Personal Identity: Then and Now

Hayli Self is a neuroscience major and part of Baylor’s Medical Service Organization at Baylor University.

IMG_4560Identity is a fundamental part of being human, however, over the last 50 years, the shape of identity has become more malleable. Decades ago, identity was less flexible than it is today, and your identity shaped the way people viewed you. Specific factors of identity, such as religious affiliation, gender, sexual orientation, education, and social class provided foundations for how you might be treated and interacted with while out in society.

In more recent times though, because of shifting social standards, social media, and shared cultures, people have felt freer to shape their identity to fit who they want to be. The three factors of culture, the people we surround ourselves with, and social media, have a great impact on the way we identify ourselves. 


Identifying with one specific culture can change over time, and the combination of multiple cultures can come together and form a new identity. Because the world is interconnected more than ever, people fully adopt or adopt aspects of cultures which they encounter.

As an example, let’s take a person who was born in a certain area of the world. This person identifies with the culture in which they were raised, but if they were to move across the world, a sense of culture shock happens. Because of this, the longer this person stays in the new cultural region, the more the person will conform to that culture’s norms, helping the person to fit the standards of their new region. This creates a new identity by joining together the former and the newly experienced culture.

Eventually, this person might have a child. As a result, said person will pass down their newly created identity and culture to their offspring, manifesting a new identity within them, and thus as new generations come, the process begins again. Why is this so different from the past? Today, it’s more widely accepted to ‘leave the nest’ and travel far and wide to settle down. People are no longer wary of moving away from home. 

Who We Surround Ourselves With

The people we choose to put ourselves around can also have an impact on the way we identify ourselves. High school is one of the biggest examples of this idea. Who we hang around in high school can change drastically over the four years, and with that, the way we view things also changes. Different factors like peer pressure, differences in culture, and different experiences, shape the way we act around certain people, changing how people outwardly identify us.

It’s a common statement to say that “I’m not the same person I was my freshman year.” This is true because of the variety of people we put ourselves around, and consequently the experiences we have because of these people, thus we begin to identify as somebody different from who we were when we first started high school. This can be said with any long journey, like college, moving to a new country or state, or even starting a family, because of the people we put ourselves around, and the experiences that we have with them, we begin to identify as different types of people than we did before we knew said people. 

Social Media

Lastly, social media plays a large role in how we identify. Social media today sets the standard for people’s view of themselves, as well as others. What is ‘in’ or ‘beautiful’ is set by the media. Social media both creates a safe space for new identities, but also creates an unsafe space for people who are still developing their own identity. 

We live in a world today where the culture is much more accepting of new identities than previously. Being outside the ‘norms’ doesn’t make someone an outcast as much as it did before because the ‘box’ that society places around everyone is a much softer box than what it was fifty years ago. While social media has aided this acceptance of transformation, it has also created an unsafe space for people who are still crafting and feeling out their identity, in that it has the potential to shape the way that we view things, such as beauty standards, gender norms, and what the “norms” are for social standards. The influence can be powerful. 

With all of these factors in mind, how can one truly identify themselves? If our identities are as easily changed as they seem, is it even possible for us to develop an actual identity? In my humble opinion, our personal identity is something we carry throughout our lives but is never a stable thing. It is something that is erratic and constantly changing. However, I don’t think that one can truly identify themselves, but rather have ideals to appeal to about how we would like to identify ourselves. 

Complement this essay with Creativity and Self Doubt in a World of Infinite Content

Other Essays on Being Human: 

Mental Toughness and Running: A Metaphor for Living

Dying Daily: How to Handle Life’s Challenges

Sunsets, New Beginnings, and Uncertainty


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