Identity-Formation & Finding Your Purpose

Posted on Aug 21, 2011

When I moved from the East Coast to the Bay Area last year, I dove right into the local spiritual culture. Its reputation is well known, so I was curious to see what I would find.

It’s been amazing, to say the least. My encounters for the first several months matched the stereotypes that I brought with me: the spiritual crowd seemed very sweet, and very disconnected. A lot of meditation was happening, with a pool of local spiritual teachers to choose from. However, spiritual narcissism was keeping people’s eyes firmly closed, gaze turned inward, while Rome burned.

Then I ran into a completely different crowd. People who didn’t meditate very much. Their spiritual identity was wrapped up in doing: engagement with the world, projects around culture. It was a breath of fresh air, to say the least.

Interestingly, I realized along the way that it wasn’t which group someone associated with that made me want to connect with them at a deeper level. It was the degree to which they were un-affiliated. Someone who leads with their resume has a very different feel and appeal than someone who is only interested in the process of expanding their humanity.

What I’m about to describe is hardly novel. It’s been written about many many times. But I know of no one — myself included — who does not benefit from renewed, energized engagement with this issue. The process that leads to the slow suppression of our humanity is, for most of us, barely conscious. No matter how developed we think we are, whether we consider ourselves spiritual or not, this process is perhaps the most significant one to deal with, both for its challenge at the soul level and its potential release of creative energy.

Fear not: after we open up identity issues, there’s plenty more coming. Moral development, values development… there’s lots to talk about. But let’s begin at the beginning.

It all starts with an idea

What kind of idea? An idea about ME. I am a man. I am loving. I understand how things work. I am authentic. It really could be anything, including negative ideas: I am selfish. I am wounded. I am bad at math. The range is infinitely wide, and we all have plenty of them floating around inside us.

There are layers upon layers of ideas. Unpack “I am a man” and you’ll find everything from “I am physically strong” to “I am a protective partner” to “I bring home the bacon.” Those ideas will of course differ from person to person, and that’s just fine.

The good news is that there’s nothing wrong with being a man, or being a loving person, or even being wounded. But what happens when we identify ourselves with this idea? Let’s take the idea “I am a loving person” as an example, because it’s an easy one to follow as it goes down the rabbit-hole.


Now, instead of just being a loving person, I hold up a mental picture of myself as a loving person. This distinction is barely noticeable at first, but it’s actually very significant. After I realized that I was being loving (and liked it!) (and I probably saw other people liking it too), I printed out a label for myself: “Hello, my name is Amy, and I am a loving person.”

That wouldn’t be an issue, except we have rules for people who consider themselves loving. They don’t get angry. They are generous. They have few needs of their own.

Before Amy printed out the “loving” label, she might have gotten angry and expressed it without experiencing much conflict of interest. But now she looks down at the label on her vest, realizes that she has an image to uphold, and begins to suppress her anger. She starts to lose touch with her own needs.

At first it’s quite subtle, but it certainly doesn’t stay that way. She begins to focus more intently on other people as a way of avoiding dealing with her anger, which of course makes her believe that she’s becoming more loving. So she prints out new labels with increasingly emphatic identities. “I am veryloving.” “I love unconditionally.” “I love so full-heartedly that I need nothing in return.”

With each new label, another piece of her self gets sent to the “no-fly” zone of the psyche. As more parts of the self get hidden away, more fear arises, which leads to new labels that describe a “thinner” self. Eventually the progressive rejection of anger, and of any needs at all, becomes so strong that there’s no longer a truly loving person, just a distorted reflection. Self-sacrifice has turned into pride, generosity into manipulation.

Remember, Amy didn’t start out manipulative. She started out unabashedly loving, then her self-images became ever more rigid, persistent, and damaging. (Obviously, we each take this process to different levels; the dark end of the rabbit-hole is not the inevitable outcome for every one of our identities!)

This is called enclosure. We build walls around ourselves, blocking out whatever doesn’t match our self-image. As the wall gets higher, we become more and more estranged from other people, especially those who don’t wear matching labels.

Even now, as I write this, I’m watching the label printer spit out “Hello, my name is Jeff, and I understand this enclosure business.” So unless I’m careful — armed with knowledge, compassion, and vigilance — I’ll start rejecting anything that doesn’t match my new label. I’ll start presuming I have it all figured out, and be back in the business of enclosure-building.

Try it for yourself. Take a look at one of the labels you wear on your own vest: I am young. I am spontaneous. I know how to listen. I am hip. I am a leader. What layers of identity have you crafted? What parts of our shared human experience are you rejecting because they don’t fit your self-image? Follow the self-image machine down your own rabbit-hole. It’s deep stuff.


We spiritual folks call this process ego.

Ego is not a thing. It’s not an object, a self, or even one of the identities we craft for ourselves. Ego is the process of identity-formation. It’s the process of building the wall of enclosure that keeps us more and more separate from our hearts, from other people, from life itself.

