Defining a Shifting Identity

Ever since I had the good fortune to visit the The Identity Shift Project site built by Jessica Safran a fellow NYU alum and Julie Hassett Sutton, fine art photographer, everything I read seems to be about shifting identity.  When you think about it, life is about shifting identity. One forms his or her identity in childhood with the presence or absence of parents or caregivers; ‘life events’ happen, at the very least, in measured intervals: school graduations, joining the work force, landmark birthdays, and so on.  In my opinion, the events that suddenly change how one identifies with one’s self are more dramatic, such as serious illnesses – as The Identity Shift Project articulates – or other traumatic events such as loss of loved ones.

What brings this to mind today is the book I just finished reading: The Mind-Body Problem by Rebecca Goldstein. Although Goldstein is indeed a philosopher, and the book’s title is an age old question about where the ‘I’ in identity is to be found, it is a thinking person’s novel.


At the beginning of each chapter is an epigraph. The one preceding Chapter 5 is one view of identity:

“We have no reason to seek for some criterion of personal identity that is distinct from the identity of our bodies as persisting physical objects. We find our intelligence or our will working and expressing themselves in action, at a particular place and a particular time, and just these movements, or this voluntary stillness are unmistakably mine, if they are my actions, animated by my intentions… I can only be said to have lost a sense of my own identity if I have lost all sense of where I am and what I am doing.”

Stuart Hampshire, Thought and Action *

Identity loss versus shift

So, Hampshire’s definition of identity, from the above quote, requires a sense of place and consciousness of one’s actions. I’m not a philosopher, but that sounds reasonable to me. How does an identity shift occur? Substituting the word ‘shift’ for ‘lost’ in the final sentence above yields:

“I can only be said to have shifted a sense of my own identity if I have shifted all sense of where I am and what I am doing.”

When an event happens that change one’s view of self, the self is acted upon. So, a better statement of identity shift, in this context is:

My identity is shifted if all sense of where I am and what I am doing has been shifted.

I think this definition describes changes in identity quite well in the context of very traumatic events. I could be mistaken, but I believe it is very common to be unaware of one’s place and conscious actions when traumatized.

* from The Mind Body Problem by Rebecca Goldstein New York: 1983 pg. 125

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