The idea of Identification is complex, deep, and muddy. There is a technical use and a less technical one. Both uses are based on and connected with the idea that we have basic mental abilities that include the ability to notice things, to discriminate one thing from another and to notice differences between things and similarities between them. We can recollect having seen something or having experienced it and can identify it as something we know and remember. This is connected to the ability to name things.
At some point in our individual developments we learn that some things are connected with me and others have nothing to do with me (at least directly). And we begin to think of some things as mine. We can make mistakes here. Growing up we might think of a toy or an animal or even a person as "mine," only to learn the hard way that it isn't. We begin to distinguish me from merely mine: You can take something away from me that is mine, but me is me, and you can't take it away from me unless you kill me, and we begin to get the idea that we must defend ourselves and that it is up to us and that, at least in some political and legal systems, we have a right to be and to defend ourselves from obliteration.
It is human nature to want things that are not "mine" and to try to get them and to become attached to things that are mine and to get upset if we feel we will lose them. We have possessions and territory, "my" mother and father, "my" sisters and brothers, "my" children, "my" friends, "my" baseball team, and so on, all of which we think of, right or wrong, as "mine."
In a more subtle way, we learn to identify "my" pain, "my" itch, "my" anger, "my" anxiety and joy and depression and love, "my" thoughts, "my" beliefs, "my" dream of last night, "my" fantasies about the future, "my" likes and dislikes and tastes, "my" decisions, "my" actions, "my" values, "my" illnesses, "my" life, "my" face, "my" hand, "my" skin, "my" heart-beat, "my" breath, "my" experiences, the sounds I hear, the colors I see (and that others didn't), and so on. I begin to identify, not just my aching back or my hand, but me. I am. I am myself. I am me. I was born, and, it seems, I will die. I have a self, myself, and you have a self, yourself. We are different; we are different individuals, each existing in the world and, in a sense, each in our own worlds.
To make it more complex, we have a picture or image of ourselves, beliefs about ourselves, ideas about ourselves thoughts about ourselves — self-images and self-concepts. This is who we think we are and how we see ourselves. If we go into a house of mirrors at a carnival we laugh and may get uneasy, because what we see in the mirror is a distortion of how we see ourselves normally, the image we carry around of ourselves. In situations like these we begin to realize that we may be wrong about ourselves. Even if we are very close to ourselves, intimately involved with ourselves, it doesn't mean we are infallible or always right about ourselves. Others see us differently; they experience us differently; they see us as better or worse than we see ourselves, prettier or uglier, fatter or thinner, taller or shorter, stronger or weaker, more or less intelligent, and so on. And we can begin to see ourselves as others see us; at least, how others see us, if we allow ourselves to be around them enough to listen to them, rubs off a little, has an affect on our self-images and self-concepts.
And events can make us see ourselves differently. We act courageously or cowardly in a situation, and we begin to see ourselves differently. We give up drugs, get a job, stop yelling at people, stop demanding others give us things, and so on, and, gradually, over time, we get a better self-image. Or the reverse can happen. Or we can get a cut or a burn that doesn't go away completely; we look at the scar and don't recognize ourselves (our bodies) and get nervous about what might be. And this can be very dramatic: We can lose a limb or become incapacitated with a stroke or receive a new heart, and we feel we are in unfamiliar territory just as surely as if we were dropped into another continent. Or our spouse or parent or friend might die, and this can give us feelings we don't recognize, and so on.
And time itself changes our self concept. Our bodies age, skin sags, tiny and large wrinkles appear, hair changes color and drops out, new aches and pains arrive and don't leave, and we realize we have changed and can begin to feel there is a new me that I don't recognize and maybe don't like, and we may become uneasy about things to come. Many people try to reverse the process and hold on to the way they were. Plastic surgery is an absolute rage in the U.S. to make us look young again and to reverse the unbearable and inevitable processes of change.
Philosophically minded people who enjoy thinking often begin to wonder about this "thing" they have been calling "me" or "self." I get a pain I think of as "mine" or "me." Then it goes away. My thoughts come and go. Each one seems real and absorbs me and seems like me while it lasts. An there are my feelings, each one seeming like the whole universe while it has a hold of me. There are the sensations that bombard me, in and out, endlessly. All these things come and go, seem real for a moment and then fade away into oblivion. Is there anything in me that is permanent? Is there a deeper, a more real, more permanent me? Perhaps a me that unifies all the millions of little me's or parts of me? Perhaps a me that was here before I was born and will be here after I die?
