I'm not me.

 Lucas Derks


Some define identity as `the part of a person that is unchangeable'. Others, state that, ‘who we are’ is not stable at all. In a series of three articles, we will explore several phenomena of discontinuity in the self. In this first article we will look at identification, in the next authority and submission will be our focus, while the last, is devoted to role of educators in changing who we are.



Beside all the other meanings that are given to the word; `identification' is used with quite a similar connotation in all popular brands of psychology. This surprisingly high level of agreement, on what identification means, suggests that this word labels a robust process. But however sound the concept may be, the phenomenon itself is hardly seen. It belongs to our unconscious social cognition; a part of our mental apparatus that seems as influential as it seems illusive.

Social cognition has great influence, because thinking about `people' is a major human activity that governs the better part of behaviour. But social cognition is illusive since, however busy social animals we are, only a minor part of the underlying thoughts surface into awareness.

Recent developments in cognitive linguistics open up a window into the human unconscious in general and into unconscious social thought in particular. Aided with these insights and some of the NLP modelling skills, we are able to as it were, X-ray the process of identification.


A tragic example

Imagine, you are a child. What will you do in your mind, when your mother says; Oh boy. You look just like my younger brother Eddy! You know, who passed away at age 13?'

And you think hey! That's probably why also my granny sometimes confuses my name with `Ed' --`Sorry dear, I mean you of course! I'm pretty sure who you are, love!'

Now you are infected with this idea! Will it drive you to fuse yourself with your mental image of this dead uncle? A boy you never really met? Will you mingle it with your self image? Will this cause you to startle, one day when you look in the mirror to come face to face with his sad example? And you may begin to believe that you share some personality traits with him too. You begin to dream about him. You even talk to him. But you also start to fear that you may encounter a similar fate!

And when this all becomes a self fulfilling prophecy and you also die at early age... It may be that at your funeral, your child therapist explains to your relatives: `He identified himself way to much with his late uncle!'


What is identification?

I wonder how my definition also satisfies your own ideas. 

Identification is the process of thinking of person X as if it were another person Y.

The neutral term `thinking' in this definition, may vary in meaning, from the total conviction of person X being the same individual as person Y on the one extreme, to just noticing some similarities between X and Y on the other. Beside this, we also need to distinguish between cases in which, it is person X who himself believes to be person Y, from others, in which it is a person Z who believes that person X and Y are one and the same.

Most scientists believe that someone can `identify' on purposes and with awareness on the one hand, or may identify as a result of unconscious dynamics on the other. For instance, when an actor in a theatre plays a role, this may be called identification at will and with awareness; when however somebody believes to be Jesus Christ and compulsively acts in accordance, this shows the other side of the coin. Than this person probably identifies without intending to do so.

Both, voluntary and involuntary identification, are not problematic as such. In fact identification phenomena can be as humoristic as they can be painful. Generally speaking, identification is taken as funny when it seems intentional, but bloody serious when it is not. Role play, mimicking, imitation and persiflage can be hilarious; but multiple personality syndrome, possession by evil spirits, channelling or mediamic trances are not considered to be fun.


Identification and learning

Besides this all, identification proves to be a superior way of learning. NLP-ers use it, when we model experts. Many great artists and scientists identified themselves with their genius examples; and reproduced greatness in that manner. Learning by stepping into somebody else's shoes is known as `learning by identification', `social learning', `inter subjective learning' or `model-learning'. And most social scientist agree with NLP that this is a learning mode with enormous potential. Child psychologists observed children learn by identification automatically and at very early age.

So identification is not a problem by itself, but at times it can lead up to very severe psychological discomfort.

For instance, if by the same type of social learning a person takes on behaviours that are harmful. Because by means of unconscious identification people may learn lessons in life with destructive consequences. The family therapist Hellinger specialized in working with issues that are stemming from identifying with the wrong examples.

Where many developmental psychologists regard the human ability to identify as the sole result of our genetic make up; others argue that it takes learning: saying, all humans need to learn how to identify. Within the NLP-community the latter view is the one in favour. When it is learnable, the treatment of identification related problems (like autism) becomes a realistic option. However, the teaching of identification to clients, patients or students, will take the accurate understanding of the mental steps involved.

If you want to create useful models of the identification process, you need a modelling tool: a set of relevant distinctions that can guide your observations. In this article we will use the NLP model called `the social panorama' as such an instrument.


