Thursday, July 1, 2010

Self-identity is a base for everything else you do in life

Early in the basic-communication course we used two activities in the small performance sections specifically designed to awaken students to themselves—a confirmation of their life and existence.  The first had them sit in the middle of a circle with the rest of their small group of 15 to 20 students sitting around them.  They were to remain silent as they turned their chair to face each of the surrounding students while each one, separately, “reflected” their impression of the student in the center.  Although occasionally a student would say something that could be interpreted negatively by the student in the center, most comments were not only positive but encouraging even flattering as well.  Student reports of this exercise were always positive, and as a result, use of the activity was continued for more than twenty years. 

The second activity was labeled the “Interview-Introduction-Name Exercise.”  Students were first labeled A or B moving clockwise in a large circle around the room.  To begin the interviews, A’s were to interview B’s who were seated to their left to find out as much information as they could so that they could introduce this student to the class.  Then, all students were to turn fully around in their seats to form new dyads (groups of two).  Now, B’s were to interview a new A with the same goal in mind—so they could introduce A to the class.  In this way, once the process was complete, all students would be able to introduce the student on their left, and we could proceed around the circle learning the names of all students----repeated by everyone as introductions continued.  These interviews gave students an identity, made them stand out as unique, and put some distance between them and the others in the class.  It is an outstanding and effective means for learning the names of all students.  (I had teaching assistants—especially those who taught two or three sections of the course—take notes as the sequence proceeded, so they could review the names before coming to class the next time.) 

Now, you must understand that these two activities occurred within the context of a basic, required, speech-communication course.  I say that because in such circumstances, some students could be inclined not to take the course seriously; thus, whatever activities engaged in might not be perceived as significant, worthwhile, valuable, or relevant.  The overall design and purpose of these two activities—along with what followed in the course---served as a metaphor for life. 

The point of the activities—beyond simply beginning the course with a couple of startling exercises—has to do with identity.  Both exercises are designed to be confirming: offering students proof or verification that they are valuable, appreciated, respected, and important.  Experiencing this confirmation of life—whether in class or other places—is a prelude to everything else they will learn and do.  Once they have found this feeling, they will then not only be ready to discover but express their uniqueness as individuals. 

The comments that follow on identity come from a book called The Identity Code (Random House, 2005).  In that book, Laurence Ackerman explains the various ways in which identity is the foundation of our lives and how, with it as the foundation, it can be a better and more productive world.  The basic purpose of the book is to convince readers they have value in the world simply as a result of being who they are. 

When students have a sense of who they are, they begin to discover why they are here.  It is as if they have found a natural gyroscope that guides them to a place or position from which to take charge of their lives.  It is on the strength of that gyroscope that their decisions will be wise, and the outcomes—no matter what challenges and hardships they face—will be the right ones. 

All the activities that follow from these first two give students real opportunities to make important decisions and derive solutions.  The lectures are designed not just to underscore, reinforce, and buttress what goes on in the performance sections but empower students by revealing their potential,    It is, indeed, these decisions and solutions which provide clear separation between themselves and other students in the class.  Because they can observe the decisions and solutions of other classmates, all students are able to step back and see, really see, themselves in relationship to others.  How are they different?  How are they the same?  It is the answers to these questions that allow them to set the boundaries that mark out turf belonging to them. 

What the basic course is designed to give students—and as a corollary, what they truly need in life—is independence.  Independence is the ability to think and act on their own and in their own best interests, despite what others may expect of them.  By defining themselves as separate from others, they find their own integrity as individuals.  It gives them a place to begin forming ideas, framing beliefs, and discerning attitudes that are uniquely their own.  In moments of great intensity like when they are under the pressure of deadlines, experiencing conflicting demands from various courses, trying to deal with the competing demands of family, friends, relationship partners, and their classes, it allows them to make the necessary decisions based on who they are and who they are not. 

Standing alone strengthens students.  There will always be unfamiliar emotions, misgivings, and resistance, but when students make their decisions and follow through with solutions, there will also be exhilaration and hope.  Facing up to initial discomfort, even aloneness, is a definite and specific sign of progress.  When students stay with it, it is their passage to discovery.  It is part of the development of their powers as individuals in their own right. 

Life offers many opportunities for making decisions and deriving solutions, but it doesn’t often offer the similar opportunities to others of our same age and status.  When we can compare our decisions and solutions with relevant, immediate others and even embrace, adapt, and adopt strategies and use them as our own in a helpful, positive, encouraging, and hopeful environment, the rewards are often instantaneous and valuable. 

There is no easy path when it comes to unleashing the remarkable energy that one’s identity contains.  Finding it, however, is just a start.  As people understand their unique capacities and live according to them, they become happy being who they are.  As Ackerman writes in the final chapter of his book, “A Framework for Living,” “Consider your identity your source of life.  It makes you vibrant, wise, agile, powerful, even playful.  It is the sun within you, whose energy need never die.” 


Yes, it’s an advertisement for a course.  That said, the essay by Karl Perera, “Personal Identity,” at the website, is a very good one because he not only outlines the seven components of self-esteem, but he carefully shows “How . . . your personal identity [can] help you improve your self esteem.”  Great specifics here. 

“Self Identity and Memory” is the title of this very long, highly technical, heavily documented, well-written (but academic) paper that explains exactly why self identity is so important.  You can access this paper by John F. Kihlstrom, Jennifer S. Beer of the University of California at Berkeley, and Stanley B. Klein of the University of California at Santa Barbara at their website---accessed by clicking on their names (above).  Their research was supported by a number of research grants, and an edited version of this chapter appeared in M.R. Leary & J. Tangney (Eds.), Handbook of self and identity (pp. 68-90).  New York: Guilford Press, 2002. 


Copyright June, 2010, by And Then Some Publishing, LLC.


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