Military Psychology Sociology

What is a Healthy Identity?

Which role identities are healthy vs. which are unhealthy?

If you’ve been following my recent posts, you’ve probably noticed I have been thinking about the concept of ‘identity’ quite a bit. I’ve tried to define my concept of identity in relation to self-esteem, trauma, addiction, social media, and issues veterans face in transition to civilian life.

I’ve been trying to use a consistent concept of identity throughout these articles, influenced by Erik Erikson’s characterization of role identity, but I keep coming back to a fundamental problem:

Which role identities are healthy vs. which are unhealthy?

In my article on how self-worth affects identity, I describe the unhealthy ‘hero’ role. This is a role taken up by individuals with a low level of intrinsic self-worth who become perfectionists, attempting to gain self-worth through the external praise of others. I then elaborated how this similar process occurs among codependent caretakers who enable a loved-one’s addiction.

I then applied this model to identity and social media, exploring how hero roles manifest as an addiction to external validation in the form of ‘likes’.

In both of those articles, I discussed unhealthy forms of identity.

In my most recent article on identity crisis among veterans, I used the same concept of identity, but discussed it as a healthy thing that should be facilitated and strengthened. This leads to my opening question: which role identities are healthy vs. which are unhealthy? How do we know which identity constructions are life-affirming and which are destructive?

I’ve been wrestling with this question for a while now and have come to the following distinction: healthy identities are interdependent, whereas unhealthy identities are dependent.

What does this mean?

Dependent identities depend on external validation and are sought as an escape from one’s inner sense of low self-worth. Codependent relationships are an example of this form of identity construction. In Women, Sex, and AddictionCharlotte Kasl defines codependency as the following:

…someone whose core identity is underdeveloped or unknown, and who maintains a false identity built from dependent attachments to external sources — a partner, a spouse, family, appearances, work or rules. These attachments create both the illusion of a self and a form from which to operate… to survive in a world defined by others… (knowing) more about those in power than about himself or herself.

Codependent relationships are mutually destructive. In the case of addiction, a caregiver’s sense of self-worth may be dependent on taking care of a substance-dependent individual, enabling their addiction. This behavior is self-destructive since the caregiver’s lack of self-esteem and personal boundaries leads to a state of personal neglect, resentment, and sense of victimhood.

So what makes a healthy role identity?

Healthy identities are interdependent. This means they are simultaneously independent and related, rooted in a fundamental sense of self-worth. “Interdependence” refers to our ability to work together in complimentary roles, becoming more than the sum of our individual parts. As Erik Erikson states:

Life doesn’t make any sense without interdependence. We need each other, and the sooner we learn that, the better for us all.

As stated in my previous article, the military is a great example of institutionalized interdependence. Identities are built within a system of distinct, yet related, roles where one’s unique skills, abilities, preferences, and character, all contribute to an organization with functional capacities beyond the sum of its individual parts.

So if military identities are interdependent, why do so many veterans suffer from an identity crisis upon transition? Wouldn’t this imply their identities are dependent, and therefore, unhealthy? In some cases, of course. Not all serving-members enter with a strong fundamental sense of self-worth, using the military similar to a ‘codependent’ or a ‘hero’. With it’s promise of heroic honor and national pride, individuals who lack a fundamental sense of self-worth or belonging may find themselves attracted to this type of role. Although this may occur, identity crisis upon transition is not simply a matter of these particular individuals losing a dependent identity.

Veterans who have a strong fundamental sense of self-worth and construct interdependent role identities within the military may also experience an identity crisis upon transition. This is not because their identities are dependent, but because the social conditions within which they are able to contribute are taken away. In occupational limbo, they maintain a military identity without yet having built a sense of interdependence within the civilian world. This may result from cultural barriers, as discussed in the previous post. One veteran I spoke with emphasizes this point, stating:

In my mind, I was thinking, ‘civilians are stupid’… a proven leader under high stress with the ability to manage finances, resources, motivate people, make hard decisions, and people didn’t want to hire me.

This is not an individual lacking a fundamental sense of self-worth, seeking a dependent role identity. This is someone with a realistic assessment of their situation, who understands their interdependent worth, but is temporarily unable to enact their interdependent capacity, given their particular social conditions. This interdependent identity may have been fostered within the military, but is not dependent on the military. In time, many of the veterans I spoke to were able able to healthfully maintain their interdependent identity within civilian roles. The individual I quoted above went on to become a corporate Chief Operating Officer, stating that his new role was a “very good fit”. Given the opportunity, he was able to assimilate the military skills within a civilian role, making a successful interdependent identity transition.

So what’s the bottom line?

Role identity is the intersection between self identity and social identity. It’s a form of self-concept tied to our place within a functional or dysfunctional social system. An unhealthy identity stems from a fundamental lack of self-worth, compensated by dependent relations for the purpose of external validation. A healthy identity stems from a fundamental sense of self-worth, facilitated by interdependent relations.