The social panorama

To find their way in the social world, people need a mental map. To be of any use, such a map must be a simplified image of the ever changing events that make up social life. But how simplified, generalized and abstract must it be?

The word `relationship' denotes the relevant level of simplification for a useful social map. A `relation' is an abstraction of an ongoing series of interactions. `I have a relationship with you' means, that I brought permanence and stability into my thoughts about our ongoing and ever changing contact.      

So the question is, how do people represent people on this level of relationships?

Over the last decade, it appeared that the cognitive maps people make, are spatial constructions (Fauconnier, 1997, 2002). The same holds for our social maps. These are structured like a three dimensional inner landscape composed of abstracted images of people. The abstraction is of such a level that we still can recognize who such an image is representing.

The self is in the centre of this `social panorama'; all significant people are projected on their own locations around it.

The exact locations where the images of others are placed in someone's social panorama have proven to be extremely meaningful. This lead up to the social panorama's maxim: relation equals location. Or more precisely: The quality of a social relation is to a great extend governed by the spot where the image of the person is projected in mental space.

So, while all the real people in the world crawl around in any direction, come and go to finally disappear, this inner landscape of social images shows them as stable objects, even beyond their deaths.


Population modelling

Research into something like the social panorama falls beyond the mainstream paradigms in social science. If we want to orient ourselves on its methodology, we need a new concept. The social panorama can be seen as the product of what we call `population models modelling', which can be contrasted to the modelling of one single expert, as it is standard in NLP. A population model is a piece of quantitative-qualitative research into the characteristics of some part of subjective experience. The model is not phenomenological but pragmatic; it aims at a description that is useful. It doesn't aim at verisimilitude; but, when a model `works' it necessarily kneads to represent `reality' (psychological, physical or statistical) in some way.

The distinctions in a population model are as few as possible, and they are chosen because of the guidance they offer during practical applications. Thus such a model aims not at the truth of the matter, but at maximum orientation in action.

Most often, the population modeller starts with a hypothesis of how this segment of experience is generally structured within a group. To further elaborate on that by interviewing a great number of subjects. These subjects are questioned within the context of an application: like during negotiations, within psychotherapy or within training.

Before the social panorama, the so called `personal timeline' presented another example of population modelling. In the case of the personal time line, the hypothesis was, that people represent time in a Linear a spatial manner. After

Working with this hypothesis for several years the researchers could enlist a number of cultural and universal patterns in the ways people represented time. This model has proven to be very fruitful for understanding and changing time related problems concerning planning and motivation.

In the same way we (=Derks and Ouboter) are population modelling the experience of `the environment' with the aid of the hypothesis that people in general distinguish `places', roads' and the `space in between' in their environment. Each of these three elements can be ascribed attributes like, safety, at home-ness, ownership, accessibility, beauty, tranquillity etc. In the future we hope to use this model to facilitate environmental debates.


Working with the social panorama

Clinical work with the `social panorama' demonstrates the potential of this concept for the understanding and changing of social behaviour. The social panorama shows the general characteristics of people's social maps, and helps to change these maps in order to change the behaviour that depends on them.

When we change something in our social panorama, this will immediately change the relations involved. Because the relation and its representation are identical.

When we think of a person, what we do is no more than the activation of our mental construct of that person. In other words, we cannot think `real people'. The mind is only able to process the social constructs we ourselves made up. NLP is based on the assumption that we cannot think real objects too; we can't know anything else beside our own mental fabrications. We only know our map, not the territory.



When we belief that something is an object, we automatically will ascribe it a number of attributes like, location, size, shape and weight. So in our mental representation of an object, these attributes will be automatically presupposed. If a thing fails one of these attributes, it cannot be an object. For instance, if it has no size, what can it be? When it has no shape, can a sane person still call it a thing? And when it is nowhere, without a location, does it really exist at all? Thus a thing needs to be somewhere to be a something.

And we must assume that what is believed to be a necessary condition in the physical world: that any object must be on a certain location, is automatically translated and generalized into our mental operating system. This will ensure that we will start to create `objectifications': mental constructs that represent objects. And to exist, `objectifications' need to be thought off as occupying a specific spot in space.

