What is the Deeper Meaning of Identity?

Meaning of Identity

Written by Steve Rose

Steve Rose, PhD, is an addiction counsellor and former academic researcher, committed to conveying complex topics in simple language.

On the go? Listen to the audio version of the article here:

As a sociologist, the concept of identity has been an important part of my research. Over the years, I’ve come to realize that a simple dictionary definition does not explain the depth of the various forms of identity.

Digging through the academic literature on identity, I’ve developed a deeper understanding of the meaning of identity and its multiple forms.

What is the deeper meaning of identity?

Identity can be defined in three different ways: self-identity, social-identity, and role-identity. Self-identity is how you identify with your personal characteristics, social-identity is how you identify with a group, and role-identity is how you identify with a particular social role.

Self-identity is generally what people refer to when they talk about identity. It is your thoughts about your personal characteristics, interests, and skills. For example. one may identify as being an outgoing person who is skilled in a particular area of study.

Social-identity is how you identify as a member of part of a larger group. For example, one may identify as being a fan of a particular sports team.

Role-identity is probably one of the least discussed forms of identity and consists of how you identify with a particular role within a larger system. For example, one may identify as being part of a particular workplace.

Role identity is distinct from social identity since it consists of having a particular purpose within a larger system rather than merely identifying with a broader category, like being a sports fan.

Let’s dig deeper into the research to gain a better understanding of the meaning of identity and what constitutes a healthy identity.

What is a Healthy Identity?

Healthy identities are interdependent, whereas unhealthy identities are dependent.

Dependent identities are found in seeking external praise and are sought as a way to escape from an inner sense of low self-worth.

Interdependent identities are one’s secure sense of one’s own values and skills and a sense that one is connected with a broader social group.

Unhealthy dependent identities are often found in codependent relationships. 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.

Codependency 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 interdependent identity?

“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.

Healthy identities maintain a balance between authentic personal boundaries and social contribution.

This means they are simultaneously independent and related, rooted in a fundamental sense of self-worth.

Let’s dig deeper into the concept of self-worth and look at how it is affected by our social contexts.

How Self-worth Affects Identity

Those growing up in dysfunctional family environments may lack a fundamental sense of self-worth, causing them to seek a sense of significance in ways that are unhealthy, unsustainable, and dependent on external validation.

To gain a sense of significance, some take on the hero role, seeking praise for their achievements. Some become jokesters, making others laugh while suppressing their inner turmoil. Some become rebels, seeking approval from deviant peer-groups. Lastly, some may retreat into isolated fantasy worlds. These family roles are highlighted in the book Another Chance by Sharon Wegscheider-Cruse.

Coming from a dysfunctional family plagued by addiction, individuals take on one or more of the above roles, carrying the negative long-term effects into adulthood.

These may include underdeveloped coping strategies, low self-esteem, acting out, attention-seeking, self-isolation, drug use, gambling and sexual addiction, hoarding, work addiction, codependency, in addition to heightened levels of mental health issues including depression and anxiety.

Overcoming these negative effects requires confronting the unique role one has played throughout childhood, develop personal boundaries, and regain a sense of significance.

Let’s take a closer look at the hero role mentioned previously.

One way individuals attempt to gain a sense of self-worth is through the identity of the hero. At an early age, this consists of over-achievement and praise seeking, but can later turn into codependency. This occurs when the individual becomes dependent on an addict/alcoholic for their sense of identity.  

Under the guise of being “the responsible one”, they feel like a victim, living in a state of anxiety amidst the chaos of addiction. The enabler feels like they need to hold everything together, taking on extra responsibilities, while trying to change the alcoholic through manipulation that quickly fails, breeding discontent.

“If I don’t do it, who else will?” the enabler asks.

While they manage to hold the dysfunctional household together, they are also unknowingly contributing to the addiction by making excuses for the addict, taking on the extra responsibilities so the addict does not experience the full negative consequences of their behavior.

Specific enabling behaviors may include calling the addict’s workplace to lie about why the addict cannot show up, taking on extra employment to compensate for financial strain, in addition to keeping the household in working order to compensate for the addict’s neglect. This role sacrifices one’s personal boundaries, leading to resentment.

The identity of the victimized hero provides a false sense of self-worth, rooted in a mutually destructive codependent role. 

Without the enabler, the addict faces the full consequences of their behavior; without the addict, the enabler loses the unhealthy foundation to their false identity that protects them from having to experience their inner lack of self-worth. Their high achievements and/or moral excellence in the eyes of others provide external validation, but this is still only a thin veneer hiding their inner guilt and sense of “not being enough”.

Frustrated, they may project their inner criticisms of themselves onto others. Like the Jungian Shadow, they despise in others what they truly despise most in themselves.

This criticism of others causes resentment among others who begin to perceive the hero as arrogant and difficult to be around because of the high expectations placed on them. But this high expectation of others is a projection used to cope with their high expectations of themselves.

The problem is that the expectations of the hero are just as unattainable for others as they are for the hero, leading to a spiral of constant disappointment and distancing social relations.

If you are interested in reading more about this topic, you can check out my article, The Ultimate Guide to Helping Someone Change

Identities gained from toxic roles fueled by a low sense of self-worth are the opposite of identities gained from healthy roles fueled by a secure sense of self-worth.

Rather than being drawn to play a dysfunctional role to gain a sense of self-worth, individuals who have a sense of self-worth pursue healthy roles and maintain a sense of personal boundaries. Secure attachments during early childhood foster this fundamental sense of self-worth.

