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Thomas Goforth, Tools of Transformation

Tools of Transformation #25: The Complexities of Being Human – Identity and Identification


The most dangerous thing in the world is to think you understand something.

(Zen saying)


                                                          Toby Landesman, Copyright 2014

On Wednesday morning,  while I was still in the process of writing this article, the Zen saying above showed up on my page-a-day calendar. It stopped me in my tracks. Here I am , I thought, trying to write something that will be meaningful and useful to my readers, and my calendar reminds me that I had better not think that I fully understand what I am writing about. OK, I get it oh Wise Sage! Whatever I say here is a construction, based on my own point of view on the subject matter at hand. In writing this, I am contributing just one small drop to the torrent of ideas that are rushing by. Furthermore, these ideas are constantly evolving, being revised, contradicted, critiqued, and reformulated.

This has ever and always been the case, whether we like it or not. Some fifty years ago,  theologian and biblical scholar Rudolf Bultmann pointed out that the Early Christian Church consisted of many different congregations located in different geographic areas. These individual congregations had different concerns and problems that were based on what was important to each particular community. The lebenswelt (life-world) of each congregation impacted how Scripture was interpreted, and may well have influenced what was included and what was left out of the Scriptures. These writings became the New Testament,  and the early Church Fathers declared them to be revealed truth of God. But Bultmann suggested that the individual beliefs of these early Churches were not so homogeneous. More importantly, he emphasized this remarkable insight: that people living in the late Twentieth Century could not see or easily understand the “mythological” point of view of Jesus’s contemporaries. “Man’s knowledge and mastery of the world have advanced to such an extent through science and technology that it is no longer possible for anyone to seriously hold the New Testament view of the world… It is impossible to revive an obsolete view of the world by mere fiat, and certainly not a mythical view. For all our thinking today is shaped irrevocably by modern science.”

What seems interesting to me about Bultmann’s point is that it supports the Zen saying I have included. Thinking that we really understand anything completely is dangerous, because it discounts the importance of distinguishing the temporal and perceptual context of what is being said. We live in a rapidly changing world and one that is informed by the evolving science and technology of our age. Our life-world is also informed by trends and fads which change almost as rapidly as the seasons. This is why in almost all of my past articles I have reminded you that what I am saying is simply my point of view, and that I am relying on the work and theories of teachers and therapists who strongly influenced me in my practice of psychotherapy. Although I continue to be a student of psychological theory and practice, I am not pretending to be on the cutting edge. Instead, as a practitioner of the art and science of psychotherapy, I am espousing ideas that have made my work more effective, as I focus on my clients’ needs for healing, problem solving, and personal transformation.


                                                            Toby Landesman, Copyright 2014

In my last four articles, I explored the notion that we can connect to the “Essence” of who we are. I suggested that we come into this lifetime with a Core Self that we can inhabit and actualize, and that if we are able to do so, this Essential Self will provide guidance and inspiration for our lives; that it is like a compass, pointing us in directions we can take to find fulfillment and meaning as our life unfolds. Although this is a simple and compelling idea, one that holds great promise for living a successful and fulfilling life, we often find discovering and connecting to our essence to be a daunting task. Our essence seems ephemeral and illusive, difficult to identify and grab hold of. Often it is only when we reflect on our most meaningful or exhilarating experiences that we begin to catch a glimpse of it.  When we search for what we truly love; what excites us, intrigues us, or inspires passion in us, then we may begin to sense the presence of our essence. More often than not, this essence eludes and mystifies us. We  feel bewildered and confused by the results of our inquiry. Our vision of ourselves often seems blocked and obfuscated. What is it that gets in the way of self-discovery?

Actually, there are many things that can get in the way of our being able to apprehend who we truly are. The five major defenses: denial, distrust, rationalization, placation, and blaming are obvious choices, because each defensive process distorts our experience in favor of maintaining a version of ourselves that we have invested in for a variety of reasons, most of them either self-protective or self-aggrandizing. I have explored the workings and effects of these defenses in an earlier article. Here, however, I hope to take a different tack in exploring this difficulty, by taking a closer look at the role of  Identity and Identification in our development. Because these are essential, complicated aspects of our psyches,  we often find them difficult to comprehend fully.  These dynamic  processes turn out to be very important to understanding ourselves, to our gaining insight into how our identities are formed, and how identification with particular values, groups, classes and traits takes place in the personality.

