Shaking the Foundation of Identity

When major reconstruction is better than living in ignorance

Amethysta Herrick
Amethysta Herrick
A broken brain foundation - image by the author via Midjourney

Previously, I compared the pressure of gender dysphoria to the Yellowstone Caldera. As I navigated the eruption that resulted in me transitioning gender, I expected - naively - perfect mental health for the rest of my days.

But addressing the more immediate issue of gender dysphoria opened a gateway to the Underworld of my childhood. While the pain from playing an inappropriate gender role abates, I find all roads in this Underworld lead not to healing, but to greater pain as I uncover deep-seated issues I never had the capability to observe, let alone address.

Transitioning gender revealed the shaky foundation on which my identity is built. One tenet of psychology, philosophy - oh, and architecture - remains clear: a solid foundation is necessary to build a structure that withstands both war and peace. Unless and until I observe and rebuild the foundation of identity, any attempt to change the structure above it will be affected by its rotten underpinnings.

In service to my own healing as well as to another project, I intend to investigate a fascinating therapeutic modality - Internal Family Systems (IFS) - in context of my work in identity and gender theory. IFS promises a new foundation for self-discovery and healing - and right now, a complete rebuild sounds appropriate.

From the ground up

Why do I feel a complete rebuild of my identity from its foundation is necessary? The answer lies in the discipline of logic. A branch of philosophy, logic teaches arguments are constructed from axioms, premises, and conclusions.

Axioms are statements accepted without proof. They are self-evident, the kind of statement you complete by waving your hands and muttering "Er...and that's about it." Axioms typically define a system of thought. For example, an axiom of science is the immutability of physical observations - that the laws of physics and chemistry won't change from experiment to experiment.

In contrast, premises are initial suggestions of truth - typically derived from axioms. A complete argument in formal logic leads directly from axioms to premises to conclusions through a clear line of deduction.

An obvious corollary emerges from the structure of a logical argument: if an axiom is false, no equivocation around it will make a conclusion derived from it true. Granted, a conclusion may be true by dumb luck, but that does not represent a process of formal logic.

An excellent example of false axioms leading to false conclusions is the current anti-LGBTQ rhetoric, which has as its axiom the statement that sex is identical to gender. I need not disprove this fallacy yet again. But no conclusion derived from the false axiom can be true, as legislation enacted in the past year demonstrates. Non-objective, indefensible law is the natural result of false axioms and disregarded false conclusions.

A formal logic of identity

Developing and defining identity requires a process - one that underlies identity in individuals, groups, governments, even cultures across history. If we are unable to investigate core beliefs and desires, we cannot change the aspects of identity that actively hinder further development, including mental health.

But investigating an established process for its efficacy requires an inordinate sense of honesty, as well as humility and vulnerability. How do we check the efficacy of our process of identity? Like any process, it must begin by checking key assumptions - the axioms of the process.

As I delved into my Underworld, I discovered an axiom from childhood: a loving relationship entails pain. That is, when I am hurt in a relationship, I know that relationship is healthy.

Just stating this axiom explicitly causes me shame - love is pain? But the axiom explains very well many of the relationships throughout my life - and even a cursory examination of my articles demonstrates that. In order to move toward healing, I must challenge this axiom and the behavior derived from it, and I propose to use Internal Family Systems to do just that.

IFS defines two primary axioms. First, our core beliefs, desires, and motivations - what I call the origin of identity and IFS names the true Self - are inherently good.

Second, any thought we have, any belief we uphold, any action we perform contains value. That is, there is something to learn from our behavior - it is not random or capricious, even if it appears so from the outside.

You are inherently good

In IFS - as in my own work regarding gender - the origin of identity is irrelevant. It may be genetics. It may be brain structure. It may be an entity outside our bodies entirely. This origin is either unchangeable or changes slowly enough as to appear so in a human lifetime.

But an origin of identity exists, and it is not intended to perform acts detrimental to itself or others. That is, if we believe we should hurt ourselves or others, if we want to hurt ourselves or others, or if we act in a way that hurts ourselves or others, there is a reason for it. The reason may be very deeply buried, but it exists, even we must make significant effort to find it.

That our origin of identity - what IFS terms the true Self - is inherently good is critical to our development. It is axiomatic in that - if we cannot assume our actions are free of a deus ex machina or malevolent influence - there is no purpose in even attempting to understand them, let alone affect them.

If the axiom is false, our identity is subject to the same problem of evil that plagues those ideologies that demand a puppeteer behind the scenes. Instead, we must have enough free will to change our behavior and enough metaphysical neutrality to be able to observe our behavior without outside influence.

Every thought is sacred

Our behavior serves us, not the other way around. Our thoughts, beliefs, and actions have value - something to teach us - which is why we think and act the way we do.

In light of thoughts, beliefs, and actions that seem horrendous - oppression, child molestation, self-harm, or substance addiction - this axiom appears difficult to accept without proof. But IFS teaches there is utility to our behavior - and help will be provided if we can understand it.

We think and act in response to previous experience. While our origin of identity appears unchanging, living in our social environment entails constant negotiation between our internal, deeply-seated beliefs and how we behave externally. Our responses contain information on who we are and how we can heal past trauma - especially those responses that appear to contradict the axiom that our true Self is inherently good.

Every thought, every action, has a purpose. It might be a noble purpose; it might be a banal purpose. It is almost certainly a profoundly selfish purpose, whether we realize it or not. But - coupled with the concept that our origin of identity is not at base controlled by a puppeteer or determined by fate - our thoughts and actions are caused by something.

The metaphysics of IFS

Internal Family Systems defines a metaphysics more common in Eastern philosophy than Western. The axioms imply a nondual Universe in which our origin of identity exists, and every action follows a law of causality.

But what causes our actions? Why do they exist? How do we affect them - or at least make peace with them? That is the content of IFS. We begin by accepting our past thoughts and actions as metaphysically given, and move forward with the knowledge we can affect our behavior in the future.

A profound conclusion of the axioms is: no matter the physical configuration of our body, no matter the psychological horror of our thoughts, no matter the emotional impact of our actions, we are capable of observing them, analyzing them, understanding them...and changing them.

This last statement reflects no great philosophical revelation. From Kant to Camus to Rand to Frankl, the implications have been critical to Western philosophy (albeit in different ways to each of those mentioned). As stated above, IFS defines axioms; the real work is done in how we apply them.

But IFS derives a very liberating conclusion: that we need not be ashamed. As Richard Schwartz, the mind behind IFS, describes it: there are no bad parts. We continue our investigation there in the next installment.


Amethysta Herrick

Ami is a transgender woman dedicated to exploring identity and gender. She is Editor-in-Chief of Purplepaw Publications, LLC.

The views and opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the offical policy or position of Purplepaw Publications, LLC. Please view the Disclaimer page for further information.