It’s something everyone has - an identity. Whether you view yourself as educated, sociable, healthy, independent, underweight, overweight, ill or as having an impairment, all are examples of characteristics that are often incorporated into a person’s sense of self, their identity. What is it and why is it so important? Surely a concept that is vague and difficult to define cannot have such an important impact on a person?
An identity is a person’s subjective experience of himself, a sense of self. It includes recognition of and similarity between certain characteristics within a person that lead to grouping of elements, clusters. This forms the basis for inclusion in specific groups and is often synonymous with classifying and at times even labelling e.g. impaired or disabled.
Identity is important in that it presents a cluster of characteristics that encourages awareness of ourselves and leads to identification with others in society. It allows us to define who we are, separates us and simultaneously joins us to others. Understandably then, identity plays a key role in defining who we are in relationships.
Helpless and incapable
With this being the case, what happens when identity changes? For instance, when someone that has moved from a position of being physically independent, self-sufficient and mobile, to a position where they are mobility impaired and may feel dependent on others, helpless and incapable. This change has a profound effect on their identity. Suddenly there is a rapid change in physical circumstance, and adjustment is necessary to include the psychological aspects of that change. Often there is a sense of loss of self, as if there is no continuity. A person feels he is one person yesterday and someone completely different today. Suddenly there is a clear distinction between the period “before” there was a mobility impairment and “after”. Thinking changes. It becomes focussed and directed on what was physically possible before without assistive devices, and what is currently possible with assistive devices. This serves to highlight a person’s experience of loss of continuity of their physical body only and is by no means a complete or accurate representation of the person. Physical changes in the body may occur; however these changes in no way sum up who the person is, his characteristics or identity.
This experience of discontinuity in the self as a result of the presence of a mobility impairment is often termed an “identity crisis.” This refers to the psychological impact resulting from what is often viewed as a loss of functioning. However, while it does emphasise the physical aspect, identity itself encompasses far more.
When meeting new people, it is generally considered inappropriate to introduce yourself in terms of your gender, religion or sexual orientation. Rather people introduce themselves by using their names, their professions and usually their hobbies or any other aspects of their identity that potentially forms the basis for the establishment of relationships. Perhaps this can serve as a guideline for ways of managing an identity crisis. In the same way self-image needs to separate the physical consequences of a disability from those characteristics that are part of who you essentially are. Another way of looking at it is to recognise the physical changes that have occurred and acknowledge those changes are only one aspect of who you are and the essence remains unchanged.
As part of this process of expanding identity and including additional aspects into it, is the understanding of other processes that are also at play. This includes grieving for a previous lifestyle and could also extend to a possible loss of a limb or loss of mobility. It is natural to respond to these changes with anxiety, an overwhelming sense of loss, sadness, anger, helplessness and at times even denial. These feelings are important and deserve to be validated. Only through acknowledgement of these feelings can the impact of the change in self-identity be managed and the process of incorporating new aspects in identity can be facilitated. Experiencing these emotions allows us to work with them, find a place for them and move on to other aspects of ourselves.