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Identity Conflict


Explanations > Needs > Internal CIA Conflicts > Identity Conflict

Separate self | United selves | The central issue |  So what?


We all have a need for a sense of identity, of who we are and our place in the world. This is not always easy and we may be challenged in many ways. There are also inner conflicts that make settling on who we really are a difficult process.

Separate self

For anything to exist, it must be separate somehow from its environment. It needs a boundary that lets us know what is a part of it and what is not a part of it. Likewise, to know our own selves we need to pull away from the world to find our boundaries.


A conflict here is that we need the world around us and other people to create this separation. I need to know a tree so I know I am not a tree. And I need you to know I am not you. Yet knowing you creates a connection with you, so I am not separate.

Another conflict occurs where we are unsure of who we are and cannot isolate a single, separate self, the 'real me', from the many 'me's of multiple identity. It is common to feel you have more than one personality, in particular ones which are tied to different contexts and feelings, hence the work self, the home self, the stressed self, the angry self and so on. The question 'Who am I?' is often asked and often not fully answered.

United selves

We are social and spiritual creatures. We like to have friends, live in society and feel a part of something greater than ourselves. We define ourselves through our connections, even seeing ourselves as others see us.


This creates a conflict where the more we connect, the more we place our identity outside, the more our boundaries erode and the less distinct our identities become. We typically want the penny and the bun, to both be like other people and to be different

The central issue

A dilemma of identity is that it is reflexive, that we need an 'I' to define the 'I', which makes 'I' impossible to fully identify. We also have an infant history of early warm bonding and unity out of which the sense of separation emerged. This leaves a sustaining tension to re-unite with others and the world, while the sense of self (and the control this gives) is too important to give up.

The central issue is how to sustain a separate, autonomous self while connecting with others and immersing ourselves in the world. 'Letting go' can be immensely joyful yet we need our self to know that pleasure.

This tension is found in other self-vs-others situations, including:

Separation and unity are also related to the sense of control and create another tension here, as being separate allows personal choice, yet together we can achieve so much more.

So what?

Help people discover themselves by exploring their boundaries, of who they are and who they are not. This includes looking at basic drivers such as beliefs, models, values, goals and so on. Talk about what is important for them and how they relate to others. Help them let go of past things so they can look forward to the 'new me'.

You can also challenge people who do bad things by asking 'Is that the real you?' Few people want to be thought of as bad and so may change their selves (and in consequence their actions).

See also

Identity, Psychoanalysis


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