Individuation and Self-refusal: the struggle for identity

By Stephanie Mhango. Stephanie is an aspiring author from Lusaka, Zambia. Please read her article and leave your thoughts and comments below.

The French philosopher Michel Foucault, after arguing his thesis statement during a seminar in 1982 on ‘Technologies of the Self’, stated that ‘the target nowadays is not to discover who we are, but to refuse what we are’. It can be deduced from this statement that knowing what you are is to form an identity based on your interpretation of ‘self’ and the interaction of self with a particular community. He explains this in-depth in one of his theories called Identity Formation or Individuation. This involves forming an identity based on inherited gene traits, cultural and religious norms, gender and sex roles, and behavioural traits developed from interacting with others. Refusing what you are, on the other hand, is forgoing these standard identity shapers for more autonomous ones. He has named this ‘self-refusal’. An identity based on self-refusal has its foundation in dreams and desires; it is shaped by personal or communal aspiration.

To know who you are based on where an individual began reduces the aspect of self-determination in one’s identity. A community is a small museum of thought with a specific theme. The traditions and predetermined roles that exist in a community inevitably shape one’s identity. The restriction in terms of self-identity makes this concept of the self mostly an inherited communal identity. It is one that can only evolve in the confines of a community’s boundaries. This is very inhibiting if a community has narrow views on the self in relation to sexual orientation, gender and race.

Tradition and cultures are passed down each generation and have little room to expand or change. Additionally, people in the same community will face similar problems and hence share similar traits due to their shared experiences and interaction with the environment. Behavioural patterns and traits developed in environments where one inherits most of his/her identity cannot truly be a representation of self-identity because it lacks self-determination. Before Night Falls, a highly acclaimed autobiography of Reinaldo Arenas, observes and tracks the effect of a narrow societal identity and the detrimental repressed hidden identity. The book is important when dissecting identity because Reinaldo, who has a homosexual, pretended to be overly masculine and heterosexual during his teen years because of his inherited identity of self from a community which frowned upon homosexuality. Many other people had problems with their identity because their sexual orientation and morals did not match their society’s identity template.

Parker J. Palmer’s arguments of identity (genetics, culture, loved ones, good and bad deeds, transgressors and those who have been transgressed shared choices and experiences) helps differentiate the bad from the good in society. It helps individuals maintain a code of honour according to shared beliefs and values. This makes an individual believe that the society is the higher good and hence will do anything to further that. Such mentality has inspired waves of patriotism in Asia that has helped build Asian countries like Japan and South Korea into wealthy countries. The ethos of ‘self-sacrifice’ in these communities is evidence of a strong societal identity.

On the other hand, interpreting the phrase ‘life and work… you were not in the beginning’ in the thesis statement suggests such an identity is based on goals and dreams. In a way, the dreams could act as a higher good: it goes beyond an average individual. An individual with aspirations will develop self-groomed behavioural patterns and will surround themselves with like-minded individuals. This brings a semblances of good and bad into play. Only sacrifice and self-discipline determines the outcome or ‘identity’. With this identity shaper, the individuals themselves take an active role in shaping their own identity.

The disadvantage of acquiring identities through forming a ‘better self’ or an ‘aspired self’ can be seen in mental disorders such as anorexia: the obsession to be ‘better’ or ‘more’ than before can lead to detrimental outcomes. The aspiration goal only gets bigger and, in truth, it may never be achieved. The identity pattern is set on becoming even if one can never ‘become’. This type of identity is promoted in most monotheist religions and monocultures where individuals forgo who they are to fit into an identity provided by an institution. The self-refusal that is proposed by institutions as an identity shaper lacks aspects of self-determination. However, as we have established before, self-determination is an important aspect of forming a true identity.

Neither one identity shaper is perfect on its own: both have gaps in their ideology that can be manipulated by external influences. A mix of the two that excludes outside influences and includes autonomy without an unending obsession for more would be the ideal identity shaper. In conclusion, becoming someone that you were not in the beginning is better than knowing what you are.

9 comments on “Individuation and Self-refusal: the struggle for identity

  1. Komo on

    That is a really well written and interesting piece.
    I’ve been struggling with identity for the longest time and I really needed to read that. Though its not a cure to my issues, its definitely made me more aware and self conscious. Hopefully not overly self conscious 😂

    • Karmen on

      The advantage, however, of inheriting an identity from a certain community is a sense of belonging. The author of this article was overlooking the importance of belonging. It’s a well written article but it focuses on the detriment of acquired identities rather than advantages- but perhaps this indicates preference.

  2. Mwauluka on

    It’s a really interesting read, a simple but yet layered take on the search for identity in a system that was never meant for us. I do feel like we are the bridge to a whole different world and that bridge is gonna be built pretty soon.

  3. Muko on

    This was a great read. Even though there are still ways to go from here, you took a complex topic and broke down into a clear, well researched and coincise opening to an important discussion to be had.


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