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Identity and Perspective: for Success or Misfortune
The tragedies of our time, and perhaps of all times, hinge on extremes of personal or group identification and loss of perspective.
In the day’s events, we see tragic outcomes, minor disputes, hatred and discrimination, mass murders, and the carnage of war. Mass shootings often occur because of racial hatred that links to individuals or groups with extreme views or ideologies. Adopting and embracing a limited set of ideas and beliefs eliminates and eradicates perspective and context.
Consequences of my tightly held identity and perspective
In medical school, my role models were the older established practitioners and masters of the medical arts. I put all these people on a pedestal with high regard. I hoped to learn their ways and extensive knowledge base. My plans were to be accepted, graduate with my degree, and be licensed to practice. There was significant anxiety about not performing well enough on testing or when grilled for information.
It all reached a climax when I went to prestigious hospitals around the country to seek an internship to further my studies. One hospital I visited was in Chicago, which my fellow students thought was one of the best. My wife was traveling with me. That day, I was highly anxious about the interview with the head of the medical department. We were in a big rush to get there, and besides being very nervous about the encounter, we didn’t take the time to stop for breakfast. When we got there at the appointed time, my wife and I both were escorted in and seated across from the desk of the well-known department head. He came in with a business-like demeanor and seemed to want to get down to business. Immediately, he started grilling me with tough questions, which I, unfortunately, couldn’t respond to or recall quickly enough to his demanding demeanor.
I feared failure by not getting the answer correctly. I was overwhelmed with anxiety and panic, and I passed out, fell to the floor, and hit my head. I found out later that my wife angrily and verbally attacked him for being uncaring and arrogant. The department head was a little flustered and called his senior resident to remove me and provide any necessary care, including an EKG, some liquids, and food. I felt devastated and humiliated and couldn’t wait to get out of there with my wife. I was traumatized by the experience. It took years for me to understand the underlying factors in his inhuman and non-empathetic behavior. At the time, I was caught up in my ideas and beliefs about how I was supposed to be and perform. I felt like a failure in my performance and meeting expectations. Failing was not an option; it was “a do-or-die situation.”
I must mention that I had a history of rare episodes of vagal-vagal attacks with dramatic heart slowing and associated fainting as a response to overwhelming stress. When I was a child, my first fainting episode was when an ear, nose, and throat doctor painfully probed my ear, and I passed out. Later in medical school, I had a syncopal episode when I was first exposed to surgery. Luckily, that was accepted and felt to be a rite of passage. It probably was an influence on me not becoming a surgeon. I heard from one of my professors that I was too empathetic with the patient when I saw their blood spraying the operating room in response to the skilled moves of the surgeon and scalpel. I had not yet had enough battlefield experience to become hardened to such sights, over-caring for others, or being over-empathetic. I guess I was more destined to work in mental health and as a therapist.
In the interview situation where I fainted, my close identification with my ideas and beliefs left me inflexible and vulnerable, especially when exposed to somebody else who believed in his role’s power and authority. The department head had a stern demeanor with fixed ideas about how the day’s business should occur and proceed.
When I was younger, my reality of whom I was and believed to be true was inflexible, with fixed beliefs and limited perspectives. My narrow view of life, what I held to be accurate as a youth, was a starting point for exploration and growth into my adult years. Thankfully, with experience, maturing, and education, positive changes occurred with what I accepted and believed to be my identity and with what I identified. Most people benefit from learning and development in the search for a meaningful identity. Still, others fall into difficulties over identity conflicts about their selves or others. Suffering, despair, and turmoil occur from their struggles with misconstrued ideas and overzealous identifications with others they deem superior or role models.
Tragic death of Tyre Nichols — conflicting group identity and perspective to that of an individual
Recently, in the news¹, a gang-like beating and resulting death were done by a special police unit. In the events in Memphis, a video recorder showed graphic details of the brutal beating. The occurrence occurred after the young man was pulled over for a supposed traffic violation by a special squad set up to patrol the city’s high-crime areas. The one beaten and eventually dying was overwhelmed by the aggressive tactics of the individual police officers. He tried to appease them but to no avail and fled in panic. When caught, he was brutally kicked and hit and died later in the hospital.
