Who am I? This is probably one of the oldest and most frequently asked questions, but it has been answered in many different ways over the centuries. It is certainly a very popular question today, given how often the ‘authentic self’ and authenticity get mentioned. So is there an authentic self, an immutable identity? What makes you You?

Let’s start with some of the obvious contradictions. You are supposed to find the real, authentic you (implying it is fixed), yet all the self-help literature is obsessed with ‘improving yourself’. Does that mean the real you is never good enough? What is the desired end point of all this improvement and why should you focus so much of your energy on improving on your ‘weaknesses’ (which are context dependent), when there is such a low return on investment (because your personality is fixed)? And if the answer to the question supposedly lies within you, why do you need to consult experts or attend seminars to better know yourself?

If you had an immutable identity, you would not be responsive to social change or feedback. Immigrants would never adjust to the culture of their new homeland, Eastern Europeans would not have adjusted to a market based society after the fall of the wall and so on. I remember quite clearly how all my values and beliefs about myself and society had to be re-examined and partially discarded after East Germany was absorbed into the West. It certainly changed me, my identity. What makes humans so successful is our ability to adapt to social and environmental changes. People relocate from the country into the city and adapt to different norms and expectations of city life. In the process, their identity changes.

The next thing to consider is that there is now plenty of evidence from social psychology that introspection is neither effective nor pleasurable. In a recent experiment 65% of men and 25% of women preferred giving themselves electric shocks to being on their own with their own thoughts for 5-15 minutes. The best learning you can have about yourself is not what you find within, its what you can learn from others, from feedback and observations about you. Since the truly valuable observations won’t be coming from your friends, there is also going to be pain involved, but at least you gain insights that broaden your understanding of yourself. I will always remember an exercise I did at work in 1998 where others were asked to describe me in one word. The most frequent word was ‘precise’, which came as shock to me at the time and which I initially rejected. It took a couple of years before I fully integrated the term into my identity. Of course, it also fits the German stereotype.

Stereotyping is actually an important part of forming your identity, as it is a shortcut to signify belonging – to your ingroup – and to differentiate you from others, your outgroup. You belong to many such groups – male/female, your generation, your ethnicity, your religion, your profession, your employer  – the more stable and long-term your group membership, the more it becomes part of your identity. Which implies that your identity changes when you move to a different employer or when you change your religious affiliation. Or even when your children change school, as you become a member of a different parent group. Stereotyping works by reducing your outgroup to a simple, catch-all description. You become blind to the differentiation in your outgroup, all members of the outgroup (e.g. all Americans) become the same. This process is completely unconscious and allows you to feel superior about belonging to your ingroup. It makes perfect evolutionary sense (cementing the ties to your ‘clan’ or ‘tribe’) and also makes it quite clear that your identity is very much a social construct.

Beyond that, your identity is obviously also a product of your experiences. Normally it evolves slowly, but if something unexpected happens to you – illness, accident or the like, your identity might change quite significantly and often literally ‘overnight’. You know this, for example, from people who went to war and ‘came back a different person’.

So if identity is a process and not immutable, how does it start and what choices do you have in the process? It would appear that the forming of your identity starts from birth and happens largely through mirroring. In fact, your mirror neurons play a major role in the forming of your identity through identification – which is known as imprinting in animals. This process of mirroring allows you to figure out what you should feel and how you should respond to everyday stimuli. Parents constantly feed back to their children – what is ok and what is not ok, how you should feel about pain as a girl vs. a boy, how you should feel about being slow/smart/tall/clumsy etc. You are subjected to a truly massive amount of feedback early on, feedback that is itself the product of societal norms, values, and conventions. On the other hand, from about age 2, you start to develop an independent self and a tension between what you believe about yourself and what others feed back to you starts to emerge (and stay with you for the rest of your life). Identity is formed in this ongoing battle between belonging and autonomy, between merging with others and keeping your distance.

In summary, you have a unique identity, yet it is not constant. You can and should get to know you, but that requires seeking feedback from others. You are always part of many social groups that form part of your identity, even if you reject the labels. When you seek to make changes, be sure you know what the purpose is and focus on behaviour, not self-improvement. Check carefully that you are getting a return on your investment – otherwise you are just paying to belong to yet another social group that forms part of your identity.