Is ego something to transcend? Something to dis-identify with? Well… that’s not quite the right question. The process of identity-formation is something that will happen continuously until the moment you drop dead. You will never lose the inner machinery that does this. However, you can peel back the layers that you’ve already built up, and get to know the process from the inside as it happens in real time. If all goes well, you’ll be removing layers at a faster pace than you’re building up new ones. And if all goes really well, you’ll understand your own mind and ego-process enough to stop mechanically applying the ego’s labels to yourself. The printer will keep spitting them out, but you’ll stop putting them on.

If by some extraordinary combination of passion and grace you reach a point where you have no labels at all, however briefly, your ego offers you the uberlabel, printed on gold leaf: “enlightened.” That label is the hardest one of all to remove. There’s a good reason most spiritual teachers warn that aspiring to wear the “enlightened” label is wrong-headed. That desire does not arise from the same part of us that aspires to be ever-label-free, awake to the ego-process of identification and enclosure.

Finding your purpose

Throw a stone six feet and you’ll hit someone teaching a course on how to find your purpose. What does this mean? How does it work? If I’m plastered with labels that emphatically state that “I am a loving person,” for instance, what kind of purposeful work will I consider? Certainly nothing that doesn’t directly relate to my self-image.

If Amy took a “find your purpose” course, she probably wouldn’t take a job at a law firm as her “purpose” work, even if that firm is doing important and valuable things in society. She’d instead seek a job that confirms her loving nature; perhaps as a social worker, yoga teacher, full-time mom, or the like. A job that a loving person would be proud to tell her friends about. Those aren’t bad jobs, of course, but she considered only a small set of options, and that is exactly the type of enclosure that we’re trying to dismantle.

Heck, my own story is the same. I worked at companies with a stated spiritual mission (“transform yourself to save the world!”) for the last fifteen years. Do you imagine I had a few layers of identity wrapped up in that? Now, after unraveling a few of them, I’m working at a financial services company. We’re doing amazing work in developing countries, as well as in the corporate world. I’m extremely proud of my job, even though it doesn’t provide an opportunity to puff up my chest in the usual spiritual way. (Pop quiz: Did you see the new label form? And do you see how this blog might re-energize old identities?)

The irony is that as you start to do the real inner work of peeling back layers of identification, something interesting starts to happen. You stop looking for a purpose that matches a self-image, and just start doing. Your doing gets less enclosed by the fruits of your ego’s labors, less invested in having a type of purpose that you can be proud of. If you don’t get too invested in your new label (“I’m in touch!!”), you might just find purpose happening already, without the familiar type of effort, and with snowballing effects that reach out in every direction.

Once the wall of enclosure is low enough, you start to see other people… this time for real. The experience of intimacy without any self-image to protect is staggering, and incredibly precious. You begin to experience the process of life, the flow of emergent potentials that are born once we’re free enough to release our deepest gifts… the gifts we always knew we had, but lost touch with in the process of identification and enclosure. Human development, as individuals and as a society, takes on a creative dimension in addition to its restorative dimension.

It’s really much more exciting, not to mention more authentic, than sticking a big fat label on yourself that declares to the world that you’ve found your purpose. Hey, who knows: we might just see a flood of “lose your self-image” courses!

(And to be honest, finding purpose takes much more than identity clearing. It requires deep clarity about your values, especially around ethics. Subjects for another day!)

High and low drama

I know some people who would never talk like this, yet are tuned into the identification process so naturally that it’s not much of a big deal. They understand their own minds, their ego structures, well enough to avoid getting too caught in identities. And their lives are filled with purpose.

Lucky bastards!

For the rest of us, the process of seeing our self-image labels is often hard work. Removing those labels is really hard work. Resisting the temptation to put on new labels is crazy-hard. (Quiz #2: Must it be hard? Always? Or did I just put on an identity that insists it’s hard?)

Even though I no longer work for companies who claim a “transform yourself to save the world” mission, that vision still lights me up. It’s not a linear thing (first transform yourself, then transform the world): there are a lot of people doing great work in the world who have no idea about ego, and whose work I’m passionately behind. You don’t need to navel-gaze to have a big impact.

That said, I have the highest regard for people who have a living connection between inner and outer. People who are engaged in the process of dismantling identities, rather than creating new ones, while not waiting for any dismantling before throwing themselves fully into life. (And to be clear: people who self-identify as “spiritual” are not necessarily doing this!)

It doesn’t matter whether it’s high-drama or low-drama, hard or easy: if you want the maximum out of life, to experience who you really are, how deep human connections can go, and what spirit really is… if you value the life you’ve been given and feel the urge to give back in the most meaningful way possible… I can’t see a way forward that doesn’t include the unraveling of identities. There are many ways to live, of course, but for high-striving, deeply-caring individuals (oy, another label!), understanding the ego process is top priority.

This article was reposted on Beams & Struts. Though that site is now closed, the discussion around the article was powerful and worth a read.

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