Identification and Disidentification: Self-care with Strong Emotions

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by Molly Brown

Adapted from Growing Whole: Self-realization for the Great Turning, Psychosynthesis Press, 2004.

In the Work That Reconnects, we choose to experience and express our grief, anger, fear, and despair for what is happening to people and planet in the world today–and through that expression, to discover our interconnectedness within the web of life.  However, in order to do this fully without causing harm or alarm to ourselves or others, some of us may need methods for centering ourselves. “Disidentification”– from the spiritual psychology called psychosynthesis–is a powerful method for doing this.

Our center is an inner experience of balance and integration, of being at the hub of our power and awareness.

What do I mean by “centering”? This term often refers to an experience many people have of being “at the center” of their lives. Our center is an inner experience of balance and integration, of being at the hub of our power and awareness.

Imagine yourself as a wagon wheel, with the spokes repre­senting the various qualities and faculties of your psyche. If you are operating from the edge of your wheel, you have only the spokes of the wheel that end in that area readily available for use. If you operate from the center, however, all your spokes are equally available to you.

I have had the experience many times of seeming to lose my center, usually in a social interaction in which I am trying uncon­sciously to conform to vague group norms or to please someone. Or I may be engrossed in planning some proj­ect, usually with an element of worry. In either case, some­thing helps me become aware of what is happening; maybe I stumble, or embarrass myself with an inappropriate remark or giggle. At the moment I become aware, I sense that my energy is focused approximately a foot and a half out in front of me. I feel off-balance, awkward, and out of control. I need to take a deep breath and bring my energy and focus back inside myself, to center.

Being centered does not mean being “self-centered” in the usual sense of the term. When my energy is centered within me, I am aware of what is going on outside, and I can respond in a balanced and intelligent way. When I am centered, I am self-contained, not self-absorbed. In fact, I am far more able to respond “unselfishly” to others.

To operate from the hub of the wheel means changing our sense of who we are, our basic “identification.”  Do we think of ourselves as only this or that quality, this or that emotion, this or that spoke? Or do we think of ourselves as the hub, or even as the whole wheel?

How we identify ourselves may either limit us or challenge us to expand our capacities. When we identify with one or another part of ourselves, with a point of view, a social role, an emotion, or bodily sensation, we are limited in our self-image, our world­view, our whole sense of reality. We  tend to believe in that moment that we can only think, feel, and act in one way, some­times even saying to ourselves and others, “This is just the way I am!” So we are limited in how well we can respond to the inevitable shifts and changes of our lives.

Choosing Our Perspective and Behavior

When we disidentify from a limited part of ourselves, our sense of who we are can expand.

When we are able to “dis-identify” from these parts of our­selves, we free ourselves to choose our perspective and behav­ior from a broader range of possibilities, realizing that we don’t have to be, or act, just one way. “Disidentification” means moving our sense of identity out of a box into the open air. When we disidentify from a limited part of ourselves, our sense of who we are can expand. We can begin to identify with the whole of our extraordinary potential. We can begin to express our deepest values and essential qualities in our actions instead of getting caught up in the intensity of the moment.

If I am feeling angry, for example, I might identify with that anger; I might think of myself as “an angry person” and not as a loving one.  I imagine I have no choice but to be angry. If I can disidentify from my feeling of anger, I realize that although anger is definitely an important part of my experience in the moment, I am also feeling and thinking a lot of other things.  I am also loving, fearful, thoughtful, empathetic, strong, confused, and much more. And I can make choices based on all these experiences of myself in the moment.

I can also choose how and when to share my anger–my passion for justice–without violence or harm to others, in ways that even enliven me and my companions.  This can happen in the safe ritualized container of a well-done Truth Mandala or other practice for honoring our pain.

Disidentification can be easily confused with the experience of separating ourselves from our experience–disowning our feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations. Most of us suppress feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations at times, often to the point where we don’t even know of their existence. Disowning and suppressing our feelings, thoughts, and sensations cut us off from our inner resources instead of opening us up to the whole of our being.  And many of us are all too familiar with suppressing or ignoring our pain for the world.

