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Self-Knowledge • Know Yourself

Emotional Identity


Our personalities can usefully be divided up into a range of different identities, each of which sheds light on a specific side of who we are: a political identity, a sartorial identity, a financial identity, a culinary identity – and so on.

But perhaps the most important and telling of these identities is Emotional Identity, the characteristic way in which our desires and fears manifest themselves and our personalities respond to the behaviour, negative and positive, of others. There are four main themes around which our Emotional Identities are structured and it is their particular dosage and arrangement within us that decisively shapes who we are. To get to know ourselves is – in large part – a question of coming to understanding the configuration of our Emotional Identity.


Self-love is at the core of answering the riddle of who we are emotionally. It is the quality that determines the extent to which a person feels warmly towards themselves, can forgive and accept who they are and is able to remain encouraging in the face of opposition and reversals.

Evidence of our degree of self-love emerges particularly clearly around the threats posed to us by other people. When we meet a stranger who has things we don’t (a better job, a nicer partner etc.), we may, when self-love is low, quickly feel ourselves worthless and pitiful – or, if our levels of self-love are more substantial, we may remain assured by the decency of what we already have and who we are.

When another person frustrates or humiliates us, we may be able to let the insult go and even shrug it off, confident in our right to exist – or we may we need to enforce respect from others, remaining brooding and devastated, cut to the core of our being by a few unkind words.

When we’re faced with a need to risk making a fool of ourselves, we may feel the danger to be far too great – or might be able to withstand the disapproval of others from a sufficient degree of internal ballast.

Self-love can be measured by looking at how vulnerable we are able to be in front of others. Is it OK if we cry or say we’re afraid? Do we need to always be showing others how tough and strong we are? Or are we sufficiently self-loving to dare to be weak?

The strength and nature of our self-love can be tracked with particular clarity within relationships. When a love affair isn’t working for us (perhaps because we’re getting hurt or ignored), do we have enough self-love to leave it quickly? Or are we so down on ourselves that we carry an implicit belief that harm is all we deserve from close relationships?

In love, how good are we at apologising for things that may be our fault? If we have sizeable reserves of self-love, we might feel we can afford to admit mistakes and still believe in our basic decency. And yet if our self-love is very fragile, no admission of guilt or error is ever possible; it would sap the last of our limited self-regard. We become very brittle to be around.

In the bedroom, how clean and natural or alternatively disgusting and sinful do our desires feel? If there’s a sufficient quantity of self-love in our personalities, it will be possible to recognise that one’s desires are – admittedly – sometimes a bit odd, but not feel that they are for that matter bad or dark. They can’t really be, since we have them and are confident that we are not inherently sinful. We don’t have to be ashamed of ourselves.

Self-love is a factor in our working lives, determining how much, at the office, we can assert our needs. Do we have a reasonable, well-grounded sense of our worth – and so feel able to ask for (and properly expect to get) the conditions that enable us to work most effectively.

The issue of self-love decides how independent we can be, how well can we hold onto a thought-through idea that we believe is right, when others don’t get it yet, and have sufficient faith in our own real capacities to back ourselves when others won’t. With high enough levels of self-love, we can say no; we are not committed to manic people-pleasing.

We may also be able to ask for a raise when we feel we deserve it. We are aware of our genuine contribution. Honourable self-love isn’t selfishness: it’s the feeling of correctly respecting one’s investment in work given the brevity of our lives.


Candour is another key constituent of our Emotional Identity. The degree to which someone possesses the quality determines the extent to which difficult ideas and troubling facts can be consciously admitted into the mind, soberly explored and taken seriously. How much can we admit to ourselves about who we are – even if, or especially when, it’s not very nice? How much do we need to insist on our own normality and sanity? There is evidence of this aspect of emotional identity across many areas of life.

Can we explore our own minds – and look into their darker and more troubled corners without flinching overly? Can we admit mistakes? Can we admit to envy, sadness and confusion?

Around others, how ready are we to learn? Do we need always to be defensive, taking a criticism of one part of us as an attack on everything about us? How quickly do we put up a barrier when there is feedback? How ready are we to learn, given that valuable lessons usually come in painful guises?


