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Identity: Why is it such a powerful concept?

Updated: Aug 24, 2021

In Australia, we “celebrate” Australia Day on January 26th. I use inverted commas around the word “celebrate”, because not all Australians do. For many, this is a day which triggers trauma that is catastrophic and inter-generational.

I, for one, am sorry that anyone must relive the horror of invasion, murder and other atrocities. I can only imagine how these would affect the children and other family members, as well as communities, and how important it is that we never forget that this beautiful home of ours was actually many nations of people who knew, loved and cared for this land long before any of us was born.

Lest we forget …

Aboriginal nations map of Australia. Published by Geoscience Australia, ISBN: 9780855754914, Edition Date: December 2005

I was thinking about how we all should have compassion for those who experience invasion, because most (if not all) nations on earth would have been invaded by another country at some time. I googled this and to my horror, found two things that really struck home. The first was that Australia was named 5 times in a Wikipedia article as an invading force. Let that just sit with you for a minute.

Australians don’t see ourselves as “invaders”.

The second thing I discovered when trawling through the Wikipedia article, was no mention of any invasion of Australia, ever.

I would have thought that there would be better recognition of people whose culture has survived longer than most (despite the stolen generation and assimilations that could have degraded it completely). Another Wikipedia article does, however, mention the visits by the Dutch and Makassans (17th and 18th Centuries) and the subsequent invasion by the British via James Cook (1770) and settlement by the First Fleet (beating French explorer La Perouse by days). January 26th is really “Relocation Day”, because Arthur Phillip didn’t like the look of Botany Bay, or the reception that was waiting for him.

Sadly, that second article diminishes the impact that the British (in particular) and other Europeans had on the numbers of people already living here, whom we call “Aboriginal” or “Indigenous” (each has special meaning when applied to humans). Another article to check would be this one.

The point is, we all should have empathy for one another, because we all have an invasion story in our history (at least one), and it weaves itself into the fabric of “who we are”..

Rifle and helmet, American cemetery in France. (C) Mary-Claire Hanlon

All kinds of experiences colour the way we see ourselves.

I grew up Catholic, and my friends described me as “religious”, though I didn’t see myself that way. I believed in a God who had various names (the way that a parent would have different names to different people). That’s how I see the various religions – we all have our own way of seeing the same creator-deity. My one belief is that – if God exists, then nothing is impossible.

You see your adult experiences through the lenses you bring with you from childhood and thereafter. If I have good experiences, then my approach will be positive and optimistic. But, if I have a negative experience, then it could cloud my perception of future events. The more I experience negative situations, the less optimistic I am and the more pessimistic I become. It’s not rocket science, but, going in the opposite direction may as well be.

If someone has experienced bullying, victimisation, discrimination and isolation, how do they scramble back up the cliff-face to the higher ground, and “take the higher ground”? How do they rise above it all?

We all have probably experienced at least one of these … I remember little girls in primary school calling me names, making up games that made me the “baddie”, not wanting to choose me for sports teams … and it wasn’t because I fit a particular group but because I wasn’t pretty or fast or a good catcher of balls. I felt alone and lonely; I felt inadequate. This experience didn’t make me feel stronger, because I was a child and was yet to learn strategies that made me resilient. Fast-forward to senior high school, after most of those girls grew up. One had attended a different high school, and saw that I was friendly now with my previous bullies, and said “what are you doing talking to her?”

You see yourself in the light of how you perceive others. But did she see herself as superior to me, or did her self-image change because the rest of us had? Who knows!

Worse has happened to many of my friends, class-mates, colleagues and others along the way. People who once believed in God have had their worlds rocked by deception, abuse of every kind, and re-traumatisation. Every time someone is mentioned in the media, it’s a trigger. So is every time a police officer calls to ask for a statement. Every time a perpetrator is charged, another trigger. How would these victims (survivors) see themselves afterwards?

People who once trusted their bank to look after their money have discovered fraud, theft and deception. Would this change the way they see themselves?

And now, we are entering a new Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety. We have a growing need for aged care because of the increasing age of baby boomers and the improved health of our communities (leading to longer lives). It’s sad that “aged care” has come to this too.

Looking over quicksand at Mont St Michel. (C) Mary-Claire Hanlon

Identity is powerful.

Let’s take a perpetrator of a crime. How do we know that that see themselves as an evil-doer? We don’t. We assume so much, especially about other people.

Let’s take someone who has experienced bullying at home. As someone on the outside, we think that they should just “get out”; and have no idea what’s going on inside their head.

And what about someone who has been diagnosed with a devastating illness, who goes to work only to have their colleagues talk about them? I have known of this happening for people diagnosed with HIV, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder … and sometimes it has led to discrimination, isolation, and legal proceedings. Really, no-one wins.

A friend (Michelle Crawford) is launching a book next month, in which she talks about how you see yourself in light of your experiences. It’s an interesting concept, because it takes elements from Maslow’s Hierarchies of Needs (1943, 1954, 1962, 1970, 1987) and fits them into a framework of personality types following on from Dweck's Growth Mindset (I've used images above from Simply Psychology and MindsetWorks. The synopsis is, that no matter what has happened to you in life, you can grow from and beyond it. This fits with A/Prof Lynne McCormack’s work in growth from adversity. Lynne goes so far as to have a mobile phone app to help reduce the number of breaches of Apprehended Domestic Violence Orders.

You can’t make change unless you have confidence (or at least, hope) in yourself.

So, who are you?

  • Do you feel your life is lacking something, or do you feel settled and happy?

  • Do you feel safe, or as if someone is out to get you?

  • Do you delight in the warmth of companionship or weep in the despair of loneliness?

  • Do you enjoy learning something new and a sense of completion, or do you settle for the way things are?

  • When things go wrong, do you blame yourself, or others, with no middle ground?

  • When you are disappointed, do you believe that things will continue to get worse, or do you have hope that life will improve?

  • Are you a follower, a leader, or just waiting for a sign?

Well, here it is. This is your sign. It’s the words of Marianne Williamson.

"Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, 'Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?' Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It's not just in some of us; it's in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others."

Let your light shine, we'll join you! (C) Mary-Claire Hanlon

You’re not alone. Let your light shine.

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Link to previous blogs. And, I'd love to keep inspiring you!


Mary-Claire Hanlon
Mary-Claire Hanlon
Jan 29, 2019

That's a fantastic way of putting it, Mark, and more inspiring reading for me. Sadly this app loses all my hyperlinks; I'll have to do a proper reference list!

I love how you describe letting your light shine - "all the colours within it work harmoniously in interdependence"... that's a beautiful meditation to sit with! 🌈


Unknown member
Jan 29, 2019

Hi MC - thanks for your perspective, it's a very thoughtful and respectful article. I had one thought about Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs and the incorrect visualisation of them (see Maslow (1943) stated ‘behaviour tends to be determined by several or all of the basic needs simultaneously rather than by only one of them’, and I think Wahba (1976) said that it was the publisher who drew the pyramid for marketing and sales purposes. So, when I let my light shine I think about how all the colours within it work harmoniously in inter-dependence and that gives me strength to endure the colonisation ethic of white=pure and at the top of the pyramid and Aboriginal=impure and at the botto…

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