The response of the young man stopped by the police officers was probably that of anyone who felt his life threatened, and I assume his reaction was severe anxiety and panic. The group of police officers trying to make an arrest appeared to be functioning more as a group or gang, as we might see in military combatants’ war or radicalized extremist groups acting with malice, malicious behavior, and intent. The men reacted as they felt it was their right to maintain control and order with whatever was justified by their group’s mission or rationalized justifications for their behavior. Their behavior and reactions are sometimes seen in psychiatric hospitals when one of the team members or several might have PTSD or had exposures in their younger years to trauma or abuse and quickly get triggered towards emotional decontrol and violent, aggressive behaviors. Though it might be true that only one or two are prone to emotional meltdowns, their reaction and behavior can influence the rest of the group to act aggressively.
People have a herd instinct and follow a group sense of commitment to leaders or accepted group norms, purpose, and the entitlement to take all deemed necessary actions. The eastern extremist radical groups’ beheading of prisoners occurs to set an example to create fear in the opposition.
I’m touching on some of the likely factors that play into the theme of our discussion about how one’s ideas and identity strongly influence our behavior and reactions where not appropriate for the time and situation. One clip of the recorded footage showed one officer getting sprayed in the eyes with the same irritant that he was using to subdue the young man. He seemed furious and unhinged that this had happened to him. All kinds of issues come up as inadequate training and supervision. Sufficient supervision might have been having a sergeant or commanding officer to help guide and bring sanity and appropriate behavior into a situation where emotions run high and out of control, especially when one or two of the group might have lost control of anger and emotions. There were probably other group dynamics, such as the feeling of entitlement, and that strength and power came with their appointed status as law enforcers. They could then operate above the law by overriding the appropriate humane responses.
In the fatal beating of Tyre Nichols², the uniformed patrol officers were part of the Memphis Police Department’s special crime suppression unit for troubled areas. These units resulted from the need to prevent, detect and interrupt violent crime by proactively using stops, frisks, searches, and arrests. These units across the country, which have had troubled histories, tend to utilize and rely on aggressive tactics. Changing that pattern requires struggling with the complexities of rising gun violence, crime, and policing in modern society. Unfortunately, according to the article by Adams and Stoughton in The Conversation³, “treating aggressive crime fighting as the highest priority in policing can cultivate a corrosive culture in which destructive behavior is often tolerated, even encouraged — to the detriment of community relations.” Adams and Stoughton in The Conversation³, “treating aggressive crime fighting as the highest priority in policing can cultivate a corrosive culture in which destructive behavior is often tolerated, even encouraged — to the detriment of community relations.” Changing that pattern requires struggling with the complexities of rising gun violence, crime, and policing in modern society.
In psychiatric hospitals or mental health facilities, when there is a meltdown or potentially dangerous situation with a person, an adequate number of people are called to surround the person and make them feel contained by others in control, allowing rage or fear to dissipate. Also, the person in charge is usually the calmest and not anyone emotionally out of control.
In Memphis, as with other similar acts of excessive force and aggression in policing dangerous situations, the police culture itself may be a culprit. There is a tendency for a person in the minority to see themselves in a lower status of less power and prestige. People often want to identify with others with more power, reputation, and privilege. It is the need to emulate those in a more admirable position who take control and advantage as an entitlement to their elevated position over the inferior, vulnerable, and rebellious.
There is a tendency to emulate the upper echelons that have the power to be the law. Identification with the group’s mission of control that permits violent aggression frequently happens. The rationale is that forceful measures are necessary for safety and crime reduction. Group thinking and psychology usually occur positively in most groupings of people for cohesion, forging bonds, mutual respect, and positive regard for others. Bonding and group thinking help unite efforts to achieve the group’s objectives and goals. Problems arise when a group develops a radical ideology and leadership that controls by devious, antisocial manipulations and promotes hatred and adverse behaviors toward all deemed adversaries. The result is increasing conflicts between members and outsiders. In the group, there is a breakdown of individuality, personal rights, and security at the whims of the absolute leader and his inner circle.