Our Emotional Identity is further brought into focus by looking at our communicative styles. Can we put or disappointments, frustrations and annoyance into words that, more or less, get others to see our point? Or do we internalise pain, act it out symbolically or discharge it onto innocents?

When other people upset us, do we feel it is OK to communicate our internal state? Do we feel we have the right to let others understand us? Are we sulkers? In other words, when the desired response isn’t forthcoming do we quickly give up and go in for aggressive silence? Or can we have a plausible second go: can we take seriously the thought that the other person isn’t necessarily evil or stupid? Can we be calm enough to teach? To what degree can we admit it’s legitimate for others not to understand us – and additionally feel that there’s a plausible, convincing journey we can take them on towards a proper appreciation of our point of view?


When it comes to Emotional Identity, trust concerns our instinctive feelings about how dangerous – or safe – we, other people and the wider world are likely to be.

We can have greater or lesser degrees of Trust in our capacity to survive challenges. Theoretically we know that a speech, a performance review, a romantic rejection or a bout of financial trouble won’t necessary be life threatening, but internally they may feel like an enormous danger.

A degree of stress is often called for, but its overall level is very individual. How close are we, at any time, to catastrophe?

Around others, how much do we suspect that people are – at heart – out to get us? Are strangers generally nice or likely to really quite nasty? Do we generally imagine new acquaintances will like us or wound us?

How fragile are others? If we are a touch assertive, will others collapse and break – or remain more or less fine.

Around love, degrees of Trust determine our anxiety about the future with our partner. How tightly do we need to cling to them? If they go off us for a bit, wIll they return? And how much do we imagine we’d suffer if they don’t come back?

How ‘controlling’ do we need to be – controlling behaviour stemming a basic lack of trust in the other person.

How much of a risk can we take? Can we approach an interesting-looking stranger? Can we make the first move around a kiss or sex?

At work, how resilient are we? Failure isn’t appealing – but does one see the world as a forgiving place in which it is normal to get second and third chances? Do we feel the world is big enough, and reasonable enough, for us to have a legitimate shot at doing our own thing or must we be subservient, meek serfs?

Testing Emotional Identity

It is symptomatic of the way our minds work that we cannot directly ask ourselves who we are in terms of Emotional Identity. We need to ask ourselves smaller questions and answer them without thinking too much, attempting to bypass our rationalising filters. And then we need to wheel back and sift through our answers, thereby assembling a plausible picture of who we are emotionally.

We need to sit an Emotional Identity Questionnaire:

Emotional Identity Questionnaire

Give a score to each of the statements below – on a scale from 1 to 5

1 = That’s not true.

2 = That’s not very true, but there’s a glimmer of recognition

3 = I don’t know – maybe, maybe not

4 = A bit true, but I have a few reservations

5 = Yes, that’s true.


  1. If people knew who I really was deep down, they’d be shocked.
  2. It can be embarrassing to ask where the bathroom is.
  3. In relationships, it can feel pretty disturbing when someone you like starts to like you back.
  4. I sometimes feel a bit disgusting.
  5. When people like you, a lot of it comes down to what you’ve managed to achieve.


  1. People tend to think too much.
  2. I’m not a jealous person
  3. I’m basically very sane.
  4. I don’t mind feedback in theory, but most of what I’ve received has been really quite off the mark.
  5. There’s far too much ‘psychobabble’ around these days.


  1. People you’re close to should be naturally good at understanding how you feel in a lot of areas.
  2. When I feel misunderstood, I need to be alone.
  3. I’m not a good teacher.
  4. I sulk every now and then.
  5. People rarely ‘get it’ when you’re trying to explain.


  1. It’s not going to all be OK in the end.
  2. I worry about my health.
  3. Civilization is pretty fragile.
  4. When someone is late, I sometimes wonder if they might have died.
  5. If you don’t watch them closely, people will try to swindle you.

Count up your scores in each category. The lower the score, the more you have of each quality. The higher the score, the less you have of Self-Love, Candour, Communicative skill and Trust.



Emotional Inheritance

What creates Emotional Identity? Why do we have the emotional identity we do and not a different one?