We own the various parts of ourselves more fully because we no longer feel trapped in them.

When we truly disidentify from an experience, we are usu­ally even more vividly aware of it. We own the various parts of ourselves more fully because we no longer feel trapped in them. We experience our identity being enlarged rather than restricted. We embrace all our thoughts, feelings, and sensa­tions while sensing that our identity is not limited to those passing experiences. We may even expand our identity–our sense of self–to the Ecological Self.

In the following exercise, you can explore for yourself the subtleties of disidentification and perhaps discover a more inclusive and enduring sense of identity, of “I-ness.”

Link to audio version:

Identification Exercise

Sit in a comfortable position, relax your body, and allow your breathing to become slow and deep. Read each paragraph slowly, then close your eyes and pay attention to your inner responses.

Take a few minutes to observe your body. What is your body? How do you experience it? Notice any sensations you have in your body: pain, tension, ease, motion, irritation, expansion and contraction, warmth, pleasure. Notice how these sensations change from moment to moment.

Now notice how you can change your sensations. Tense your muscles in one area, notice how it feels, and then relax the muscles. Experiment with other ways of affecting your sensations.

Consider these questions for a few moments: Are these sensations who I am? When my body sensations change, do “I” change too? If so, how? Who is the “I” who can affect my body sensations, at least to some extent? Who am I in relation to my body sensations? …

Now move your attention to your emotions, your feelings.

Notice them, name the ones you can: fear, confusion, attraction, joy, sorrow, frustration, etc. Keep the strongest feeling in the center of your attention for a while, and see what happens. Notice if it changes. Notice if other feelings arise ….

Now notice how you can change your emotions. Think about something very exciting and see how your feelings respond. Experiment with other ways of affecting your emotions ….

Consider these questions for a few minutes: Are these feelings who I am? When my feelings change, do “I” change too? If so, how? Who is the “/” who can choose my feelings, at least to some extent? Who am I in relation to my feelings? …

To do this exercise, you have been using what is often called “the mind.” Take a few minutes now to watch your “mind.” How do you do this? Notice your thoughts as they come and go. Notice the forms they take: images, words, impressions, questions, conclusions, memories, problems, perceptions, etc. Notice any difficulties you have “observing” your thoughts.

Now experiment with changing and directing your thoughts. Pick a word and think about its meaning for a few moments. Now think about what you did right after you got up this morning. Try other means to change your thoughts.

Consider these questions for a few minutes: Are these thoughts who I am? When my thoughts change, do “I” change too? How? Who is the “I” who seems to be able to direct my thoughts, at least to some extent? Who am I in relation to my thoughts, my “mind”? …

Now pay attention to all of these: sensations, feelings, and thoughts. How do you experience your sense of self in relation to these ongoing, changing experiences? Take some time to sit with this question, allowing any new understandings and perspectives to emerge from within. You may want to journal, do a drawing, or write a poem about your emerging sense of who you are.

Molly Brown, M.A., M.Div, Editor of Deep Times, co-authored Coming Back to Life: The Updated Guide to the Work That Reconnects with Joanna Macy. Molly brings ecopsychology, the Work That Reconnects, and psychosynthesis to her work writing books and essays, teaching on-line courses, phone coaching, talks and workshops. Her six books include Growing Whole: Self-realization for the Great Turning andLighting a Candle: Collected Reflections on a Spiritual Life. With Mutima Imani and Constance Washburn, Molly directs and teaches a Facilitator Development Program for the Work That Reconnects

One thought on “Identification and Disidentification: Self-care with Strong Emotions

  1. Hi Molly,
    I hope you can help explain something to me, Spiritual leaders talk about identifying with the mind and identification with thoughts. Are these two the same? Are your thoughts your mind? i look forward to hearing from you.
    Kind Regards,
    John Forrest,

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