These are certainly deep thoughts, and they border on the religious. I don't know much about Buddhism or the Eastern religions, but my limited knowledge suggests that these thoughts were similar or identical to the line of thinking they took: The things we think of as ourselves, as me and mine, when you reflect on it, turn out not to be permanent and turn out not to be me or mine or myself. There is a self, and we are it, but it is not this or that thing that presents itself to us in time and grabs us and makes us forget the bigger thing.
As I understand it, the Buddhist idea of Self influenced the psychologist Carl Jung in his understanding of the concept. We each have an Ego that we mistake for the Self. You are involved in a difficult dispute with a relative, and you are angry and sure you are right, and you feel you know who you are, but this is the Ego. Later you realize you were swept away by emotions that took you over or were trigged in this situation and that you were having a typical, built-in reaction, that was part of your nature as a human animal. There is you and your understanding which is part of something bigger, and the realization that there is more to you than the Ego that you identify with, there is a feeling of liberation, at least for a moment until you fall back into the Ego.
This idea suggests that we identify with things that are not necessarily us or ours. For example, we have a feeling of anxiety, and we identify with it and feel it is us, but it is possible, according to this view, that it is not us or even ours. It is an objective something, that is true, but it is our mistake to think of it as me or mine. It is like finding a dollar bill on the street and thinking it is mine when it might be no one's at all. It just is; it just is there. At least this is a useful way to look at our feelings and sensations and thoughts for the rest of this article: feelings, thoughts, beliefs, values, sensations (even pains), emotions, images, and so on are not ours even if it is natural for us to identify them as such.
Now, stepping back a little to a less dramatic point, some of the feelings and thoughts we have and that we identify as ours are really someone else's. It is very difficult to separate ourselves enough from them to see this, but it is true nonetheless. It may be, for example, that we have a very strong desire to become rich that has dominated our thoughts, plans, fantasies, and actions. Then, one day, after your mother has been dead for two years, your desire for riches seems to have faded. You no longer feel motivated to churn ahead, and you wonder what happened to you and worry that you are falling apart. But you come to realize, perhaps in one meaningful insight, that all that complex, that desire to get and maintain riches, was your mother's desire that you identifies with, and that was not yours at all.
We adopt and absorb, unconsciously, the values of others and also their thoughts and beliefs, their reactions and fantasies and tastes. Not only those of parents or siblings or teachers, but also those of society at large. We watch and notice and pick up and identify with images and values that are in books or on T.V. or in films or that we hear in political forums. We pick up loves and hatreds that are not ours. Some stick and become us; some never fit and lead to discomfort and feelings that we are not being true to ourselves.
There is, it seems to me, no structured way, no A-B-C method, for picking out of the panoply of our inner and outer experiences, just which are really ours and which are those of others. Events trigger this awareness in people interested in self-knowledge.
It is not bad to fall under the spell of identification with an idea, behavior, taste, etc. This is how we learn. It is a form of imprinting like chicks imprinting on the mother hen; this is part of learning, of the chick learning how to peck and what to peck at and when. Identification is a kind of unconscious imprinting or imitation. It is an instinct to identify, to imitate, to imprint. However, it can be or become a true problem, both for oneself and everyone around you.
My last name is "Hersh." When I was in, perhaps, the 5th Grade of school, I would go to Los Angeles Rams football games with my father. There was an star right end named, Elroy "Crazylegs" Hirsch. I admired and loved him and wished I could be like him. I must have identified with him or wanted to, because I remember going to my teacher and telling her I wanted her to put be down in her role book (and to call me) "Elroy 'Crazylegs' Hirsch." I wanted to spell "Hersh" as "Hirsch" and actually be called by this man's name. My teacher said, "No!" and I have no idea at all what she thought.
This shows that we can identify ourselves with other people. It seems a natural process that can stimulate to help us become what we want to be, and the case I just mentioned seems harmless enough. However it did lead to problems. In our football games, I, of course, wanted to play right end and be called "Crazylegs." However, after getting hit hard a few times, I began realizing I wasn't a star end by nature and that I probably would never be one even with a lot of practice and determination. I was knocked down to reality and to my truer self.
"Identification with the aggressor"
And identification with someone can be a serious problem. The concept of identification came into psychology with Freud, and many are familiar with his idea of identification with the aggressor. If, for example, you have a very aggressive, abusive father, instead of getting angry at him and standing up to him, which is next to impossible at a young age, and instead of recognizing you are angry and holding it in and waiting until you can get out of the house or get back at him (which is also next to impossible at a young age), one way to defend yourself inwardly, one defense mechanism to help you deal with your own anger, is to identify with your father, to see his point of view, to begin to hate yourself and think you deserve to be punished, and to begin to abuse the people he is abusing (including yourself).
