Discovering Who I Am: The Critical Role Of Identity


Posted in: Grade School, Parenting Concerns, Pre-School, You & Your Family

Topics: Child + Adolescent Development

The Caterpillar and Alice looked at each other for some time in silence: at last the Caterpillar took the hookah out of its mouth, and addressed her in a languid, sleepy voice.

“Who are you?” said the Caterpillar.

This was not an encouraging opening for a conversation. Alice replied, rather shyly, “I—I hardly know, sir, just at present—at least I know who I WAS when I got up this morning, but I think I must have been changed several times since then.”

                                   Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland


I lead a monthly seminar for medical students about child psychiatry. One of my goals is to help them think about how we as human beings develop a sense of identity.

I usually begin by asking, “Do you think you know who you are?”

Invariably, this leads to a long, uncomfortable silence. They look at each other, then back at me. Sometimes they nod or shake their heads. Mind you, these are college graduates; some even have PhDs. They are not kids. But, it often feels as if I’m speaking a foreign language they don’t understand.

I break the silence. “OK, so do you think you are somewhat the same person you were when you were a teenager, a college student, a young adult?”

More silence. Now they’re really confused. Perhaps no one has ever asked them this question. Maybe they just don’t know. But, these are Harvard medical students, the brightest and the best you can get!

“OK,” I say, “I know you are going through a bit of an identity crisis right now. Many things about who you understood yourself to be are changing. You are on the wards for the first time, out of your comfort zone in the classroom—out of your element. You are responsible for taking care of patients. You are in a new role, and it’s kind of scary. So maybe this isn’t the best time to ask.”

This usually brings a collective round chuckles and sighs of relief. They are going through an identity crisis. After all, becoming a doctor is adding a new layer to their sense of identity.

“Let’s make it simpler. Do you think there are things about you that have been pretty clear and consistent for a long time—traits that have remained the same over the course of your turning 10, 15, 20, 25?”

There are multiple affirmative nods. Now we’re getting somewhere.

“So, there’s some common core that makes you different from your siblings, friends, and peers. And you know it, right? You know something about who you are.” More nods.

“Well, how does this happen? How do we know who we are?”

Then the discussion begins.

The Importance Of Identity

Philosophers, psychologists, and psychiatrists have long written about the need for every person to have a unique identity, one that is acknowledged by others. It’s considered a basic human need.

Identity is critical for maintaining a solid sense of self. It’s the glue that holds us together, even in the most discombobulating of circumstances.

Each of us is unique in how we express our emotions, the way we are viewed by others in terms of our personal style, character, passions, strengths, and vulnerabilities.

In short, it means what we understand to be true about ourselves, and what others understand to be true about us (and, hopefully, we all have the same image). It means folks might say or think, “She wouldn’t react that way,” or, “he’d never wear those kind of shoes,” or, “that’s just the kind of film he’d love,” or, “that’s just like her.” And so on.

Without a solid sense of self, without being known by others, we remain just a face in the crowd, invisible, or worse—nonexistent. Our identity is our brand—our own Nike swoosh.

Our self-esteem, our feelings of competence and confidence all depend on a sound identity. And, our ability to relax, to “be ourselves” without feeling a pressure to perform, also comes from the same place.

When we can be comfortable in our own skin is when we are most adaptable.

And conversely, when there’s a deep question about our personal identity, we experience and convey uncertainty, inconsistency—a kind of hesitancy. Internally, we feel like frauds—empty shells that worry constantly about what others think of us.

How Does Identity Develop?

The famous psychologist Erik Ericson called adolescence a crisis of Identity vs. Identity Confusion. It’s true that the teenage and young adult years are a time when identity is on the front burner, both cognitively and emotionally. But, the formation of identity actually begins much earlier, peaking in adolescence when we try out different roles and consolidate what we have learned about ourselves earlier in life.

Let’s look at the important experiences that help build identity in kids so we can understand how it develops, and what we as parents can do foster its formation.


From infancy on, our kids see themselves through the eyes and behaviors of others. When you see a baby smiling, your reflex is to get close, face-to-face (the visual focal length of an infant is breast to nose), raise the pitch of your voice (infants respond to higher frequencies), and imitate their social smile. This is one of the first examples of mirroring.

