pretending, and to know who we’d really be, and when we’re putting on a costume, and when we’re putting on our real clothes. I suspect there are many people for whom the work attire is a costume, and the velvet cloak, the pith helmet, the goth dress or the elf ears are much more the real self.

Playing with my labels

Back when I was at university, many moons ago, I minored in psychology. This meant numerous chances to play with psychological tests. Introvert-extrovert, thinking-emotional, masculine-feminine, and so forth. I noticed a thing – that the tests did not quite work for me. A large percentage of the questions I wanted to answer ‘both’. Go to a party or read a book? I could place myself in the middle of any scale, or simultaneously out towards both ends. My second discovery following on from this was that for most measures, nothing existed to name me. Just for gender, where I found and relished the term ‘psychologically androgynous’.

Part of what this indicates is that sliding scales assuming personality traits can be lined up in certain ways are reductive and flawed. I wonder how many people conform to ideas like you can be either a thinking person or a feeling person just because those ready-made identities are there to be conformed to.

One of the things I never got to study in psychology is the question of why we are so keen to label and identify ourselves. Why do we want our thoughts and behaviour defined along an axis? What do we get out of comparing our scores with other people’s? There’s no real application for this stuff, although it clearly forms the basis for all the dodgy ‘what kind of X are you?’ questionnaires in magazines. There’s plenty of research out there to show that who we are and what we do is situation specific anyway. The person we are at work is not the person we are when hanging out with friends.

Who is the real me? Is the persona I choose to adopt any less a manifestation of me than an off the cuff reaction? Surely, any choice I make is who I am. My artifice is as much part of my lived truth as my moments of raw emotional authenticity. I want to go to the party and read the book. When it comes to gender stereotypes, I pack like a man, shop like a man, take a problem solving approach like a man. I look like a woman, in line with current gender fashions. I’ve no inclination to emulate the social models for male appearance, or feminine behaviour patterns. I think about how I feel, I use reason and gut feelings together for problem solving and decision making. I’m not an either/or sort of person, I want to explore all the things available to me.


Who we are in the eyes of the world is something most of us care about. How we are seen, valued, judged and whether we are accepted. In theory, a reputation should be the consequence of who we are and what we do, and thus something we have control over, but in practice it is seldom that simple.

The easiest place to point for examples is the arts. Look at any breakthrough creator who changed things radically – Beethoven, Van Gogh – they were criticised far more than they were loved in their lifetimes. Even The Beatles were considered rowdy bad boys when they first appeared, and it’s only after decades that they’ve become something more ‘establishment’. The first impressionists were mocked. The reputations of many creative people aren’t defined until after their death, and there many ‘greats’ who, during their own lives, were never recognised.

On the flip side history is also full of people who were massively popular at the time, and have faded into obscurity since. Name a composer of Music Hall songs, or the kind of gothic romance author Jane Austin was mocking in Northanger Abbey, or any of the chivalric novels Cervantes took the piss out of with Don Quixote. Ten years hence, most of the ‘pop idol’ reality TV show folk will have been forgotten. Some reputations are vastly inflated for short periods – undeserved (to my mind) attention went to Twilight and 50 Shades of Gray recently, but they’re already slipping into the shadows, and I doubt in a hundred years time, anyone will have heard of them.

Reputation, therefore, is not always deserved. It’s also not something we can control, no matter how good our PR. Most of us of course will never have PR, never have to worry about posterity, or how history will judge us, and that too is a sort of judgement. Most of our ancestors are not in the history books.

Regardless of how many people we’re dealing with, reputation is a key part of how we interact with others, and reputations can be nothing more than a web of lies with a sugar coating of sparkly misdirection. We all make up stories and myths about ourselves, and other people make their own stories about us, too. Reputation is the unnatural child of these stories.

Those in the public eye can spend a fortune trying to manage their reputations and appearance. The rest of us may be no less obsessed, but less well funded, and with a smaller audience to play to, we have to make our own fun…  Social media may have made us far more conscious of how we construct our public personas, but it doesn’t put us in charge.