In counterproductive or destruction-type groups, as in gangs and extremist groups, an autocratic leader gets everyone on board with the ideology molded for the group’s purpose so everyone follows the leader and his agenda. Some members of a threatened or disempowered group or minority might become the pawn or subservient of the violent or aggressive, domineering group and become accomplices to the brutal action against their threatened victimized group. See the article in Mad Dogs and Englishmen⁴.
The group culture and mentality that persist in law enforcement allow the reoccurrences of tragedies that occurred in the brutal death of Tyre Nichols, the young man in Memphis. The killing of people, families, and children happens indiscriminately in war, as seen now with the Russian war against Ukraine. In warfare between larger groups and countries, the pain and suffering are immense, affecting many people. All are caught or entrapped between military combatants and their destructive weapons. Each side is fighting for the ideals and ideology of their leaders and country against a perceived enemy. Each side wants to gain power by subduing the group perceived as the enemy and winning over them. The values of human cooperation and humanity towards other is lost. Atrocities are occurring as the bombardment of civilian areas continues with deaths, with war efforts driven in Russia by the propaganda and misinformation of a leader or regime controlling the government and media. Members of the state identifying with the government’s messaging, propaganda, and mission results in the perpetration of inhumane actions in the name of war.
I wanted to reshare my past article as Holocaust Remembrance Day recently occurred. The worst barbarian crimes of a totalitarian government seen in my lifetime were the rise of fascism, Hitler and his followers, and extreme antisemitism in Europe. Millions of people were murdered and slaughtered because of the radical ideology and the support of the people that were followers and caught up in the devastating group culture of the Nazis. My connection to these tragic times was through a relative I met. She survived the concentration camps and lived to write about the harsh realities of the time. See my past article Remembering the Holocaust⁵.
Wisdom from philosophers, teachers, and other traditions
Wise teachers and philosophers have pondered and tried to address the issues of identity and perspective throughout the ages. A common theme was the need always to be aware of how entrapment in one’s identity or with which one identifies can have significant consequences for good or evil. My studies of yoga and eastern philosophy always encouraged me to be self-aware and identity-aware.
In yoga, the teaching and practices, the intent is to shift the focus or strong identification from the mind and its reasoning to the body, breath, mental activity, and movement. The practice developed by the yogis over centuries brought relief and release from the bondage of mind and ego to the awareness of life’s natural interconnectedness and interdependence. Life was more than the mind’s narrow perception of things as self or others. By shifting awareness and focus, the potential existed to release a person from the bondage of limited, restricting thoughts and mind preoccupations to more profound experiences, connectedness, and perspective.
In psychotherapy, one is encouraged to realize how one might be constricted or inflexible by a tight attachment to personal ideas, ideology, and identity. Ways are fostered for people with problems to be more flexible in thinking and perspective-taking. In neuroscience, the brain functioning gets imbalanced when its left brain, more analytic and focused on doing, managing, and constructing functioning, gets predominant with the over-inhibition of the right brain input to the point of interfering with acquiring new information, context, and perspective. Flexible reasoning can be lost when a person’s identity and open thinking are cooped by persuasive tactics or overtaken by a charismatic leader or an adverse group culture. The neuroscience behind this can be the loss of the right and left brain’s healthy sharing and complementary activity. The person gets stuck in a more narrow, inflexible reasoning. Recreating the balance of our brain and neural operation is critical. Seeking the necessary means and support to gain awareness is needed to avoid the entrapment of one’s identity in ways counterproductive to yourself and others⁶.
Social and Group Psychology
Jay Van Bavel discusses group and identification from a social psychology perspective in his newsletter, The Power of us⁷, and his recent podcast on groupthink, social identity, and cult psychology⁸. Jay is an Associate Professor of Psychology and Neural Science at New York University and the author of The Power of Us with Dominic Parker. His research investigates the psychology and neuroscience of implicit bias, group identity, team performance, decision-making, and public health. Areas of his interest include how our social identities are influenced and affected by our environment and the context and how group identity affects our decisions and perception. He stresses the importance of “instilling healthy hierarchy in a group to prevent unhealthy leadership.” As relevant to a police special unit in Memphis and the dangerous adverse group culture formed, Bavel discusses how “emotionally” charged situations can forge shared identities. That cult-like groups can replace individual identities with group identities. The warning is to be aware and what to do when falling into or becoming prey to “groupthink.”