One of the effective techniques used by Primal Scream originator Alexander Janoff for exploring and understanding our identity involved having someone lie down on a mat on the floor on her back. In this vulnerable position, she was then questioned over and over again by another member of the group. One single question was all that was used: “Who are you?” Whatever answer the person gave, her partner simply asked the question again by saying , “Yes, but who are you.” No matter what answer was given; the partner’s response was the same, the repetition of that probing question. What frequently resulted from this investigation was that the person being questioned would eventually break down and  begin to cry, sob, or scream. Why did this flood of emotion occur? What might have precipitated such a powerful response?

Of course there are a variety of possibilities here, but people, like me, who participated in this experiment, often gave similar answers. The repetition of the question “who are you” resulted in the feeling that layers of one’s identity were being peeled away, leaving exposed increasingly vulnerable parts of the self that felt hurt, fearful, or ashamed. Often feelings of emotional devastation emerged, experiences of being rejected or abandoned, or feelings of tremendous doubt of one’s value and worth. Why are these feelings of shame, painful past experiences and vulnerability so often at the core of our being?

When we answer the “who are you” question, we find that our Identity is made up of a series of descriptive phrases that represent our definitions and beliefs about who we are. Some of what makes up my identity are the facts of my existence. I could say, for example that I am a psychotherapist who has been in private practice for forty years. I could add that I am the son of Robert M. Goforth and Violette L. Rosemerkel, who married in Chicago on April 22, 1941. I could specify that I had earned a Masters of Divinity Degree from Nashotah House Episcopal Seminary and was ordained to the Episcopal Priesthood in 1967. All of these statements are true and factual, but how much would any of these descriptions tell you about who I am?

In fact, we accumulate our identity over the course of our childhood and adolescence, and right on into our adult life. It is the product of how we are parented, how we are regarded by our teachers, our peers, our closest friends, and even by our enemies. Whether we are liked or disliked, approved or disapproved of, cherished or rejected are factored into our equation. Whether we are thought to be intelligent, average, or a slow learner; whether we are defined as helpful and cooperative, or difficult and aggressive; whether we are leaders or followers, trustworthy or deceitful, charming or boring, handsome, pretty, or plain; all of the evaluations that are reflected by our looking at our reflection in the mirror of opinion, and all the evaluations we make in our own minds about our worth and value as a person; these experiences all become factors in our ongoing  assessment of who we are. What we believe to be true about ourselves becomes our identity!

We are conscious of some of this evolving sense of who we are, but much of what we come to believe about ourselves, our talents, intelligence, strengths and weaknesses is actually determined to an important extent by what others think and feel about us, and by what we come to think and feel about ourselves, by comparing ourselves to others. This collage of inherited and earned “identity” plays a huge part in determining how we feel about ourselves and how we function in our life-world. Eric Berne, the founder of Transactional Analysis, concluded that we are constantly making decisions, under pressure and coming to conclusions with inadequate information, that deeply affect how we feel about ourselves. Whether we are OK or Not OK, whether we will be winners or losers in the game of life, whether we will be loved and valued, or disliked and rejected. In other words, as we go through our life we are constructing an identity, both consciously and unconsciously that will either serve us well or act as a major roadblock to our ability to live life fully and enjoy it.


Toby Landesman (copyright 2014)

The good news is that through this ongoing process of identity formation, we can acquire the capacity to either accept or reject the evaluations of others. We also can develop the capacity to make corrections in our own behavior and in our attitudes and conclusions about ourselves. But if we have been parented too critically, if we have received insufficient love, affection, appreciation and acceptance, if instead we have been routinely criticized and punished too severely for our errors and wrong turnings, it becomes very difficult to ward off negative judgments,  harsh criticism and disinterest. We can begin to accumulate an inventory of negativity and disdain towards ourselves, which can undermine our being able to maintain a healthy, positive sense of self. So if this is where we are, stuck in a place of rejecting ourselves or having anxiety attacks that we will perform poorly and make fools of ourselves, if our feelings of inadequacy and insecurity have overwhelmed us, what are we to do?


                               Toby Landesman, (copyright 2014)

Little children often learn a creative defense in relation to their friends’ name calling and hurtful judgments. In response to hurtful criticism they will say, “I’m rubber and you’re glue. Whatever you say bounces off me and sticks to you.” This says,  “I have the right to reject your negative attacks. They are not about me. They are about you.” Children can learn that they do not have to identify with what others are saying about them, especially when what is said is intentionally hurtful, bullying, and demeaning.

