There are many layers to the question of identity.

The first comes up as soon as one thinks of finding a psychotherapist – who shall I choose, and what are my criteria? And it continues for the rest of the therapy, whether it be three months or three years. Who am I speaking to? What yardstick is she or he using to digest what I say? Do they hold opinions that would make me uncomfortable if I knew what they were?

This shows us straight away that the person or people we are in close contact with profoundly influence how we define ourselves. We recognise that, say, my sexual self-description is also a position in the eyes of others, and that both stances determine my behaviour. Or that because immigrants of a particular group have been unwelcome here, the children of that group are burdened with an extra layer of self-examination.

We also have the public and private definitions. I can tell my friends I am a poet, and they’ll get off my back about what I ‘do’, but if I don’t get the poems published, and I a poet or aren’t I? And if I haven’t written a poem for 6 months, am I or aren’t I?

We can see that our categorisation of other people is pretty fierce too – whether or not modified by reasonableness!

In the therapy setting, we have the opportunity to ask where the definitions have been made. It doesn’t release the person from suffering from their own and other people’s definitions, but it does allow for some perspective and therefore ease of suffering – on the premise that once true words of feeling are spoken and received, pain lessens. When pain lessens, we can act more surely. And that feels better.

Judith Symons

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