The Science Behind Holding Your Identity(s) Loosely


This past weekend, I had an essay run in the New York Times about the categories and labels we apply to our sense of self. If you missed the piece, you can read it here.

As these things tend to go, a few interesting parts of the initial draft got cut, and they all pertain to the research on categories, labels, and identity. I wanted to share them here, as I believe they are quite an important part of the argument that we ought to use categories and labels when  they are helpful but then be okay with releasing from them when they are not. The two areas of science are called “psychological flexibility” and “self-complexity theory.” Here is the text that got cut:

Perhaps most importantly, identifying too strongly with a label may get in the way of living a full life. In addition to well-known “cornerstones” of psychological health such as belonging, competence, and autonomy, “psychological flexibility” is getting a fresh look. Defined loosely, psychological flexibility refers to how easily we adapt to life’s many curveballs, and maintain a sense of balance without losing sight of our values or becoming too rigidly locked into any single self-concept . A core element of psychological flexibility is self as context, which explains that we should be aware of our experiences without becoming rigidly attached to them. Psychological flexibility says that we ought to use specific labels or diagnoses when they are helpful, and then leave them behind when they are not.

Related to psychological flexibility is a lesser-known concept called “self-complexity.” First coined in the late 1980s by the Yale University psychologist Patricia Linville, it measures how diverse someone perceives their identity as being. Studies show that people who score high in self-complexity — that is, they do not rigidly define themselves in any one way — are less prone to depression, perceived stress, mood swings, and low self-worth. It follows that clinging too rigidly to any single identity, particularly for long periods of time, is at best limiting, and at worst harmful. A 2010 study published in the Journal of Psychiatric Rehabilitation looked at the relationship between “illness identity,” or “the set of roles and attitudes a person has developed about him or herself in relation to his or her understanding of mental illness,” and recovery, and found a negative relationship. That is, the more someone identified with their illness, the less chance they had of making a full recovery. (A 2020 meta analysis in the journal Psychiatry Research reaffirmed these findings.)

Hopefully you found this interesting, and even more crucially, perhaps you can see how it might apply to your own life.


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