I find it helpful to make a distinction between Identity and Identification as a starting point for transforming our sense of self. Here’s what this means. We may be seen in a certain way by our family or by our teachers. We may acquire a reputation, a definition of who we are that doesn’t really belong to us, but is promoted by some authority figure,  our social circle, or even by our relationship partner. We can be given a false identity that someone important to us is insisting is true. However, we do not have to identify with these summary judgments, attributions, and definitions of our temperament or character that discount or demean us.

We need to become familiar with the harmful elements that can be inserted in personal communication. Any words that define us as being a particular way should become suspect to us. For example, if a friend were to say “you are so hot tempered!  I don’t even want to listen to you anymore.” These kinds of statements must be held at arm’s length and questioned. Am I really as hot tempered as I am being accused of? Am I so angry that what I am saying can’t be listened to? Perhaps, but statements like this are usually an exaggeration of the real situation. I may escalate my anger at times when I feel hurt or dismissed  by what has been said, and that escalation is my problem, but my partner may be tempted to exaggerate my problem and diminish the size of her own difficulties. So take note of communications that define and diminish you, and become aware of your own tendencies to exaggerate and prosecute your case.

A better tactic is to describe the behavior that troubles you or hurts you, say what that behavior means to you, and how you feel in response to it. For example, “when you accuse me of being hot tempered, I feel hurt and disappointed, because what this means to me is that what I am upset about will not be taken into account by you.” What you must not do, when you encounter negative definitions of your behavior, is escalate your feelings and accusations, and attack as vigorously as you believe you were attacked. Scathing  judgments that close the door on any possibility other than, “ I am right and you are wrong” are the source of many destructive fights. A statement such as, “after being in this relationship with you for three years, I realize that you are the most selfish person I have ever met,” is just such a judgment. Any accusation that takes the discussion into the “court room” to prosecute a crime  is destructive.  Your friend or partner will feel compelled to defend herself, and to discount what you are saying as an exaggeration or an untruth.


Toby Landesman, (Copyright 2014)

So here are a couple of exercises that may be helpful to you in working with identity and self-esteem issues that are troubling to you. Write down as many answers as you can think of, as if someone is asking you “who are you”  over and over again. List at least ten to fifteen traits and qualities that seem to answer that question. Take a free associative approach and write down as many things as you can think of that feel like descriptions of who you are. Then review your list. How many of these traits, attributions of character, and descriptions of you “feel” right. How many feel bad or hurtful. With each of the qualities or definitions that feel good, ask yourself three things. How did you learn that this was true of you? Who was the first important person in your life that recognized this valuable quality or characteristic? When did you recognize that this evaluation was true, if you did, and how did it make you feel to have this aspect of yourself validated.

With the hurtful definitions and attributions ask the following questions. Did someone important tell me that this was true about me? In what situation or circumstance did I learn this was the case? Is there a kernel of truth to this criticism or attribution? If so, is there something that I could work on that would begin to correct or alter this aspect of myself. Can I reject this definition of my character if it doesn’t fit my perception of myself? How does it feel to assert that this is not true of me and to affirm what is actually the case? Once you have worked through this exercise, review your work and see how it feels to you to have processed these conclusions and feelings about yourself. Then make several statements of self-appreciation. Affirm your strength and courage for being willing to do what seemed simple, but is actually a difficult and challenging exercise in self-awareness.

Here is one more interesting exercise that’s fun to do with a group of friends or with your extended family. Pretend that there are only two classes in society, the Aristocrats and the Peasants. Decide whether you are a Peasant or an Aristocrat, and why you believe this to be true. Then answer this question. Whom do I identify with? Are you an Aristocrat who identifies with the Aristocrats, or an Aristocrat who identifies with the Peasant? If you identify yourself as a Peasant, ask yourself if you identify with the Peasants or the Aristocrats? Once you have determined these answers, ask yourself why this is the case for you. Since this exercise is done in a group setting, you will find that it may generate a lot of interesting conversation. The discussion that follows also tends to flush out people’s opinions of  one another. It works well in classes and group enterprises when the members of the group have known each other for a while, especially if there is a facilitator who can intervene if hostility begins to emerge.

These exercises will give you a sense of what it means to recognize your identity, and how it is possible to make identifications from within that first definition of yourself. In other words, you might be a Rhythm and Blues Singer that identifies with the characters in certain operas. I am a psychotherapist who is able to identify with the pain and distress of the people that I work with, even if I have not experienced their situation personally. We call this particular identification empathy, and this intuitive ability has increased in me over my years of practice. Here is something that I learn more about every day. The more I am able to be accepting of myself and my experience, the more accepting I become of others.  The more we learn to embrace who we are with love and appreciation, the more loving and appreciative we become toward our fellow humans who walk the Earth with us. This result grows out of this work of self-understanding and acceptance.