There is a part of ourselves we may never truly know, and certainly can’t do much to control, but which will influence our lives and options in countless ways. That aspect is who other people think we are, what of us they latch onto, what of other people’s stories they choose to believe, what they forgive, and don’t forgive, what they think was deliberate, and what they think we did by accident, or by mistake.

Or we can do our best to meet each other without assumption, to take each other at face value, to deal with the reality of what’s going on, not second guessing based on what we think we know

Retraining your emotions

Emotions turn up quickly, with a force and direction of their own that makes them feel like unassaible features of who we are. In many ways this is so – invalidating a person’s feelings is a sure-fire way of trashing their sense of self and causing them great discomfort. How we feel is a big part of who we are, but what happens if how we feel isn’t how we want to feel?

Emotions can be changed, responses can be altered over time. I know, because I’ve done it. While it’s possible to change how you think in a relatively short time frame – weeks are generally enough, the emotions can take months, or years to retrain. Panic triggers are a good example here. (Nothing triggery is coming up). Panic triggers happen when we experience something that brings a memory of trauma too close to the surface. If we aren’t in danger, we can still panic because the body responds with fear. That fear can be unlearned.

My main method (and there may be others, I don’t know) is to get myself somewhere I feel safe, and to think about the emotion I want to change. This can involve visualising the situation I react to, and working on telling myself how I want to feel about it. For example, go back a few years and a kiss from a friend would panic me. It took me months of deliberate work to change this, and while I’m never going to want random people kissing me without permission, I can now comfortably kiss and be kissed by close friends.

Where the thinking mind leads, the feeling part of a person will eventually follow. What works best for me is to think my way into imaginary situations that would provoke a response I don’t want, and to use a mix of thinking and feeling my way through, over and over again so that I can change how I feel. This can also be done by working in actual ways with other people – having very safe and supportive spaces has allowed me to feel easier about other people telling me what to do with my body (thank you Vishwam!). Working alone in my head can be quicker than waiting for people who can help, but there comes a point when you have to dive back in to actual situations and see what happens. Having supportive people to help that happen safely is invaluable.

Changing emotional responses brings up questions about sense of self. There are a number of emotional responses I can generate that cause other people problems – I get upset easily, I feel things keenly. There have been times when I’ve felt under a lot of pressure to tidy up my emotions so as to be more convenient for other people. I don’t recommend it. The time to try and change emotional responses, is when you don’t feel that how your body reacts is in line with your authentic self. This is a call only an individual can make, no one can or should try to make it for you. If your grief, or your anger, your distress or your fear are not manifesting in ways that sit well with who you think you are, then work to change it. These are probably maladaptive survival strategies that worked in some context, but mostly don’t work and are not, in fact, you.

It’s important to remember that our emotional reactions are not a manifestation of pristine nature. They are not a wilderness we have to protect. Our emotions seem very natural, but we have all been conditioned to react in certain ways – what we’re punished for, or rewarded for, what’s ignored, what’s taken seriously – the families and communities we grew up in have taught us patterns of acceptable feeling, and those feelings may not sit well with who we really are. Consider the many men who have been taught not to cry, but who have been allowed to shout. Consider the religious communities that bring up their LGBT people to hate who they are and feel guilty and worse… we do not learn to feel in isolation, and sometimes what we have learned needs to be unlearned.

I decided a long time ago that I would believe that my most authentic self is the person I choose to be, the person I work towards being. It may not be the answer for everyone, but when approaching dysfunctional emotions, I’ve found it a useful place to start.

The disturbingly biochemical self

Emotions are chemistry. I know this as theory, but it’s only when my body chemistry has broken down – something I’ve experienced more than once – that the extent of it is visible to me. My emotional reactions are, to a large extent dependent on the chemical responses my body is capable of and inclined to do. I know at a brain level, that’s all messages passing electronically and chemically through the system, and habits of thought form pathways which we easily follow.

