This piece will focus on the identity categories of age and social status. I believe that these two categories coincide in the military: the expectation is that in order to achieve one of them, you must have the other. The military has a very fixed structure and a distinction between the officer and enlisted ranks. Conversely, in the civilian world, this may not be the case. For example, if you are born into a wealthy or affluent family with lots of connections this automatically places you in higher social standing despite your age.
When first joining the military, your age and social standing are comparatively low. As you slowly grow in age, maturity, and increase in rank, you will find that your social standing increases within the military and you receive an increase in pay, freedoms, or privileges.
Identity may be acquired indirectly from parents, peers, and other role models. Children come to define themselves in terms of how they think their parents see them. If their parents see them as worthless, they will come to define themselves as worthless. People who perceive themselves as likable may remember more positive than negative statements.
I witnessed a good example of behavior not conforming to the social expectations of the age identity category during a deployment in Afghanistan. There, the culture is set up in such a way that the village elders make the decisions for the village and its people based on what they believe to be best for the people. The village elders hold the highest social status within their village or district, and this status is mostly based on age, reputation, and knowledge — not just on age alone as some are led to believe. Therefore, as an outsider, it is wise to set up a meeting or locate the village elder and deal with him directly for any approval or cooperation from the villagers.
During one particular mission, I was tasked with helping recruit young local men to enlist in the local police and take on the responsibility of defending their village from crime, illegal taxation, etc. I tried to engage with some of the locals from the village in search of volunteers to join the program, receive training, and take on a decent-paying job with tons of responsibility. The young men I had conservations with were of apparent low standing within the village, but I still assumed they were capable of making decisions for themselves as most were between 17 and 28. I talked to them as if they were equally capable of making decisions and answering questions. Their reactions were surprising to me, as they did not have the power to volunteer themselves and had to seek permission from the village elder. The fact that I asked them directly and had not asked the village elder to choose and assign several individuals to join the local police was a concept that surprised them. It was very apparent that my direct approach was outside of their typical customs.
Whether it is due to decades of social tradition or due to the influence of pop-psychology of the last 50 years, the result is the same: most people mistakenly assume that personality is an individual’s identity. Unfortunately, even official dictionaries seem to carry this understanding.
Our society operates in what most would describe as a fast-paced lifestyle. Role conflict often presents unusual situations for most people because of this fast pace. In our society, people often face crossroads, and sometimes daily people are making significant decisions that result in a considerable impact. Expectations of these roles are complementary; at other times, they are contradictory or in competition.
Growing up in California, I experienced a problematic role conflict when I dated a girl who grew up in a very proud and strict Jewish family. When I met her family and had dinner with them, they didn’t seem too happy about the fact that their daughter was dating a boy who was not Jewish. She was brought up in a very religious manner coming from a wealthy and well-known Jewish family within the area. As a Catholic, I actively participated in my church and church functions beyond just the typical Sunday Mass, and her family knew of this. As hard as we tried to keep seeing each other, her parents consistently made efforts to sabotage our relationship and keep us apart. In the end, it came down to us both going our separate ways due to the relentless efforts of her parents and the constant guilt she received.
How do you change? How do you move the needle from an adaptive personality to a genuine identity?
You should find someone to push your buttons and hold you to a higher standard than you can hold yourself to. It is almost impossible to go on this road alone. If we are working together, that is my job. If you are married, your spouse should not be the sole person helping you. You need someone that you don’t live or sleep with to get under your skin. Not that he or she isn’t able or capable. The problem is that we tend to put up barriers and do not hear what our spouses are telling us due to our own ego or personality. Also, spouses tend to communicate with you in a different way than someone more distant will. That means we do not hear them as well as we can another person.
This article was originally published in September 2020. It has been edited for republication.