6Toby Landesman (Copyright 2014)

Please feel free to express yourselves freely in response to this article in the space below. I welcome your comments, criticisms,  suggestions, elaborations and free associations. I thank you for reading this and following this blog!

My heartfelt thanks to my collaborator, Toby Landesman for allowing me to use some of her beautiful new photographs. These “Winter Scenes” are remarkable emblems of one of the worst winters in Chicago’s history, and reveal that there is beauty to be found even amongst the icy storms and bitter cold that have descended on our fair city! You will find Toby’s photographs on her Website.

Written by Thomas Goforth


Newtopia staff writer THOMAS GOFORTH is a psychotherapist and pastoral counselor working in Chicago, IL. He was ordained to the Episcopal priesthood in 1967 and served as Chaplain to the Cook County Jail and the Chicago House of Correction while working for St. Leonard’s House, one of the first halfway houses in the country.. He did draft counseling and community organizing during the Viet Nam War, and was one of the founding members of the Lincoln Park Therapy Collective, an all volunteer organization which provided free group therapy for people living on the North Side of Chicago from 1968 until the mid 80′s.He helped organize the first crisis phone line in Chicago, and later helped train the staff counselors for Kool Aide Youth Emergency Services and Metro Help. He was an actor in the Free Theater Company and Rapid Transit Guerrilla Communications, two groundbreaking political theater companies performing in Chicago during the late 60′s and early 70′s. In the 80′s he helped found the Milton H. Erickson Institute of Chicago and became its third president and a member of its teaching faculty. At the invitation of Charles Shaw, he became the acting “Pit Boss” of the New Poetry Collective, the poetry arm of Newtopia Magazine in its first incarnation. Follow him at Twitter @thomas_goforth.



5 thoughts on “Tools of Transformation #25: The Complexities of Being Human – Identity and Identification

  1. Wonderful article or blog as always, so well written. I get a little nervous whenever you mention Jesus (i just bowed my head) but you did ok. lol
    I remember doing that who am I ? exercise and it being really painful but It was helpful in letting go of identities I thought made me, myself. And then discovering just being me with no identity was ok also. I am going to try it again and see how it is this time.
    I love Toby’s pictures and you said it best that she captured beauty in this very difficult winter (weather wise).

    Posted by Mary Farrelly | February 16, 2014, 2:06 pm
  2. When we search for what we truly love; what excites us, intrigues us, or inspires passion in us, then we may begin to sense the presence of our essence.

    Hmmm, very cool…and with my handy compass and magic wand, I’m off — one more time 🙂

    Posted by cinemashrink | February 16, 2014, 4:49 pm
  3. Always enjoy your thoughts about the complexities of being human and the challenge of relating to self and others.
    The idea of the Core Self/Essential Self has always given me hope that an Inner Guide is truly there for me as journey on. The suggestion to embrace, love and appreciate who I am NOW has been invaluable and a foundation for all other strivings to relate to the world outside me.

    Posted by Mary Rapp | February 21, 2014, 10:35 am
  4. Tell me something, Tom…how can you initiate your column with a Zen quote insisting that it’s “dangerous” “to think you understand something” and follow up with the Bultmann quote that would suggest he understands everything?

    As you might imagine, I disagree with much that he posits but especially with “… For all our thinking today is shaped irrevocably by modern science.” Much of our thinking, perhaps; but all, no…and certainly not irrevocably.

    Posted by Mick Tierney | February 28, 2014, 11:21 am
    • Thanks for your comment, Mick! What I loved about Bultmann as a seminarian was that he emphasized the lebens-welt, the life-world of the early Christian communities. As you know, I am not a fundamentalist, and I was heartened by the inconsistencies in scriptural interpretations from different congregations in different geographic locations. What I had forgotten about Bultmann was how dogmatic he was in expounding his opinions. So you are absolutely right that there is a dramatic non-sequitur in my juxtaposing the two quotes. I am sorry that it took so long to reply to you here. I miss our ever evolving disagreements from when we good friends in high school. It’s nice to be able to say here that I agree with your criticism!

      Posted by goforththomas332 | May 8, 2014, 4:01 pm

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