All life at some level must differentiate itself from its surroundings, and from other creatures.  Living organisms do this because they need food to survive, and obviously it's life-threatening to eat themselves.  To survive, creatures also need to register and respond to threats from the environment, including from other life forms.  With humans and the higher (or social) animals, the process goes much further.

For human beings, our ordinary sense of self - of identity (or personality) - forms during our early development.  In the first few months after birth, we begin to learn that we are separate from our mothers.  From that shocking realisation, we start to build a sense of who we are - an identity.

Our learning continues in childhood (and beyond).  During our early years, we become aware that the people around us see us as an individual person.  This reinforces the process of constructing our identity.  We become 'somebody' in response to our interactions with other people, who also see themselves as somebody.

The process is further reinforced as we recognise that other people have minds, and that they are physically and mentally separate from us (at least at this level).  We learn to integrate other people into our understanding of who we are.  They, too, may have minds, but they are not 'us' - or so it appears to our identity-self.

Our identity-self is nevertheless essential to our functioning in the world.  It is a primary organisational principle in all areas of development.  Becoming a person, having a secure sense of self, and having awareness of one's identity are pre-requisites for self-control, self-transformation, and self-improvement.  The capacity to relate to others, in friendship and love, depends on who one is.  In its pure form, our identity-self is our authentic self (as distinct from our deeper, or higher, True Self).

Unfortunately, for all of us during our developmental years, our sense of identity (our authentic self) becomes distorted.  The distortion results from childhood experiences that we lack the maturity to correctly assess - including the invasiveness of others, and perceived threats to our security - and these aspects become split off (or dissociated) from who we are.  This dissociation is known as shadow, which will be discussed on a later page.  For now, it's sufficient to say that shadow limits our capacity to fully engage with the world, imprisoning us in a false and contracted sense of reality.