This is, perhaps, the psychological mechanism, behind the often reported fact that abusers often were victims of abuse. This is often so obvious to those around an abuser. If you know the father and know how he talked and acted, you can see that the son, who worships the ground his father walks on, talks with the same tone of voice and acts identically. You point out to the son, "Your father is a real jerk! Why don't you get angry and fight back! You're not a little boy anymore!" And he says something like, "Oh, you don't understand him! He's a great man, and he's not perfect, but you have to understand what he's been through!" There is no getting through. The identification with the father is completely unconscious, and, in this case, it is pernicious and dangerous and destructive to the son and to all who are around him.
It also can happen that a person identifies, in a negative and dangerous way, with a feeling of depression. A person can be depressed so long that he (or she) feels as if he wouldn't be himself without the depression. He has a moment of lightness and shuns it as "not really me." Or a person can identify with a car or with a diamond or with his (or her) money or beauty and get devastated when the car gets a dent, the money is lost in a stock market crash, or the beauty is marred by time. In cases like these, if the person survives the shock and if there is any desire for self-knowledge, the loss can be thought of, looking back, as a blessing, as it leads to a deeper awareness of the self and what it is and what it isn't.
I'll mention one last example of how the idea of "identification" entered psychology through Freud. It is an idea that is now rejected by many and for obvious reasons. The idea is that homosexuals become homosexual because of unconscious identification with opposite sex parents. Usually, it is argued, boys identify with their fathers and learn to like to fish and to build things and to think about this or that, whereas girls identify with their mothers and learn to sew and cook and listen empathetically with others. However, if by some quirk of circumstances, a boy identifies with his mother or a girl with her father, they learn to like and think and feel and act like that parent. And they pick up the sexual attractions of that parent also. This view is contradicted by those who see homosexuality as genetic.
Without entering into this hotspot of psychological disputation, I will say that I think we all probably identify with both parents to some degree and really to everyone around us to some extent or other. We all influence each other all the time and are being influenced. I think we even pick up traits from animals and plants and physical objects. We might, for example, admire the durability of steel or stone and actually try, consciously or unconsciously, to become as strong as steel, as tough as nails, as crafty as a fox, as immovable as a bear, as fearless as a wolverine, as fluid as water, as vast and ever-present as the sky, as firm and solid as the earth.
Two clinical examples
Here are two examples from my clinical experiences. First, a woman in her 30's who, because of her limited intelligence, had never married or worked and was living with her parents. Her father was a racist but never expressed his opinions publically except to friends of like mind, and, in this way, his public image was of an affable, likeable, friendly guy. The daughter absorbed the racist language and bitter and angry affect from her home environment, but unlike her father, she was not able, for better or worse, to understand the danger of expressing herself publically on these matters. And, in liberal social situations in which her father would have never said a word on the subject, she would make comments that offended, angered, and alienated everyone around her. And she never understood why no one wanted to be with her. — The odd thing here, and what, if I am right, makes it a situation of imitation and identification, is that I never had the impression that, deep down, the woman was in any way a racist. She identified with and adopted the stance of her father.
The second example is of a man whose father had been an inventor and who had invented and manufactured a series of successful products. He was a narcissistic type who bragged about his achievements (and they were valid achievements) and bullied everyone into listen to his bragging and crushed every attempt of anyone else to express their accomplishments. The son we are now discussing, by all accounts, was crushed more than anyone else. There was no physical violence, but, in the language current in psychology, the father was guilty of emotional (and intellectual) abuse. On the positive side, the father had hired any family member who was out of work and, in spite of his abuse, he became a hero in many of their eyes, a saviour of sorts.
The son never achieved much in his own life in terms of career or relationships, but, when his father died, he took what little money he had and bought a few machines designed by someone that had been designed by this other person to manufacture a product he had invented. The inventor had died, and the son we are discussing purchased his machines and the rights to the invention. It was not his invention; he had not designed the machines; he had never manufactured anything; and had never sold anything. His plan, which never amounted to anything, was to hire three members of his family who were disabled to do the manufacturing and selling. This wildly fantastic and unrealistic plan, as you might expect, never got off the ground, and the son lost what little money he had had. And yet, when I began to see him, he still believed his father was kind of a god, would say nothing against him, defended him against all negative comments, and had never seen how he had identified with his father and was trying to imitate him. The idea of "identification with the aggressor" seemed to apply here, and it was destructive to the son. The answer was for him to see through this identification and to stumble out onto the tenuous and lonely and unmarked path towards his own goals.
