identity and belonging, psychotherapy


When I was a little girl there was no better game than the game of ‘twins’. This involved a very good girlfriend and I dressing up in similar, or preferably the same, clothes and then haranguing any available adult into trying to guess who was who. ‘We’re twins!’ we would cry in unison. The available adult would dutifully play along and call us each by the other’s name before pantomiming shock at being told they were wrong. 

This need to be the same, to be associated with and even mistaken for those who we love and want to be around does not stay in childhood. These same impulses thrive in adulthood too – ‘Look we have the same shoes’ ‘Wow I love Bob Marley too’ ‘I support Chelsea’ ‘I know I look just like my mum’ ‘Us northerners like a tea you can stand your spoon up in’. We want to belong, to feel validated and to have our life choices affirmed.

This feeling is delightful and soothing. Like mammals piled up on each other to nap, being with our tribe can feel safe and comforting. To  belong is to feel part of a group and to identify with the group. Here are my people.They are mine and I am theirs. I am safe. I am loved. I belong.

The problems come when we are not, or do not feel, the same as those around us. And the problems come when those around us, especially our parents, want us to be like them and we aren’t. Andrew Solomon in his book ‘Far From the Tree’ explores this notion.

‘Insofar as our children resemble us, they are our most precious admirers, and insofar as they differ, they can be our most vehement detractors. From the beginning, we tempt them into imitation of us and long for what may be life’s most profound compliment: their choosing to live according to our own system of values.’ (p.2)

As a gay man who has suffered severe depression Solomon has known what it is to feel alone and different from those raising him and his peers. This inspired him to go and find others who have struggled similarly in their lives. In his book he talks to families where a child has been born different either due to a biological, physical or mental condition. They share with him how it is for the child who is different and for the family. The difference is generally celebrated and struggled with by all concerned.

The stories Solomon explores in his book show that there is no easy answer to this. We want to belong and are often willing to sacrifice our own sense of self in order to do so. We also want to know and express who we are as individuals. This can lead us to abandon our families in search of this and in search of others who may be more like us and this can be lonely.

The dynamic of wanting to belong and wanting to grow into who we are is a dance we dance all through our lives.

In gestalt psychotherapy we sometimes use a continuum to describe how we manage this. At one end we talk about ‘confluence’ – like the mammals in a pile, like a newborn baby with its mum this is where we surrender to the other. This is a lovely place to be but it can also be a place where we lose our sense of ourselves and our own needs and desires.

At the other end of the continuum is ‘isolation’ – again this can be a good space of independence and strength, of going it alone, but here we can also preserve our sense of self at the expense of connection to others. Here we can be very lonely.

In the middle of the continuum is intimacy. Here we know who we are and we know who the other is. We know we are separate but we can connect meaningfully in our differences as well as our similarities.

As human beings we need to range along this continuum. We need to dance the dance. The problems only really come when we get stuck in one space, in one way of trying to manage.

Therapy can be a space to explore all of this. A space for you to explore your family culture and how it did and did not work for you. A space for you to be curious about how you express your individuality. We might look at where it is harder for you to be on the confluence-intimacy-isolation continuum and work on strengthening that space for you, often using our relationship as a practice ground.

References and further reading:

Andrew Solomon (2014) Far From the Tree: Parents, children and the search for identity.

Jennifer MacKewn. (2009) Developing Gestalt Counselling.