The constructs that represent people (social objects) we call `personifications'.       Personifications share all attributes of objectifications, because of the fact that people are objects too. And just like objects, persons need to be at a certain location to exist. But unlike objects they must be also ascribed some additional attributes, like, capabilities, feelings, self consciousness, spiritual connections, intentions, beliefs and names, to indeed represent a person. So these, and many more attributes, need to be assumed, to make a personification the representation of a real human being. If one of these attributes (called personification factors) fails in the construct --when for instance there are no feelings ascribed to the personification-- this `other' is regarded as not of an equal kind; the other may be a `robot', `animal', `alien' or `humanoid'.

The mental skills to `objectify' and to `personify' are very fundamental; still they are of a great complexity and not automatically fully mastered by everyone. People who only objectify other humans may sometimes do this because of their inability to personify them.


Blending different types of personifications

Once a child knows how to personify, it will do this automatically. It may even start to personify lifeless objects, and treat them as if they had humanlike features. This `over personification' results in a categories of `false-', `metaphoric-' or `symbolic personifications'. By means of making non social things social, people are able to apply their social intelligence to non social problems.

In the social panorama model, five categories of personifications are distinguished: other-personifications, self-personifications, group-personifications, spiritual-personifications and metaphoric-personifications.

Identification arises from the blending of two personifications from any category. For instance; I may identify two other-personifications with each other, when I see my sister and my mother as one unit. Or I may see the late pope Paul as being the same as God or a group of angels. Than I am identifying spiritual personification and group-personifications.

Most dramatic are the blending of the self-personification with other-personifications and spiritual- personifications. In the first situation it is `me' who believes that `I' am somebody else. In the second instance it is again `me' being overpowered (possessed) by a `spirit' or a `god'.

In the social panorama model, the expression `self-personification' means self-experience, or in other words, the mental construction of images, feelings, sounds that make up identity.

The similarity in structure between the self-personification and other personifications results from how they both develop. A child will step by step recognize that it is similar to others, and that they belong to the same kind. So it will start to believe that the others are the same, and will also experience the same on the inside. In practice this means that a child ascribes feelings to others because it experiences feelings. And the same attributions from self to others are made for self awareness, intentions, beliefs, spiritual connections and several other attributes. Like an objectification, a personification is experienced as a piece of three dimensional spaces that is closed off from the rest. But a personification has also a direction to its gaze; it has a front and a back and its eyes are at a defined elevation.


Identification in the social panorama


Generally speaking, each personification does occupy its own unique location in the social panorama, with the exception of personifications that are double or triple represented: bilocations and trilocations. An other exception is when two personifications are placed on one and the same spot: shared locations.

By working with the social panorama model for a decade, bit by bit the mechanics of the identification process did reveal themselves. The social panorama model enabled us to describe these mechanisms in detail. So what exactly does happen when person X identifies with person Y?

As explained above, identification does not take place in between `persons' but in between `personifications'. Thus, if we see person X identify with someone, we may translate this into: One personification belonging to person X is blended with or replaced by one of his other personifications.

Blending is a cognitive linguistic term for the process of association of two thoughts into a new combined concept (Fouconnier, 2002). Where Koestler used the term `bissociation' to describe the same blending process, NLP-ers speak of `integration'. To the NLP-er the technique of `collapsing anchors' is a prototype method for getting two before unrelated thoughts to blend.


Modelling identification

Clients in therapy are great sources of information about identification. As a therapist, I am free to ask my clients: `Where is person X located in your mental space?' Having done this with several thousands, demonstrated over and over again, the close link between location and identification.

The core finding in the modelling of identification with the aid of the social panorama can be formulated as a simple pattern: Identification means that the two personifications involved will occupy the same location in mental space. In other words, personification X and Y will be located at the same spot for as long as the identification takes place.

The fullest type of identification arises from a personification X that entirely and permanently unite with personification Y and cannot be recognized as separate anymore.

And sometimes it is just as simple as that. A client complains about compulsively acting like his mother, and indeed the mother-personification is located all around this client's body. Or in the same way, a client may find a very influential relative somewhere inside his head or chest.

But in other cases things are more complex. This complexity is most often caused by the fact that identification does not have to be a permanent state of affairs. And also, identification may sometimes only involve some parts of the personifications.

In all lighter examples of identification the person is aware that the other is of great influence on his or her identity and behaviour. But in these instances the person still knows the difference between the self and the other.

