The Convoluted Nature of Identity and How It Affects Our Mental Health

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Article by: Stephen Kimani

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Disclaimer from the author:

I am not a medical professional, but I have done good research and paid enough attention to ensure that what I write is not misleading or contradictory. What I do in this article is not offer professional advice but give you a fresh perspective to understand things better from now on.

Why can the body fight itself?

An autoimmune disease is a disease where the body fights itself. The body's natural defenses, the immune system, attack the body's own healthy tissue. Why does this happen? Our immune system is on high alert to identify any foreign material that can harm us. Once harm is found, the immune system fights it. But there are other times the body identifies healthy parts of the body as harmful and starts fighting them hence an autoimmune disease.

This short medical analogy highlights that the way our body functions, I dare say, the way nature functions, in Darwinian speak, is through identification. For any action to take place, it must start with identity. The wrong identity, like in the case of an autoimmune disease, can be catastrophic.

Just as the wrong identity can be detrimental to our physical health, it is also critical to our mental health.

What does mental health mean?

Mental health refers to cognitive, behavioural, and emotional well-being. Meaning, if identity affects our mental health, it affects how we think, feel, and behave. So if we take care of how we think, feel and behave, we will be mentally healthy.

But how does identity shape the way we think, feel and behave?

How identity shapes our thinking

Thinking is a costly affair. Therefore, the brain has to automate the way we think. The way the brain automates is by classifying and labelling. When we see something, we quickly classify it, label it and then know how to act, allowing the brain not to process every bit of information, consequently conserving energy. Hence the popular intimation that the brain is lazy. The brain tries to do as much as possible with as little energy as possible.

We, as a result, view the world through thumbnails. We see the representation of something, and it's like we have seen the thing in our head. This is true because we behave as if we have seen it. For instance, if you hear the sound of a gunshot, you don't need to see the gun or even ascertain that it has been shot. You behave as if all this is true, and you run for safety. You might learn later that it was a false alarm, something else that burst, but the thumbnail representation, which was gunfire sound, was enough to send you to act without all the pieces of information.

Also read: Your Inner Monologues Need to Be Managed, Not Silenced

If this is how we go about our life, viewing the world through various thumbnails, then it beckons that we pay attention to how we label the thumbnails because one mislabelling is enough to send us in turmoil. For instance, for an addict, a very normal thing can serve as a trigger to them. For instance, a bottle cap of an alcoholic drink lying around in the street is not harmful, but to an addict, this is a thumbnail that opens up to an infinite world.

Therefore, it is crucial that when the addict realises that that harmless bottle top opens up the bottomless pit of alcoholism, he needs to reassign the identity of the bottle cap. He needs to change what that thumbnail represents consciously. Failure to reassign thumbnail identity leads to very many relapses. You can easily say that the journey of recovery is just thumbnail identity reassignment one at a time until you get to a point where one can efficiently function without everything being a trigger.

How identity shapes how we feel

Although our emotions result from our thoughts, there is a built-in failsafe redundancy pegged on identity. If you fail to catch it at the labelling level (thinking level), you can rectify it at the emotion-action bridge. You cannot control what you feel, but you can control how you act because of the emotion. Accurate identification of emotion enables you to regulate your action. Emotional regulation is done through thinking about the emotion. The thinking process kicks in again until our thoughts and emotions are aligned. This is why we need to rationalise or plain out explain to ourselves what is going on.

How identity influences the way we behave

That being said, it is at the behaviour level that identity manifests. Identity at this level ceases to be just a matter of labelling. It becomes more complex. At the manifestation level, your identity becomes the story you tell the world about yourself (Your thought process and emotions) and your actions in the world (your behaviour). We are what we do, but we also become what we do. A congruent identity that would translate into a functional behaviour has to marry the two ideas of narrative and action. As much as you can say you are a writer, you cannot be one until you actually write. On the flip side, if you write and don't regard yourself as a writer, you fail to become one.

Identity and the action cycle

Essentially, the way life unfolds for you is predicated on your identity. For instance, when your five senses pick a piece of information from the environment, it goes through our cognition, where we seek to understand it and label it. This is highly influenced by how we identify ourselves. Once labelled, the label we assign elicits a particular emotion. These emotions, too, are influenced by our identity. Emotions eventually drive action. Therefore, the way you act is dictated by who you are or what you identify yourself as.

Think of a paedophile. They see a child and read the wrong information from what they see, triggering unacceptable emotions, making them behave in unimaginable ways. As a society looking at this individual, we find fault and seek to punish that behaviour. What is the problem with our perpetrator? He is not mentally healthy. He is reading the wrong cues, which gives the wrong emotion, and hence they act in the wrong way.

[bctt tweet="Mental wellness is not a destination-bound affair. It is a daily process that involves the little things we do." username="QaziniKenya"]

Impact of identity on mental health

The wrong identity can lead you to label and classify things wrongly. This is the hallmark of all mental issues. Mislabelling and misclassifying. If we identify ourselves wrongly, we think wrong, we feel wrong, and we behave wrong.

Therefore, to be mentally healthy, you need to take care of your identity. Be keen on the story you tell yourself and the world about yourself. Be keen also on your action in the world.

Mental wellness is not a destination-bound affair. It is a daily process that involves the little things we do. The things we think are too little to matter. Those are the pebbles that create the mountain.

Tell yourself and the world a story of well-being, and then act to become well.

Also Read: IDENTITY: What Do We Really Mean By That?