Recently I’ve been using the phrase “identify with” a bunch. As in, “I’m learning not to identify with my past self”, or “I try not to identify with my beliefs”, or “the ego is what, when accurately perceived, we stop identifying with”. When a friend of mine asked me what I meant by “identifying with”, I wasn’t immediately sure how to unpack how I was using the words. I said, “Well, when I identify with something it feels like me. It feels like part of my, uh, identity”. He was unsatisfied with this explanation, as was I.
(Prioritizing explaining myself is a heuristic that has served me well. I want meaning.)
Here’s my best one sentence version: When I identify with something, doing an original seeing on it is aversive. I don’t want to take a fresh look at the evidence and see if it really exists in the way I’m thinking of it. In other words, things I identify with seem like part of the territory, not just part of my map. I’ll expand a bit on what this means in terms of identifying with beliefs, emotions, and parts of myself.
Identifying with My Beliefs
I’ve covered almost exactly what I mean by identifying with beliefs in Sticky Claims and Surprise Meters. When I identify with my beliefs, they act as “sticky claims”, and when I don’t, they become “surprise meters”.
Experiences I’ve had with IFS have also helped me understand what it means to identify with my beliefs in a visceral, not just intellectual way. Last August, I was working with my IFS therapist at the time and we were examining a belief of mine that we had discovered that “when I’m upset, I can’t be there for other people”. She asked me how I felt about the belief, and I responded by saying “Well, I think it’s true”. No counter-evidence came to mind; it seemed obvious that the statement was well-supported by my experience. It seemed like a “direction perception of the way things really are”. She said that meant I was “blended with” the belief, which is the IFS way of saying that I was identifying with it.
While blended with the belief, I couldn’t do an original seeing on it and examine whether the belief was truth-tracking and whether holding onto it served me. The belief seemed like a part of me, so much so that I didn’t even realize that I was failing to question it. My IFS therapist had me do an exercise where I visualized the belief and then imagined stepping back from it physically, which is one common strategy for unblending.
Sure enough, immediately upon stepping back from the belief in my mental imagery, I saw that I had evidence for and against it, and that failing to question it wasn’t helping me achieve what I cared about. Just a moment ago, it had seemed “true”. Now it was clear that I had been harvesting evidence for it.
And that’s how the importance of not identifying with my beliefs clicked for me.
Identifying with My Emotions
When I identify with my beliefs, I think of them as “just true” or “intuitively obvious to the most casual observer”. When I identify with my emotions, they are “reasonable”, “justified”, and “exactly the way I should feel”.
Here’s a recent example. On a recent trip to New York I’d made plans to meet a friend around 6:00. I was running about an hour late, which I had informed her of. On the subway, on my way to meet her, I noticed I was feeling a lot of guilt. I kept having thoughts about how I was a bad person, and I should have known better, and replaying the mistakes I had made that got me into the current situation. I tried to tell myself that the friend I was meeting was late fairly often herself, that she wouldn’t want me to beat myself up about it, and that what I was doing wasn’t helping. I resisted all thoughts that threatened my identity as a guilty person, including thoughts about how I could change my behavior in the future! (I ended up doing some work on myself in the moment, which I’ll blog about too.)
Identifying with My Parts
One of the claims of the IFS model is that our psyche is made up of sub-personalities, each with its own set of emotions and beliefs. I can identify a “part” because my degree of identification with all of its emotions and beliefs will change at the same time.
For example, I had a protective part whose role was to stop me from talking when I was upset with other people. Some of its feelings were: anxiety because it believed I was incapable of expressing myself effectively and resentment that other people wouldn’t just read my mind, and some of its beliefs were: that unexpressed anger kept me safe, and that expressing anger would lead to more chaos than I could handle. As I visualized stepping back from this part, my level of identification with each emotion and belief in that cluster lessened in lockstep.
Strategies for Decreasing Identification With Emotions and Beliefs
One straightforward hack I use for not identifying with my emotions is rather than saying “I am angry”, saying “I am feeling anger”, or “I am experiencing anger”. This simple verbal transformation helps remind me that my emotions are temporary and dependent on how I am responding to my circumstances.
Physically stepping backwards and visualizing stepping backwards will both help disidentify with parts and beliefs. Conceptualizing the emotion or belief visually, and then interacting with that imagery is often effective. Asking the emotion or belief to unblend sometimes works. Meditation trains the ability to disidentify. In future posts I will further unpack these techniques and more.