Three positive functions of Identification
As mentioned, idenfication is a natural phenomenon and is not, in itself a problem. One positive function of identification, from a survival point of view, is, as mentioned, that identification can be thought of as a kind of imitation, and, as such, it can be an inborn method for learning from those who know the ropes.
A second function is that it is a built in warning system that, when working well, can help us avoid danger. An example from wartime would be a soldier whose friend standing next to him is shot and wounded, painfully and severely. In trying to help his friend and companion, in the commotion, it is as if he himself is suffering and that he is trying to end his own pain. This identification with the pain of his friend, seen from an evolutionary perspective, can serve to make him more careful in a very dangerous situation.
A third function of identification seems to be that it is a root of empathy. It is by identifying with someone that we experience it, not only from his or her point of view, but, as it were, from within his or her body. Our understanding is complete with feelings and beliefs and is, it seems to me, a major part of what it is to care for someone. It is as if we are that person, and this furthers, when functioning properly, our relationships and the bonds between us. Without identification and without empathy, other people would be like stones to us, and we would have no reason to do unto them as we do to ourselves. The inability to empathize is, obviously, a psychological disorder.
Identification, naiveté, boundaries
As mentioned more than once above, identification is normal and natural. It is especially prominent in younger people, and especially in those with an idealistic nature. It is also natural that, over time, it tends to fade.
What I am thinking of is how a young, idealistic person can become so identified with the suffering of others that he or she gives up everything to go off to some distant place to help others. They may be willing to go through tremendous suffering themselves to reduce the suffering of others.
Is this pathological? Each example must be examined individually. Some people may seem masochistic in sacrificing their own needs to the needs of others. They may seem to be running away, escaping some confrontation they fear. Others may, on examination, seem to be acting genuinely in accord with an higher principle. Still others will seem to be going through a more or less normal stage. Each case will be different. (Extreme self-denial, in the form of martyrdom, is a topic worthy of many books and much discussion, and this is not the place to pursue it further.)
I remind the reader that this identification of the young and idealistic people is not sham and it is not just a theory. They often feel the suffering of others with their whole bodies. It is not that unusual for an adolescent to start crying while reading a newspaper article about a natural disaster in a distant land or about some atrocity committed against some individual who is a total stranger. And, again, this emotion, even though it is second hand, can sweep the person away and propel him or her into an idealistic life of helping.
Some more about the downside of identification
It is important to point out that, even though the overwhelming desire to help others may be a beautiful thing, it's expression can often be bumbling. The helper may try to help people who don't want help, or he may help in ways the people don't want, or he may not see deeply enough to be able to help effectively. Real life is so complex, and the web of our destinies is so deep, that it is often very difficult to find true causes. And correcting problems, even is we can understand the many causal factors, may often be close to impossible. It often happens we make things worse by “helping.” In other words, there is a fine line between helping and meddling.
And it should not be forgotten that, many times, do-gooders get angry at those they are trying to help. If you don't listen to someone who is trying to help you (and who thinks they know what is best for you), you risk their fury. This makes us question the deeper motives of many who tell us they are trying to help us. We wonder if they are doing it for us or to make themselves feel better.
It is especially easy for young people to identify with the suffering of others while they are still being taken care of by their parents. But once a person sets out on his or her own, the wall of reality is run into. Whatever the ideal says, reality says that, in some cases, we have to choose between our own happiness and that of others. If we are running around always thinking of the needs of others, we will not have time to satisfy ourselves. We must let others suffer, turn away from their suffering, so that we have the time and energy to work towards our own well-being and that of our loved ones. From this angle, it doesn't make sense to try to help others until you have helped yourself and those you love. How can you pull someone out of a pit if you are in it yourself? (However, in saying this, we should not overlook the fact that many times it is to our own advantage to cooperate with others and to help them. To put it bluntly, people pay for help.)
From this angle, being overwhelmed by the pain of others is to forget the boundaries between yourself and them, that is, to make a mistake about who you are and who others are, about the difference between yourself and others.
Simple identification and the empathy it brings with it overlooks another fact about people: People have, to use Jung's word, shadows. Each of us has a dark side, and usually we don't want to show it to others, and often we don't even know about it ourselves. This shadow self can get us in conflicts and trouble that we blame on others. Or we complain about fate, about our fate. Sometimes, unquestionably, more or less often, fate does deal us a bad hand, some people much more often than others, but some of our troubles come from ourselves. And, also, we, if we so desire, have the ability to face our fate and deal with it in a positive way.
