The Habit of Identity

By: Dr. Sam Vaknin
 

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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. Is this the true meaning of love, bonding, coupling? Do we simply get used to other human beings, pets, or 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. The 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 and effort that we put into it. It is an encapsulated version of our acts, intentions, emotions and reactions. It is a mirror reflecting back at us that part in us, which formed the habit. Hence, the feeling of comfort: we really feel comfortable with our own selves through the agency of the object of our habit.

Because of this, we tend to confuse habits with identity. If asked WHO they are, most people will resort to describing their habits. They will relate to their work, their loved ones, their pets, their hobbies, or their material possessions. Yet, all of these cannot constitute part of an identity because their removal does not change the identity that we are seeking to establish when we enquire WHO someone is. They are habits and they make the respondent comfortable and relaxed. But they are not part of his identity in the truest, deepest sense.

Still, it is this simple mechanism of deception that binds people together. A mother feels that her off spring 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 interpreted to mean a threat on her Self. Her reaction is, therefore, strong and enduring and can be recurrently elicited.

The truth, of course, is that her children ARE a part of her identity in a superficial manner. Removing her will make her a different person, but only in the shallow, phenomenological sense f the word. Her deep-set, true identity will not change as a result. Children do die at times and their mother does go on living, essentially unchanged.

But what is this kernel of identity that I am referring to? This immutable entity which is the definition of who we are and what we are and which, ostensibly, is not influenced by the death of our loved ones? What is so strong as to resist the breaking of habits that die hard?

It is our personality. This elusive, loosely interconnected, interacting, pattern of reactions to our changing environment. Like the Brain, it is difficult to define or to capture. Like the Soul, many believe that it does not exist, that it is a fictitious convention. 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, as much as prevents us from doing them. It can be supple or rigid, benign or malignant, open or closed. Its power lies in its looseness. It is able to combine, recombine and permute in hundreds of unforeseeable ways. It metamorphesizes and the constancy of its rate and kind of change 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 changing circumstances – we say that it is disordered. A personality Disorder is the ultimate misidentification. The individual mistakes his habits for his identity. He identifies himself with his environment, taking behavioural, emotional, and cognitive cues exclusively from it. His inner world is, so to speak, vacated, inhabited, as it were, by the apparition of his True Self.

Such a person is incapable of loving and of living. He is incapable of loving because to love (at least according to our model) is to equate and collate two distinct entities: one's Self and one's habits. The personality disordered sees no distinction. He IS his habits and, therefore, by definition, can only rarely and with an incredible amount of exertion, change them. And, in the long term, he is incapable of living because life is a struggle TOWARDS, a striving, a drive AT something. In other words: life is change. He who cannot change, cannot live.