The Habit of Identity

Uploaded 6/9/2011, approx. 4 minute read

My name is Sam Vaknin. I am the author of Malignant Self-Love, Narcissism Revisited.

In a famous experiment students were asked to take a lemon home and to get used to it. Three days later they were able to single out their lemon from a pile of rather similar ones. They seemed to have bonded with a lemon.

Is this the true meaning of love, bonding, coupling? Do we simply get used to other human beings, to pets, to objects? Habit forming in humans is reflexive. We change ourselves and our environment in order to attain maximum comfort and well-being.

It is the effort that goes into these adaptive processes that forms a habit. A habit is intended to prevent us from constant experimenting and risk-taking. The greater our well-being the better we function and the longer we survive.

Actually when we get used to something or to someone we get used to ourselves. In the object of the habit we see a part of our history, all the time an effort that we had put into it. It is an encapsulated version of our acts, intentions, emotions and reactions. It is a mirror reflecting the part in us which formed the habit in the first place.

Hence the feeling of comfort when we have habits. We really feel comfortable with our own selves through the agency of our habitual objects, traits and behavior patterns.

Because of this we tend to confuse habits with identity. When asked who we are most people resort to communicating their habits. They describe their work, their loved ones, their pets, their hobbies, or their material possessions. So who are they? They are their habits. They are their work, their loved ones, their pets, their hobbies, or their material possessions.

Yet surely all of these do not constitute identity. Removing these things does not change one's identity. They are mere habits. They make people comfortable, they make people relaxed, but they are not part of one's identity in the truest, deepest, most essential sense.

Still it is this simple mechanism of deception that binds people together. A mother feels that her offspring are part of her identity because she is so used to them that her well-being depends on their existence and availability.

Thus any threat to her children is perceived by the mother as a threat to her own self. Her reaction is therefore strong and enduring and can be recurrently elicited. The truth of course is that her children are part of the mother's identity in a superficial manner. Removing the children will make the mother a different person but only in the shallow, phenomenological sense of the word.

Her deep sense, true identity, does not change as a result of the removal of the children. Children do die at times and the mother goes on living, essentially unchanged.

But what is this kind of identity that I am referring to? This immutable entity which is who we are and what we are and which ostensibly is not influenced by the death of our loved ones. What can resist the breakdown of habits that die hard? It is our personality. This is what we call personality. This elusive, loosely interconnected, interacting pattern of reactions to our changing environment.

Like the brain, the personality is difficult to define or to capture. And like the soul, many believe that it does not exist, that it is a fictitious convention, a construct. Yet we know that we do have a personality. We feel it. We experience it. It sometimes encourages us to do things. At other times it prevents us from doing things. It can be supple or rigid, benign or malignant, open or closed. Its power lies in its looseness and lack of definition, in its fuzziness.

Personality is able to combine, recombine and permute in hundreds of unforeseeable ways. It metamorphoses.

And the constancy of these vicissitudes and changes is what gives us a sense of identity.

Actually, when the personality is rigid to the point of being unable to change in reaction to shifting circumstances, we say that this kind of personality is disordered.

One has a personality disorder when one's habits substitute for one's personality and one's identity. Habits are rigid. Personality and identity are always in flux.

Such a person, a person with a personality disorder, identifies himself with his environment, taking behavioral, emotional and cognitive cues exclusively from his environment and from his habits. His inner world is, so to speak, vacated. His true self, merely an apparition.

Such a person is incapable of loving and of living. He's incapable of loving because to love another, one must first love oneself.

And in the absence of a self, that is impossible, of course. And in the long term, such a person is incapable of living because life is a struggle toward multiple goals, a striving, a drive at something. It's a process. It's change. Life is change. Nothing fixed. He who cannot change cannot live.

And people with personality disorders cannot change.

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