A big modern response looks to genetics. We’ve got a specific genetic inheritance and (via many complex processes) this inheritance shapes our adult personality. We’re not saying genetics are irrelevant. But we want to focus attention on another kind of inheritance: Emotional Inheritance.

One of the characteristic possessions of all European nobles for many centuries was an elaborate depiction of their family tree, showing their lineage down the generations.


The idea was that the person sitting at the bottom would see themselves as the product of – and heir to – all that had come before them. The tree gave a quick visual guide to who they were and what others should know about them. If two aristocrats were contemplating marriage, the first thing they would do would be to carefully examine each other’s trees.

It can seem like a quaint preoccupation, wholly tied to another age and solely of interest to members of a few grand and ancient families. But the idea of such a tree sits upon a universal and still highly relevant concern: irrespective of the financial and status details of our families, we all have another significant legacy to grapple with: each of us is the recipient of an emotional inheritance, largely unknown to us, yet enormously influential in determining our day to day behaviour – normally in rather negative or complex directions. We need to understand the details of our emotional inheritance a little before we have been able to ruin our own and others’ lives by acting upon its often antiquated and troublesome dynamics.

Some of what we inherit psychologically from our families can of course be extremely positive. Marcus Aurelius, the philosopher and Emperor of Rome in the second century AD, began his Meditations with a touching list of the many positive things he had learned from his relatives:

From my grandfather Verus I learned good morals and the government of my temper.

From my father, modesty and a manly character.

From my mother, piety and beneficence, and abstinence, not only from evil deeds, but even from evil thoughts; and further, simplicity in my way of living, far removed from the habits of the rich.

But few of us are quite as lucky as this. Alongside positives, we tend to inherit a great many predispositions which make it harder than necessary for us to cope adequately with adult life, especially in the area of relationships and of work. Were we to repeat Marcus Aurelius’s exercise, it might run in a far darker direction: from my mother, I learnt to lose my temper quickly and give up on being heard properly by people close to me. From my father, I learnt to judge myself by my external achievements only and therefore to feel intense jealousy and panic in the face of professional setbacks.

A lot in our inheritance works against our chances of fulfilment and well-being because its logic doesn’t derive from the present; it involves a repetition of behaviour and expectations that were formed and learnt in childhood, typically as the best defence we could cobble together in our immaturity in the face of a situation bigger and more complex than we were. Unfortunately, it is as if part our minds hasn’t realised the change in our external circumstances, it insists on re-enacting the original defensive manoeuvre even in front of people or at moments that don’t warrant or reward it. For example, it might once have made sense to try to see the good side and attract the loyalty of a parent though they were neglectful and sometimes violent: there were few other options when one was three. But to continue to associate affection with violence and neglect is to impose intolerably narrow restrictions on one’s adult love choices.

Our emotional inheritance clings to us because it was bequeathed in conditions of total helplessness. The early years were periods of acute vulnerability. We were utterly at the mercy of the prevailing environment. We could not properly move, speak, control or contain ourselves; we could not calm ourselves down or recover our equilibrium. We had no choice about whom to direct our feelings towards and no way to defend ourselves adequately against what injured us. We could not even string thoughts together, needing the language eventually lent to us by others in order to begin to interpret our requirements. Even in the most benign of circumstances, with only the best intentions at play, the possibilities for warps and distortions were hence enormous. Few of us ever come through entirely unscathed.

What we feel we’re owed, how we speak to ourselves, our sense of how our hopes may turn out, all are extrapolations from experiences and relationships of a distant past whose particulars we may find it hard to recall. A lot of our difficulties stem from these unknown psychological legacies, which interfere with our ability to respond with appropriate lucidity, courage, affection, directness or soberness to the present. We interpret reality with a bias which twists the available evidence according to a narrative that feels familiar – but may be untrue to what and who is actually before us.

When our powers of comprehension and control were not yet properly developed, we may have become preternaturally nervous, suspicious, hostile, sad, closed, furious or touchy – and are now at risk of becoming so once again whenever life puts us in an environment that is even distantly evocative of our earlier troubles. But so bad are we at recognising our inherited misreadings that we cannot prevent ourselves from re-engaging our ancient defences, let alone inform others of them in a way that would win us sympathy and forgiveness. Painfully for those who care for us, we may have no easy way of knowing, let alone calmly explaining, what we are up to; we simply feel that our response is entirely appropriate to the occasion. We lose sympathy because we can’t lay bare in good time, with appropriate evocation, the reasons why we are behaving as we are. We just seem a bit mad, mean or annoying.

