Method in the madness of our identities


THAT'S MEN:We all construct a means to get us through

IN HIS autobiography Music and Madness, Ivor Browne writes about a patient he encountered at the Warneford Hospital in Oxford where he spent a year during his training as a psychiatrist, starting in the mid-1950s.

This patient was said to have been one of the most brilliant students ever to come up to Oxford, but had broken down within six months of his arrival. By this stage he had spent a long time in the hospital: he was in his early 40s.

He had built up the delusion that he was Edward IX, the authentic heir to the throne of England.

He saw himself, in his role as king, at the centre of events whether regarding IRA activity or a political crisis in Japan. A psychoanalyst in the hospital used to talk to this man almost every day and one day, when he was arguing with him, the man said: “Look, it’s taken me years to build up this internal world, please don’t try to break it down.”

There was, as they say, method in his madness.

This man had a serious mental illness. Yet his construction of an identity for himself was at the extreme end of what we all do.

We build up an identity, often without thinking about it, and we use it, so far as I can see, as a sort of protective shield to help us face the world. Next time you’re at a meeting in the workplace, on a committee or even at a social gathering, just step back for a moment and observe the identities people have taken on.

One might be the man who knows just what to do and who can tell everybody else what to do with the greatest of confidence.

He probably doesn’t really know anything more than anyone else: it’s just an identity.

Another is the quiet, serious one; another is the jester; another is the sceptic; another might be the quiet, vulnerable one.

They have built up these identities, for one reason or another, over many years. Once upon a time, which they may have forgotten, they interpreted their world in such a way that this identity seemed to be the one that would get them through.

Sometimes the identity is hard for others to live with. For instance, a person with a narcissistic identity sees the world as revolving around them, and everyone else as being there for them. They may appear arrogant or in love with themselves. Behind the exterior may be a very frightened child.

Usually, though, our identities are fairly harmless. The big man, the quiet man, the joker, the wise man: it gets us through and doesn’t harm anybody else.

And, usually, you might as well go along with the act because if you could pull back to a sufficient distance you would probably discover you’re putting on an act yourself.

Addendum: An item in The Psychologist underlines the importance of identity. When Janelle Jones of Simon Fraser University studied the experiences of people with brain injury she found, surprisingly, that those with more serious injuries tended to be the ones who were more satisfied with their lives.

She found that what characterised those whose wellbeing was poor and whose life satisfaction was low was that other people did not know about their brain injuries. Because of this, these people were unable to build an identity for themselves as survivors.

Those whose brain injuries were serious and known to others got more social support and identified themselves as survivors.

What’s more, their relationships with other people improved. Those who were not seen as survivors, because other people didn’t know about the injuries, were less likely to get the same levels of social support.

The lesson? Be careful about who you think you are. It is a great deal better to see yourself, and to be seen by others, as a survivor than as a victim or, indeed, as invisible.

Padraig O’Morain ( is a counsellor accredited by the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. His book, Light Mind – Mindfulness for Daily Living, is published by Veritas. His monthly mindfulness newsletter is free by email