Trauma and Our Multiple Identities

By Jeff Levy

It is virtually impossible to understand trauma without understanding the extent to which it resides within our multiple, complex, and shifting identities.  The same traumatic experience will be understood and metabolized differently when experienced at age 3 than at age 30, differently for men than for women and differently for parents than for non-parents.  Not only does trauma impact us differently based on the identity within which it is experienced, it is understood uniquely based on how our multiple identities intersect, overlap, and influence one another.

Multiple Identities

Congruent versus Incongruent Identities

Our identities have qualitative similarities and differences.  For instance, some of our identities feel more congruent with one another, while others seem to be more incongruent.  A mother who also holds an identity of perpetrator may experience a dissonance between these identities (i.e. mothers are not supposed to be perpetrators).  And while fathers are also not “supposed to be perpetrators”, there is a greater cultural familiarity holding identities of father and perpetrator simultaneously.  The extent to which our identities feel congruent influences how we understand ourselves and perhaps come to accept ourselves.  Those of us with multiple, incongruent identities may have more difficulty feeling integrated and whole, since our identities feel more dissonant and incompatible.

Visible versus Invisible Identities

There are some identities which are visible, simply by looking at or observing someone.  We can generally tell if someone is a man or woman (though of course there are exceptions).  We can tell if someone is a child or an adult, and we can usually tell if someone is of African or Asian descent.  Other identities are not as easily to discern with the naked eye.  For instance, we cannot identify a survivor of sexual abuse simply by his/her appearance.  Similarly, we cannot tell if someone is lesbian or gay by their appearance, nor can we determine someone’s religious status simply by looking at them.  There are behavioral cues that many of us may give which help others discern one or more of our identities, but many invisible identities cannot be determined without additional information from the individual.

In terms of trauma, this increases the likelihood of exposure to insidious types of trauma.  For instance, we may be more likely to make heterosexist statements and homophobic comments if we are not aware that some of the people with whom we are interacting identify as lesbian, gay, or bisexual.  The “invisible” identity often requires some form of disclosure to others and when one or more invisible identities are coupled with one or more invisible traumas, greater fragmentation and isolation is possible.

Temporal Identities

Most of our identities have a temporal nature; that is to say that they are more or less salient at different times in our lives.  Our identity as a son may be greater when we are younger, less during our early adulthood, and then as we are called upon to care for aging parents, the “son” identity may become more powerful once again.  Our identity as female may also wax and wane over our lifespan depending upon developmental events we experience, including puberty, marriage, pregnancy, parenthood, and menopause.  Similarly, some identities last for a discrete period of time.  We are students for a finite number of years and then this may not be a formal identity we hold.

It is important to consider the extent to which trauma resides in temporal identities and may re-emerge as identities shift due to the passage of time.  The traumatic loss of a parent during childhood doesn’t “end” as much as it returns again and again over our lifespan, having different meanings when we are a child, then when we reach adolescence, and then again as an adult.  This is often the case with many traumas—that they return again and again to be metabolized over and over based upon our current life space.

Relational Identities

Some of our identities only exist in the context of a relationship with someone else.  Examples of these types of identities include:  husband, wife, brother, sister, father, mother, aunt, uncle, etc.  Each identity, by its very nature, implies a connection with another human being.  Relational identities have potential to complicate the processing of trauma when the survivor or perpetrator are somehow “related”.  Trauma within the context of these relationships may feel incongruent and therefore make it more difficult to discuss, metabolize, and release.

Inside versus Outside an Identity aka Identity and Subjectivity

As we come to understand our multiple identities, we learn that the experience of an identity is extremely subjective.  Even the same identity can be understand differently when looking out from within the identity compared to looking in from outside the identity.  For instance, a white gay man may experience himself as powerless and ashamed because he is gay.  An African American man may see the white gay man as powerfully privileged.   Another example of such a discrepancy exists with religious groups.  For instance, Jewish Zionists may see themselves as survivors of horrible oppression while Palestinians see these same individuals as perpetrators of horrendous violence.

Geography and Identity

While our objective identity may not change as we move from place to place, the way we experience our identity and the way others experience us may be influenced by the geographic location in which we reside.  For instance, a woman who identifies as Muslim and resides in a primarily Muslim country may experience herself and may be experienced by others very differently than in a predominantly Judeo-Christian country.  Even within the United States, geography influences identity.  An African American man may experience himself very differently in a traditionally conservative, southern, rural town than he would in a racially diverse larger city.  His identity may also be experienced differently by others “outside” himself.

Trauma and Identity

While we have been discussing how identity and trauma relate, the subjective nature of trauma coupled with the subjective nature of identity can significantly complicate our understanding of ourselves and our experiences.

When one identity nests within one or more other identities, trauma may infiltrate all parts of identity, influenced by the way each identity is experienced.  Similarly, when one trauma nests within one or more other traumas, our multiple identities may be influenced by and expressed through our understanding of the trauma.  We cannot understand another’s experience of trauma without understanding how identity is experienced on multiple levels and, we cannot understand another’s experience of identity without understanding how trauma is experienced on multiple levels.

The complex and intersecting nature of trauma and identity is dynamic, lifelong, sometimes invisible, often relational, and almost always subjective.

By Jeff Levy, LCSW, CTRS

Published on November 1, 2017