In other words, to be able to experience two personifications as separate, they need, at least in part, be projected on different locations. To experience them as `identical' they need to be on the same spot. When projected on the same spot this is called `shared locations' in the social panorama model. Shared locations are found when clients find the other-personifications around, within or partially inside their body boundaries.

When in such cases the `feeling of self', a kinaesthetic core element of identity, --which is most often found within the belly--, is included, the person will be convinced that he or she is someone else: something that is considered to be very funny as long as it does not involve one of your loved ones.

In normal life this means that an actor, who totally identifies with his role, finds his self experience located at exactly the same spot as the personification of the personage he is giving shape. However, if he is still aware that he is himself and not the played personage, the personification of the role will not include his feeling of self (`his centre'; as acting expert Kieth Johnstone calls it).

Someone who is believed to be possessed by a spirit may point out that the location of this spirit is within his body boundaries and also includes his feeling of self. The latter person will tend to have amnesia for his own identity during the possession trance and will claim to have amnesia for the spirit-identity after possession stopped.

So generally speaking, identification arises when an other-personification is projected on the same location as the self-personification. The precise manner in which this comes into being will determine the different shades of identification.

When we check out the structure of identification in detail, we will see that it may be very dynamic, in the sense that a person does not need to hold the two personifications on the same spot all the time. In case of an actor it is quite clear that he will not be absorbed in his role on a permanent basis. He normally will be able to step in and out of it at will and very quickly.

The multi personality syndrome seems to consist of the same patterns as we see in actors who switch between roles, However actors will maintain a sense of `real self' while a person diagnosed as multiple personality does not. Actors an MPS-ers alike are surrounded by their potential roles. And these role-identities (alters) need to be `taken on' to identify. The self feeling will be readily felt when asked for it, by an actor, while this is impossible for somebody suffering from MPD.

It will be worthwhile to observe many more cases, to test this hypothesis. For the time being, it seems reasonable to believe that the difference between `voluntary identification' as seen in actors and `compulsive identification' as seen in multiple personalities, is marked by a strong or a lacking kinaesthetic self.


Counter identification

The opposite process of identification is counter identification, in which a person X strictly believes he is different from Y. For instance, a son that does not want to be like his aggressive father. The problems that often arise for such a person X are caused by his rejection of some in fact necessary resources that he regards as part of person Y. This may disable such a son to act in self defence or assertive, since if he did, he would be too much like his father.

The personifications with whom a person counter identifies are quite often projected straight in front, a little higher than the eyes of the person and at distances between 5 and 50 metres. The counter identified personification work like the north in somebody's social compass. And because this site is in line with where the self image should be, we often see how the self image looses power as it will be blurred by the image of the personification with whom the person is counter identifying.


Second perceptual position and identification

Identification must be linked to the NLP term `second perceptual position'. In general, NLP-ers see taking on a second perceptual position, as the act of considering the point of view of an other person: stepping in their shoes and at the same time connect to their (imagined) subjective experience. NLP-ers (and their clients) do this in order to get a multiple perspective on social situations, and to improve rapport. When we observe people taking on the second perceptual position, it becomes apparent that the identification involved, can at best be described as, minute back and forth shifts to the location of the other personification. And the closer the other-personification is located, the easier this seems to be.

Going into second perceptual position can be seen as a technique or a social skill, but it can also be seen as something people compulsively do when they are confronted with somebody they consider to be more important than them.

Sometimes within the context of NLP training we are confronted with a participant who lacks the ability of going into the second perceptual position. The majority of people having this handicap are men. Women often suffer from an over capacity; some are hardly able to stay in the first perceptual position. They become the therapists who know better what you feel than you yourself.

Both of these `symptoms' may have a similar cause: It may be the weakness of their own self experience. In the next article we will have a close look at these phenomena.



Identification results from two personifications being located on the same spot in someone's social panorama. The expression of stepping into someone else's shoes is not to be considered a metaphor for a social skill, but a close description of sharing a location in the imagination. When we exercise second perceptual position, it proves extremely helpful to have a person to really stand or sit on the same spot as to where the image of the other was projected in the room. This probably shows how moving into someone else's point of view can be trained and improved.      

In the next article we will see how identification is related to the experience of authority. A person, whose self image is too small in comparison to how he sees others in his social panorama, is vulnerable to being invaded with other personifications.