Burnout has stripped me of my capacity to create endorphins. I’ve had more than a week of being sorely limited in my scope to feel good. In the past I’ve lost my ability to create adrenaline when needed. I’ve lost other things that affect mood, passion, sense of self. My feeling self can be stripped away by chemical imbalance. My mental self could be stripped away by injury or illness, or corrupted by habit or circumstance.

‘Me’ may mean nothing more than a habitual set of chemical interactions.

And yet, even when my chemical self is compromised and I don’t recognise my own reactions, I still hold a sense of self that I cannot reduce to biochemical explanations, and that seems stronger than the mechanisms. In the depths of depression I may not have much of my usual passion, but I can still hold and believe in the idea of it, I can still identify with it. The ‘me’ in all of this can create deliberate changes to the biochemistry, with different foods, rest, exposure to sunlight, activity levels, choice of environment and so forth. I can craft the context that shapes my chemical self, and I can engineer myself round to being able to think and feel in the ways that are more in-line with my intentions.

I have spent years using meditation and CBT techniques to get my fear responses back where I want them. I’ve learned how to manage anxiety by managing my own thought processes. There is, for all of the chemistry of self, a big role for choice in all of this. How I choose to live shapes the chemistry I have which gives me my emotional life.

That in turn raises the question of who or what is doing the choosing. When I choose to become something other than my situation, something different from my current chemistry, when I set out to modify my reactions and change how I am in the world, some aspect of ‘me’ is taking the entirety of ‘me’ towards being someone I previously was not. It’s easier to think of higher self and soul as being in charge – easier because these words and concepts are at my disposal. I remain fascinated by the way in which consciousness is able to imagine itself into new shapes and able to deliberately create the situations that will get those new shapes.

The general wisdom is, that consciousness is a consequence of physical reality. However, there is a school of thought that the reverse is true, that consciousness creates reality. The more I look at my issues of identity and chemistry, the more convinced I am by the second approach.

Identity, gender and not fitting in the boxes

I recently read this excellent blog post about non-binary people.  There were a lot of lines that really impacted on me, this is one of them “At the end of the day, it’s not up to cisgender people to decide the language non-binary people should use to describe themselves. It is not your experience nor your place.”

I don’t talk about gender identity much, not least because the usual result is being told who I ‘really’ am by the other person. I’ve been ‘reassured’ that there’s nothing wrong with my femininity, for example, when I wasn’t looking for that kind of response at all. It’s only in recent years that I’ve had much scope to talk to anyone about my gender identity. After a mix of being silent, and being told who and what I am, I’m starting to realise just how important it is to me to be able to own, name (and rename as I feel like it) and be in control of my sense of self.

I have a female body. It does all the things – blood, baby, milk, sweat, tears etc. It mostly looks like a female body. There was a time when I was less obviously female to look at and could play more with presenting in ambiguous ways. I felt good doing that. I still do, when the mood is upon me. At different times through my life I have been more and less easy with this female body. There have been times (rare, but important) when I wanted to be male, and far more times when I wanted to be physically sexless and genderless. Some of this is to do with self hatred, and some of that self hatred was to do with not having the space to be myself in the first place.

I don’t think like a girl, or like a woman, or a mum. I reckon I may have it sussed enough to be a crazy Babba Yaga type grandmother in old age. I aspire to being really myself as a crone. I find female-centred social spaces confusing. Socially, I’ve always been happiest when I could be one of the guys – which has tended to involve music. I can’t tell you how much of this is my resistance to the social construct of gender, and how much is something else, because I’ve only ever lived in a culture that was very keen to tell me what my gender identity should be. I’m not sure it matters how much is culture and how much biology.

I’m happiest in situations where I don’t feel like my gender is an issue. I’m happiest with people who primarily see me as a person. When I’ve been able to play genderless – online and with a different, less feminine name – I’ve enjoyed that. If all people have to go on is my writing, I often get identified as male. Apparently I write like a bloke!