In the next article, I will explore how this form of identity construction relates to the concept of purpose, bringing it back to the blog’s central theme.

Although I have been introspecting on these concepts for a while, most of my ideas are conceived in dialogue with others. I am curious to know how you conceive of a healthy vs. unhealthy identity. Your comments are greatly appreciated.


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23 comments

  1. That is a very thoughtful question. Interestingly, we are both codependent and she is from a military family and I am from a dysfunctional alcoholic family. We both are the golden child, or the hero role types. I need to learn more about role identities to answer your question better, but for now I would say that I am trying to be less of a hero and pleaser and more of a partner with an eye towards keeping centered in who I am as and individual. Fortunately there was a pretty good gap between my first marriage and my second where I was able to find my sense if what and who I am. Unfortunately I tried to be someone else as we entered into marriage and it didn’t work too good. I am back to getting centered and she is too and things are moving in the right direction. I am going to share this piece with here and I am sure it will help facilitate a good discussion. Can you point me towards a quick read on role identities so I can understand them better?

  2. A well thought out post. I like your perspective on co-dependence. I have been growing through my own co-dependence for a long time now. I have learned as you say that it is a balance of interdependence and independence that keeps me sane. I am into my second marriage and to no surprise, my wife and I work on this together. Thanks for the good work. I have enjoyed it.

  3. As far as military and veteran stuff goes, your speaking Greek to me.
    However, healthy and unhealthy identity contributions? I have traveled round and round the swampy jungle filled with quick sand patches and cliffs, hidden and unhidden.
    I am progressing to the edge of this area and, to be honest, the glimpses I have seen out there scare me to the core of my soul.
    Yet, that’s the direction I am heading because the pain where I am from is worse than the fear of moving forward.
    Thank you for your post, your honesty, your direct language.

  4. I was with you, Steve until here…

    “I’ve been wrestling with this question for a while now and have come to the following distinction: healthy identities are dependent, whereas unhealthy identities are interdependent.”

    Isn’t what you went on to describe the opposite? Clarification, please. My brain is on overload! 😀

    What’s the path from an unhealthy to healthy identity look like?

  5. Excellent as usual. I don’t find “identity” to be exact as much as perceived; by ourselves and others. Look into “Johair Window” to see four panes of perception.

    Erikson’s identity is a life long continuum of stages leading toward “integrity.” Unfortunately, people may stop at one stage and remain there.

    Military “identity” is unique and your writings reflect the difficulty of returning to civilian life where identity is fluid (I chose a mild word). I was in the Atlanta airport last week and wondered if a woman walked into the Men’s Room, should I stop her? She may be transgender and I’d offend her identity and I’d be the fool instead of a helpful fellow passenger.

    Carl Jung talks about the “collective unconscious” and how that plays, willingly or not, into our identity. The tragic result of his concept was Nazism or contemporary examples.

    I also benefited from Jung’s student, M. Esther Harding, and her book, “The I and Not I.” Great for people preparing for marriage or just living in society the best that we can.

    Another great reflective piece for me. Thanks,

  6. Steve, an excellent topic in a world where self-worth, or respect, seem to be dependent as much on what others think of us, as what we think about ourselves. Self worth, at least to me, should be what you have done, or could do, which is true to yourself, not harmful to anyone, and if it helps either you or others be in a better state–so be it!

  7. A healthy identity is merely, you, being a completel whole, not needing any social roles, or social statuses, to make you feel good about yourselves, and, this, is not at all easy to get, as we are often, prone, to get affected by how the outside world perceive us as, and, more than likely, to become self-fulfilling prophecies…

    1. Thank you for the comment! I agree, in the sense that we are not dependent on social roles. We need to have a strong sense of ourselves, distinct from these roles, then have the ability to contribute to a broader interdependent collective.

  8. I’m going to be pragmatic, and say, “A Healthy Identity is any that works”. Namely because if one takes into account Sartre’s Authenticity along with Jung’s Shadow/Masks…it eventually leads one to a recursion of, “Either this current identity isn’t enough (of a positive/negative valence), or there is no ‘True Self’”.
    I think one of the greatest harms a psychologist/psychiatrist can inflict is actively trying to filter another person’s psyche through a sieve. Ie; “You must fit this criteria of whatever agreed upon terms that you had no say in.” AKA “The DSM”.
    …I suppose to be less onerous, I would have to say, that a healthy identity allows change, and is resilient. A few links that I found in my internet surfing: http://resiliencycenter.com/exceptional-mental-health/ The author of those studies has linked “Schizophrenia characteristics”, “The Nietzsche Ubermensch”, and “The Survivor Personality”… in some ways, or he was heading down that path before he passed away. http://www.successfulschizophrenia.org/articles/nietz.html
    The reason being for this mentality is; “Anything Static may eventually Break”.

    1. Thank you for this thoughtful response! I agree with your emphasis on flexibility and lack of narrowly defined normative judgments. Although not explicitly stated in my conception, hopefully those characteristics are still evident.

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