The Meandering Social Worker

wandering : wondering : learning

Identity: getting stuck or making way for the new?

The Life Story Book provides a snapshot of history in time for children living in residential care, foster care, or adopted.  It can be referred back to in the absence of birth relatives to always be telling their story and is seen as a crucial element in the development of identity for children separated from their birth families.

But, unlike the life story book, our identity is not static.  Our sense of identity is more important and more fragile than we realise, evolving as our lives evolve.  Sometimes we are in control and make life changes that affect our identity, other times events are beyond our control.  And, for whatever reason, some changes are more difficult to assimilate than others.  Life changes that affect our identity can also affect our mood, and even our mental health.  How often do we, as social workers, really consider our own identities once we have passed through our initial training?

In a recent blog, Who are the non-indigenous? I wrote about the impact of identity on many people in North America, who grew up being taught to be proud of their ancestors, the pioneers who braved the wilderness of the vast lands of what is now the United States barely a handful of generations ago.  Sadly, in their pursuit of new lives in new lands, old lives and old cultures were being ended, being forced to make way for the new.  As time has passed the survivors of the old ways have managed to make their voices heard, and the atrocities their ancestors suffered are now recognised and accepted.  But it has left the non-indigenous descendents having to reassess some of the foundations of their identities.

As a child growing up in the 1960’s and 70’s it was great to be proud to be British.  The Commonwealth was still strong and we had been victorious in two World Wars.  In our history lessons we learned we had been pioneers of industry, pushing through the industrial revolution, inventing and developing the foundations of many of the technologies we use today.  But like the North American pioneers perceptions have changed and we can now see that along the way industrialisation may well have caused massive harm to our planet, as we raped the land of resources, changing the scenery forever in some places.

As a child born to parents from both England and Wales I had always been proud of my Celtic heritage and my identity as British.  But as British politics changed with the development of parliaments in both Scotland and Wales, I found myself turning to the identity of my country of birth.  I now call myself English first, British second and European third.

At first it felt like a loss.  When I tried to explain how I felt I found little understanding of my loss and instead I was made to feel foolish.  Aren’t we all meant to be Europeans now?  The truth is, against the experience of others it really is a minor point.  But I like to think it helps me empathise at least a little with others who struggle with their national identity, when their homeland is torn apart by war, poverty, starvation and natural disasters.  There is something precious about being able to have a sense of belonging.  In England there have been many discussions and arguments over the years about immigration, yet few voices have been heard calling out for the recognition that those who seek asylum do it out of desperation.  Their homeland is still the root of their identity.  That is why, when it is safe to do so, many willingly return.  But that doesn’t generally make the news reports.

Other events make for changes in our identity: reaching adulthood, marriage, birth of children, education and careers.  It’s easy to think of these as happier events, but as social workers know that may not always be the case for everyone.  Some people’s lives are mapped out by circumstances, in ways that leave them little choice or control over these events: such as the effects of politics, war and natural disasters; or events closer to home in religion, poverty, arranged marriages, health or just the impact of growing older.

The healthy mind grieves for losses, making the adjustment in identity the loss brings while rejoicing in gains where they occur.  Dwelling on unwelcome changes with anger and resentment instead lead to depression and emotional problems.  Of course, that’s a simplistic description.  Life is never that simple, especially when multiple changes occur together.  Or, where elements of identity conflict with society’s expectations: such as the young parent whose identity involves being part of a drug dependency culture.

I am challenged to consider how aspects of my identity compare with those I work with.  Professional status and income, sexuality and marital status, family relationships, children or not, hobbies and interests, life experiences, addictions or not – how do they compare?  Social work training usually deals with these thoughts and ideas but how often do we really look at ourselves and the changes we make, as the years go by?  Time to get out the timeline again?


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