Psychotherapists have developed a special term to capture what we inherit emotionally from the past: they call it our ‘transference’. In their view, each of us is constantly at risk of ‘transferring’ patterns of behaviour and feeling from the past to a present that doesn’t realistically call for it. We feel a need to punish people who aren’t to blame; we worry about a humiliation which isn’t anywhere on the cards; we’re compelled to betray as we were once, three decades before, betrayed.

Ideally, we’d build up a storehouse of knowledge of what exactly we had inherited (and from whom), a kind of emotional family tree that would show us – and others – the issues that had been transferred across generations and were liable to be disrupting our lives today. Psychotherapists have made it one of their central task to help us to tease out our emotional transferences before they cause us too much damage. A lot of therapy involves trying to trace the history of certain of our present-day attitudes and behaviours. In a sympathetic setting, we may be moved to sense and conquer some of our eccentricities and the extremity of a few knee-jerk responses.

Because a classic way of denying that emotional transference is involved is to insist that the present situation warrants our response, psychologists have developed certain tests that are deliberately rather ambiguous in their nature – and hence more likely to throw up evidence of inherited background feelings which we impose upon our current circumstances. The most well-known of such tests was devised in the 1930s by the Swiss psychologist Hermann Rorschach, who created a group of ambiguous images, then asked his patients to reflect without inhibition on what they felt these looked like, evoked and made them think of.


Hermann Rorschach, Inkblot test, 1932

Crucially, these images have no predetermined meaning; they aren’t about anything in particular. They are suggestive in a huge variety of directions – and so different people will see different traits and atmospheres in them according to what their past most readily predisposes them to imagine. To one individual who has inherited from their parents a rather kindly and forgiving conscience, an image could be seen as a sweet mask, with eyes, floppy ears, a covering for the mouth and wide flaps extending from the cheeks. Another, more traumatised by a domineering father, might see it as a powerful figure viewed from below, with splayed feet, thick legs, heavy shoulders and the head bent forward as if poised for attack.

With similar intent, the psychologists Henry Murray and Christiana Morgan created a set of drawings showing people whose moods and actions were deliberately indeterminate. In one example, two men are positioned close to one another with their faces able to bear a host of interpretations. ‘It’s perhaps a father and son, mourning together for a shared loss’, one respondent who had inherited a close relationship with his father might say. Or another, bearing the burden of a punitive past, might assert: ‘It’s a manager in the process of sacking a young employee who has failed at an important task’. Or a third, wrestling with a legacy of censured homosexuality, might venture: ‘I feel something obscene is going on out of the frame: it’s in a public urinal, the older man is looking at the younger guy’s penis and making him feel very embarrassed but perhaps also somehow turned on….’ One thing we do really know is that the picture doesn’t show any of these things, the elaboration is coming from the person who looks at it, and the way they elaborate, the kind of story they tell, is saying far more about their emotional inheritance than it does about the image.


Henry Murray, Christiana Morgan, Thematic Apperception Test, 1935

Following this pattern, in the 1950s, the American psychologist Saul Rosenzweig designed tests to tease out our inherited ways of dealing with humiliation and bad news. His Picture Frustration Study (1955) showed a range of situations to which our psychological histories would give us very different templates of responses.



Saul Rosenzweig, Rosenzweig Picture frustration study

One kind of person, the bearer of a solid emotional inheritance, will tend to be resilient when someone has behaved badly towards them or is causing a problem unnecessarily. They aren’t happy about their frustrations, but their main aim is to repair the damage and they can do so without feeling shaken to their core. They don’t need to take bitter revenge or get the other person to feel guilty or stay quiet. They know there is such a thing as an accident and a difference between intention and effect. They think it’s normal to treat people well – they do – and if someone else falls below their standards, they’re not embarrassed to tell them so in plain terms. It won’t be a catastrophe, just a few unpleasant moments and then the relationship can improve over the long-term. All of which can feel entirely alien when we have inherited a backdrop of shame around the expression of our true desires. Somewhere in our past we may have embraced the idea that we deserve quite bad treatment from others: it’s very unpleasant but it feels strangely appropriate. We may have learned in childhood to carry with us a reservoir of free floating inadequacy, we’ve become so conscious of our own shortcomings that we’re never very surprised when insult occurs.