What Veterans Can Teach Us About a Healthy Identity

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, veterans do hold onto a dependent identity. Not all serving-members enter with a strong fundamental sense of self-worth. They may use 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 is one of the major lessons I learned throughout my research on Veterans in Transition. The modern world is full of uncertainty and individualism.

If you are interested in this topic, check out the my Veterans in Transition articles.

Although veterans highlight this issue, it is something that can be experienced by anyone living in the modern world.

How Identity Crisis is a Social Issue

Without the clearly defined social roles and strict moral guidelines of the past, we find ourselves constantly moving in and out of new roles in the modern world.

Job-hopping was once a sign of an under-performing employee; but now, job-hopping has become the norm. Millennials are expected to have six different jobs on average, throughout their adult life.  

Whether we like it or not, we are forced to constantly redefine ourselves and our place in the world. Erik Erikson coined the term ‘identity crisis’ to describe this phenomenon.

Writing in the mid-twentieth century, Erikson generally reserved the concept of identity-crisis for the adolescent stage of development. Now, characteristics associated with the adolescent stage are extending into all areas of life. Teenagers are no longer the only ones trying to find themselves.

Established professionals no-longer find themselves in the stable work-arrangements once known when baby-boomers were moving into the job market. Even baby-boomers are now forced to adjust to this new social environment.

Many have either lost their jobs due to outsourcing, had to redefine their role due to the changing demands of the high-tech workplace, deciding to change jobs to take on more fulfilling work, or are retiring and are trying to redefine their new role outside of the professional world.

Identity and role confusion are no longer limited to the adolescent stage of the life-course. It is a social phenomenon affecting every stage in the life-course.

Perhaps we can call this the adolescentification of society. We are all engaged in the work of identity negotiation and renegotiation, trying to find our place in a shifting social order.

If you are interested in reading more on the topic of uncertainty in the modern world, you can check out my article, Finding Purpose in Uncertain Times.

How an Unhealthy Identity is Constructed on Social Media

Recall the roles often played to gain validation in the family context. Some take on the hero role, seeking praise for their achievements. Some become jokesters, making others laugh while suppressing their inner turmoil. Some become rebels, seeking approval from deviant peer-groups. Lastly, some may retreat into isolation.

These same roles can be played in the context of social media.

Hero roles can be sought in social media. 

Previously, I talked about heroes as perfectionists and high achievers, seeking parental validation. Beyond this limited definition, social media heroes come in many forms, seeking external validation through posts.

Recent neurological research used functional neuroimaging data finding “gains in reputation” to be the primary reward stimulus for individuals displaying compulsive social media use. In simple terms, seeking self-worth through likes.

Using social media for validation makes us less satisfied. 

A 2016 study surveyed 1787 19-32 year old men and women, finding social media use was “was significantly associated with increased depression.” Another 2016 study found “taking a break from Facebook has positive effects on the two dimensions of well-being: our life satisfaction increases and our emotions become more positive.”

How you use social media makes a difference.  

According to another 2016 study on the correlation between Facebook and well-being found, “specific uses of the site were associated with improvements in well-being.” So what made the difference? Individuals who used Facebook to build relationships with strong ties received the benefits, while those who used it for wide broadcasting did not.

If you are interested in reading more on this topic, you can check out my article, Why We Are Addicted To Social Media: The Psychology of Likes.


We need to recognize how the roles we play influence our identity.

In addition, we need to recognize how our fundamental sense of self-worth affects the type of roles we take on. Our self-worth can be damaged by toxic family environments, in addition to a host of additional forms of social violence and traumas.

Prevention requires combating these negative social influences and being mindful of the roles we play.

Role-identity is the intersection between self-identity and social-identity.

It is 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.

Here is a summary the theoretical model I have laid out:

  1. Our identities come from the ways we define ourselves in relation to the social roles we play (Based on Erik Erickson’s concept of “Identity vs. role confusion”).
  2. If we lack a fundamental sense of self-worth, we often take on toxic roles, creating unhealthy identities.
  3. Early childhood attachment experiences significantly affect our fundamental sense of self-worth.
  4. Beyond clinical interventions and introspection, we need to consider ways to prevent these issues by facilitating better social environments, particularly among children, adolescents, and persons undergoing major life transitions.

Fascinated by ideas? Check out my podcast:

Struggling with an addiction?

If you’re struggling with an addiction, it can be difficult to stop. Gaining short-term relief, at a long-term cost, you may start to wonder if it’s even worth it anymore. If you’re looking to make some changes, feel free to reach out. I offer individual addiction counselling to clients in the US and Canada. If you’re interested in learning more, you can send me a message here.

Other Mental Health Resources

If you are struggling with other mental health issues or are looking for a specialist near you, use the Psychology Today therapist directory here to find a practitioner who specializes in your area of concern.

If you require a lower-cost option, you can check out BetterHelp.com. It is one of the most flexible forms of online counseling. Their main benefit is lower costs, high accessibility through their mobile app, and the ability to switch counselors quickly and easily, until you find the right fit.

*As an affiliate partner with Better Help, I receive a referral fee if you purchase products or services through the links provided.

As always, it is important to be critical when seeking help, since the quality of counselors are not consistent. If you are not feeling supported, it may be helpful to seek out another practitioner. I wrote an article on things to consider here.

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