I don’t mind how people see me or what they engage with, or which pronouns they use. I don’t have a firm, fixed gender identity ( and this fluidity, I now realise, is my gender identity and not something I need to fix), so I’m not interested in getting anyone to identify me in any specific way. What of me people relate to is their business. But there’s a difference to relating to me in a certain way, and assuming that defines the truth of who I am. The second bit I need to tackle. Not least, I need to stop buying into it, and stop accepting it when other people think they are entitled to define my gender identity.

As a culture we default to equating normal with good. It is not unusual to respond to difference by making reassuring noises about conforming to ‘normal’ standards. You don’t look disabled/mentally ill/trans /queer /poor / mixed race / victimised… as though it would be fair to assume these things, and others like them, would all show on the surface, and that looking normal is the most important thing. These are big, unhelpful assumptions to make. They take something that mattered to the person owning it, and reduce it into whether or not your think the person matches a narrow bandwidth for normality. It treats the difference as worthless, and the conformity as paramount. The odds are if I’m telling you something about me, it’s not to be reassured that I’m normal, it is instead because I really, really want you to see me as I am.

A sense of self

Who am I? This physical presence in the world, more awkward than I would like. A soft animal body that blesses me with perception and the scope for action. A story of physical ugliness and unacceptability I’ve been told too many times. Uneasily feminine, mother of a child who stands on the brink of adulthood. A body that works, and weeps, and does what it can and wants to do more. A body that used to dance, and hasn’t in a long time. A voice that seldom finds reason to sing anymore. Even so, I’m probably less alienated from my body at the moment than I have ever been.

Who am I? An obsessive mind full of uncertainties. Questioning all things, trying to make sense of an increasingly incomprehensible world. An anxious, uneasy mind, desperate to be doing more, but limited by the realities of a body that cannot give indefinitely without rest. A mind fighting to stay sane in face of the madness of ecocide, the needless greed and cruelty shaping this age.

A feeling being, intense in those feelings but not defined by any of those feelings. Always either too much (too intense, too needy) or not enough (not compassionate, patient, generous enough). Feeling, but never seeming to feel the right things at the right times to fit neatly in with everyone else. Feeling, but hiding those feelings, inherently dishonest in matters of the heart in the hopes of not causing offence or inconvenience.

There was a time when I would have defined myself in terms of my aspirations. That was some decades ago. I no longer have much sense of direction, more a suspicion that I’m not really going anywhere, that there isn’t much else I am going to achieve.

There was a long time when I would have defined myself in terms of what I was doing – writer, folky, activist, parent. These days I do what I can and I do what seems necessary but feel little sense of identification with any of it. There were times when I defined myself by the communities I belonged to, and the people I felt most closely associated with. I’ve come to think of myself as someone who isn’t very good at community or at friendship.

I’m aware that for many spiritual people, the loss of the ‘little me’ and the ego is a spiritual goal. Get rid of the clutter of identification and ideas about self to be a more authentic spiritual being. Clearly what I’m experiencing isn’t some kind of enlightenment or improvement. It feels like disorientation, loss of purpose, and increasing despair in all aspects of my life.

But then, is the loss of ego for spiritual purposes really a loss of identity? Or does the person simply import spiritual values, spiritual community, a sense of being respected as a spiritual person and a sense of being good, worthy and enlightened, in replacement for all the things they were previously hanging their sense of identity from? I expect it feels great to have an identity that is so firmly rooted in a spiritual path.

It’s not easy to function when you don’t know who you are. How do you make choices when you don’t really know what you want? How do you find the motivation to do anything? It’s not, let me be clear, the peace of slipping into simplicity either, because the not knowing, is not simple. It’s confusion, and unsettling, and never knowing what call to make.

About the only bit of me I can be sure of, is this awkward flesh self, but I can only be sure about it in a feeling way. The stories I have are also uncertain. This body I understood to be funny looking, unattractive, unfeminine, badly proportioned, unloveable, and which a few people insist on seeing very differently.

Who am I?

Honestly, I’ve no idea.