As a sociology major in college, I was fascinated with how social or group identity forms. One’s identity often comes from the group or groups to which one belongs. An overly tightly held identity can also captivate and lead to actions detrimental to others. On the positive side, it holds groups and organizations together, but on the downside, it could be the basis of animosity, hatred, discrimination, warfare, and killing. We see this play out in cults, politics, and social media.
Some group identities are stable and supportive of ourselves, others, and our well-being, as I am a father, a writer, or a teacher. Your identity can influence how you feel or judge your accomplishments or failures. The identity can move or shift between many associations and roles. The identity acts as a filter, lens, or bias influencer in judgments and evaluations. Becoming identified with a part or group allows one to find a tribe, online community, and support group that may offer feelings of acceptance, belonging, and security. The sense of membership gets stronger by sharing and reinforcing group values and ideas.
Fitting into groups can make you feel distinct, accepted, and unique, boosting your self-esteem and confidence. In exchange, you must support and conform to the group’s values to get a stronger feeling of membership and belonging. You can develop strong negative bias from the group ideology about outside entities and who becomes your enemy or rival. The molding of everyone to think the same is referred to, by some, as groupthink — where everyone has the same ideas about issues or biases toward everything external to the group. Groupthink can be dangerous when others become identified as less valuable and hazardous or become objects to be hated or rejected.
Companies do better when more openness exists versus when all think the same with suppression of their individuality and creativity. A positive group culture can be more creative than the individual. In an overly strong group culture, individuality and novel ideas can be inhibited or suppressed to the detriment of the group or organization. A good leader allows for challenge and debate versus the extreme of a cult leader or suppressive and destructive political leader who is narcissistic, non-empathetic, deceitful, cunning, and manipulative. Sometimes these negative traits attract followers, allowing the person to gain power. A cult leader or dishonest person, out to gain an advantage of control, succeeds with people that join the group. A person’s identity gets taken over by the in-group identity. Tools of manipulation often include instilling fear, offering a person membership into the unique group, and offering security from the non-group people labeled as dangerous or evil.
Tips and Points to Ponder
1. What you believe and think can become fixed in what you perceive as your identity, the “I.” Your identity becomes a filter or bias through which you interpret or experience things, significantly influencing behavior and choices.
2. Your personal identity can be a positive and stabilizing influence for growth and development. Still, it can be very limiting, restricting, or even adverse and dangerous to our lives, well-being, and others. Our personal identity can be molded and influenced by groups we associate with, the unique culture or family life in which we grew up, or the communities in which we live. Constant awareness is the critical tool to avoid getting stuck or fixed in a narrow personal identity where the identity is detrimental to yourself or others.
3. As part of learning and growth, it is critical always to be self-aware and to associate with positive influences or groups that will support positive personal identity development. Some constructive groups, teachers, and sages have advocated constant practice and study to avoid destructive identity formation.
4. Fill your life with activities and practices that build awareness and mindfulness about the limiting aspect of over-attachment to personal identity. Orient yourself towards association with groups and social activities to enhance openness and perspective. Maintain an active versus sedentary lifestyle with movement and exercise that enhance alertness and awareness, as in swimming and walking with others. Study and learn philosophy and life-enhancing health activities from our or other cultures worldwide. My favorites of mine include meditation, yoga, and mindfulness.
5. When stuck in a destructive downward trajectory, while you still have the energy and motivation, try to reach out for positive social support that may help you move into better life-enhancing practices, self-esteem, and identity.
6. Read and study some of the wisdom and teachings from your religious tradition or from the philosophers, sages, and master teachers of wisdom from antiquity and modern times.
7. Suppose you are stuck or on a downward course into severe anxiety or depression, hopelessness, or helplessness and cannot get any joy or satisfaction from anything you do. In that case, it is time to reach out for professional help. It might include psychiatry or psychotherapy type of services or a more intense type of program for help.
If you feel suicidal or hopeless, get immediate help or call emergency mental health services or the suicidal hotline — call or text “988”⁹.