Because of this, it is often hard to help people, because they don't (that is, we don't) always want to help themselves (that is, ourselves). Change is hard, but sometimes we can't receive help unless we are willing to change (to take a hard look at ourselves, to work, and so on). A helper ignorant of this fact about people can make things worse: For example, by throwing money at someone who can work but who won't — this rewards the person for not working and increases the problem.
It is even true, sadly, that some people who are in trouble, if you help them get strong, will use their new strength to oppress others. Some people are bad, and helping them just aids them to do more evil. This is often apparent on the global level when an oppressed group is helped to gain power, and the group becomes worse than those who had been in power before.
Finally, it is possible to identify with someone based on a mistake. Let's say you are an adolescent and are saying "Good-bye" to a parent for the last time before you leave for college. You imagine how sad the parting must be for your parent, and you feel deeply for them and go through all sorts of machinations trying to make them feel better. The fact is, perhaps, that the parent is happy you are leaving thinking, "Finally! Thank God! Freedom!" Another example is how young people often find it hard to believe that the elderly may be, more or less, ready to die, especially if they are in great pain. They project their own desire to live onto the old person and do everything in their power to keep the person alive. Here I am not concerned with the moral questions involved put only want to point out that this project is based on an error about what the old person feels and wants and believes. At times, if a person persists in an erroneous identification, it can seem as if she or he is suffering from what we might call a delusional identification
When a person begins to, as we say, “grow up,” he or she begins to realize that we don't have to give in to every impulse to help, that the impulse to help can be a kind of compulsion or addiction, a weakness, and that we can harden ourselves to these impulses and resist them, and that this gives us a feeling of freedom.
But, from still another angle, this hardening of ourselves, this steeling of ourselves, especially if practiced to an extreme, is a psychological problem called dissociation. It seems that it is impossible to get rid of these feelings and that we can only deaden ourselves to them, and this creates a dangerous split in ourselves, since the feelings are still there. We can say to ourselves, “Why should I care? It has nothing to do with me?” but these are merely words and a kind of stupid lie if, deep down, we really do care.
The situation is different from the person who doesn't have empathy in the first place, but, in practice, both types can become equally dangerous.
So there seems to be a kind of paradox many have to face at some time or other: Do I continue being soft-hearted and putting the needs of others before my own and trusting in the goodness of humanity, or should I do my best to close my heart to others and look out for and take care of myself? The person who takes the first of these two paths and sticks to it throughout life winds up appearing naïve and weak; the person who takes the second path winds up selfish, cold-blooded, and immoral.
I should add that the second path may not be as rational as it might appear. To close oneself to the suffering of others, to ignore the pain of others, to isolate oneself from those who are in pain is impossible. Even if you should be able to build a fortress into which you will allow only the blessed and happy, suffering will sneak in. The slave master's slaves suffer, and the slave master should fear, even if he doesn't, that the anger of the slaves will burst out against him. Even if it never does, it always can.
In any case, it seems it isn't an either/or situation. In thinking about a good word for a middle ground, the word compassion comes to mind (this is a word I have seen in the little bit of Buddhist writings I have read). What I am thinking of is a kind of rational compassion. This would contain a component of innate identification and empathy, but there would not be an impulsive acting out on this empathy. The empathy would be accepted as one of many feelings in oneself that must be examined and placed in perspective. We may or may not act on it depending on our evaluation of its merits from the point of view of our overall value system. Means will be evaluated and considered in a conscious effort to figure out whether something should be attempted at all. If we decide it might be worth trying to help someone in some situation, we don't just rush in, but think about what to try and try to figure out what is the best thing to be done to maximize the possibility of it turning out to be real, useful help and not just fantasy help. (Of course, there are still occasions where it is right to jump in impulsively to help.)
Empathy takes its place as one motive in the personality and no longer seems like the whole personality; it is held in its rightful place and not allowed to leap up and take over everything.
It would be incorrect to cut it out altogether even if that were possible; as said above, this would be to live in a kind of dream world where no one is suffering.
So, on my model (at least the one based on what I am adopting at the time of the writing of this article), the adult is not lost in some childlike La La land, floating around in an unreal paradise. The adult is sober and does not long for the days in his (or her) past when he escaped into some form of inebriation. The feeling that “All's well, and I can relax now and be happy” is understood as a fantasy of intoxication. Ditto for the desire to run off and make everyone else happy. Sobriety isn't intoxication, but it contains its own pleasures.
It must be added that rational compassion as I am conceiving it, or even simple compassion, is not something you can choose. If you try to be compassionate it winds up as an affectation or pretense and one of the many subtly disguised forms of psychological dissociation. People find that they have become compassionate, that they wound up there after going through previous stages of psychological development with respect to empathy (and identification).