The same is true when our expressions reflect the sadness of a crying baby. “Poor baby,” we moan, and lift up the child to hold her close and soothe her.

Babies love it and we adults love it. We naturally imitate their social and emotional behavior with our own. We make a direct connection.

The child is seen.

This quality of reflecting the emotional state of another runs from infancy through the course of the life cycle. Kids then feel that we have them in our hearts and minds. When this sort of mutual interaction is repeated in many different times and places, it helps them appreciate who they are, and what they are feeling in the moment.

This kind of empathic reflective communication continues over time with increasing sophistication.

Attuned And Validating Communication

The way we communicate with our kids helps them understand that we “get them.”

Effective communication has multiple functions. It helps kids feel seen and understood; it provides effective attachment so they will come to us with their successes, problems, and failures; and, it holds the key for self-understanding and identity-building.

Successful communication requires a few basic elements. It is attuned to a child’s immediate emotional state, and it validates their thoughts and feelings. If we get things wrong, we acknowledge our gaff and take corrective action—we rewind the tape and repair an empathic failure.

Here’s an example:

Charlie is a 12-year-old who really wants to be a basketball star. He wants to grow up to be another Labron James, his long-time hero. So, Charlie tries out for his school’s basketball team.

When he gets home, his dad asks, “So, how’d it go?”

Charlie sighs. “I was cut.”

Dad quickly replies, “Don’t worry, there’s always soccer.” Charlie rolls his eyes.

Catching his empathic error, Dad says, “Wait. We’ll put up a hoop in our driveway, and find you a pick-up team. You will play.”

Charlie’s relief is palpable. What’s more, he feels understood and validated.

Social Reinforcement

Peers and social groups are important for helping kids establish who they are. How many of our kids are classified as artists, athletes, academic stars? Kids know exactly what they can and cannot do, what they like and don’t like, how they talk. The confirmation and reinforcement from others solidifies this self-awareness.

As parents, we should encourage our kids to follow their passions, and provide access to opportunities that will help them realize them in social contexts.

Adolescence is a particularly important time for this process of social visibility, as teenagers are trying out new roles and groups, and also have a newfound intellectual capacity for abstract thinking. The teenage advances in brain growth and cognition afford them the ability to conceptualize an image of themselves in comparison to their peers.

Development Of Coherent Narratives

The hallmark of personal identity is the establishment of a coherent life story. We all carry around an internal narrative about our family, cultural heritage, relationships, and group memberships—a collective characterization of who we are.

As in all other aspects of identity, our story slowly develops over time. Kids love to hear tales about their parents, grandparents, and extended family. Younger kids want to hear the stories over and over. It helps them understand where they came from, and helps them put themselves in context.

It’s much like bedtime stories, religious parables, and oral traditions of all sorts. Stories are a universal way we create meaning, community, and a sense of the role we play with others.

Our own personal narrative is most effectively consolidated in adolescence and young adulthood when we have the capacity to pull together previously separate aspects of ourselves and our experiences. This becomes our autobiographical history, and serves as a means of connecting the dots as we move through life, weaving novel experiences into our own personal stories.

Kids need the chance to tell their stories in many ways—through art, conversation, music, writing, and other forms of self-expression.


Medical students have usually solidified the most fundamental parts of their identities—those aspects that stem from their family of origin, the places they grew up, their friends, their seminal life experiences.

But the chapter in life in which they incorporate their identity as a physician has yet to be written.

No wonder they look at me, perplexed, when I ask if they know who they are. Sure they do. But not yet in the context of their role as a doctor.

The same kind of experience is true for all of us when we take on new roles—when kids enter high school, leave home for college, get their first job, find an intimate partner.

Identity is ever-evolving and deeply personal. But, we need others to see us, hopefully, as we see ourselves.

We thought you might find the following video by James Madison University’s all-female a capella group, Note-oriety, a powerful companion to Dr. Beresin’s blog.

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Gene Beresin

Gene Beresin, Executive Director

Gene Beresin, MD, MA is executive director of The MGH Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds, and a staff child and adolescent psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital. He is also...

To learn more about Gene, or to contact him directly, please see Our Team.