A fourth transference exercise asks us to say the very first thing that comes to mind when we try to finish particular sentences that are fired at us. For example: Men in authority are generally… Young women are almost always… When I am promoted, what’s bound to happen is… When someone is late, it must be because… When I hear someone described as ‘very intellectual’, I imagine them being… The idea is to prevent our wily conscious minds, which know a little too much about how to seem normal, from censoring emotional eccentricities which we would be wiser to bring into the open and learn from. Being asked not to think too much when we answer allows the attitudes that actually guide us to emerge and perhaps reveal – usefully for us – how much they don’t in fact suit who we would like to be in the present.


Learning to Deal with Emotional Inheritance

Maturity involves accepting with good grace that we are, of course, involved in multiple transferences, along with a commitment to try rationally to disentangle them. The job of growing up means realising with due humility the exaggerated dynamics we may constantly be bringing to situations and to monitor ourselves more accurately and more critically so as to improve our capacity to judge and act in the here and now with greater fairness and neutrality. We need to see how the people and situations in our past that have given rise to habits of mind that lead us to see current events in particular ways. The idea is to grow a little wiser as to where our troubles are coming from and around what areas of our lives we will therefore need to be especially careful.

Unfortunately, to admit that we may be drawing on the confusions of the past to force an interpretation onto what’s happening now seems humbling and not a little humiliating: surely we know the difference between our partner and a disappointing parent, between a husband’s short delay and a father’s permanent abandonment; between an argument at the office and a sibling rivalry in the nursery? The business of repatriating emotions emerges as one of the most delicate and necessary tasks of maturity.

Traditionally, family trees didn’t just exist to tell people about themselves. They were public objects intended to convey to strangers what they needed to know about us. Before grand people got married, they would carefully scan each other’s trees to know what was at stake. An emotional family tree would have a similar value in letting others know more about us in contexts when they might still be sympathetic – before we’ve had a chance to damage or enrage them with our inheritance. Knowing the risks of transference prioritizes sympathy and understanding over irritation and judgement. We can come to see that sudden bursts of anxiety or hostility in others may not always be directly caused by us – and so should not always be met with fury or wounded pride. Bristling and condemnation can give way to compassion for the difficulties all of us have with our pasts.

In a perfect world, two people on an early dinner date would be expected to swap beautifully drawn family trees called, perhaps, ‘My Emotional Inheritance’. Such a tree would also be something to give at a wedding and would be required at work, as a supplement to a CV. Having a complex emotional inheritance wouldn’t be a source of shame, the pride would be that one understood its constituent parts. We don’t need people to be perfect; we simply need them to be able to explain the greater part of their inherited imperfections calmly and in good time, before we are enmeshed in the sufferings they can otherwise cause us.

Fully getting to grips with your emotional inheritance is a long-term task. It takes a lot of time and involves asking ourselves these kinds of questions again and again. So, it’s worth wondering what the point is of realising the ways your emotional inheritance has shaped your current identity. There seem to be three big benefits of this kind of therapeutic exercise:

Firstly, we become aware of ways in which we are a bit crazy (that is: puzzling to others and inappropriate in our responses). We can catch ourselves before we do too much damage. But we also grasp why we are like this. We don’t have to hate ourselves, we can become more sympathetic to the way we’ve had some awkward legacies – and have learnt a few somewhat counterproductive ways of coping.

Secondly, we can more calmly explain ourselves to others. Even if we can’t entirely change, we can flag up what might be challenging about living around us. If we understand ourselves better we can help others understand us more sympathetically too.

Thirdly, we begin to see that we have a degree of freedom and opportunity to change (to a limited but useful degree) the difficult parts of who we are. We don’t have to keep on repeating exactly what we’ve been doing. There are other options.


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