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Wake Up to the Identity Matrix

The identity matrix is all around you.

Key points

  • The identity matrix is the process of identifying with things in the world and attaching meaning to them.
  • By learning about the identity matrix, a person can learn to see it in themselves.
  • Learning to see the identity matrix can help one achieve psychological flexibility.

My father enjoyed watching the USWNT team play Sweden in the World Cup, but he was heartbroken when they lost. “They were so close! They had it!” he said repeatedly. “It is just so disappointing.” He was not genuinely depressed but rather felt the expected disappointment of a fan.

But let’s engage in a thought experiment where he did become depressed. It was his birthday Sunday, so let’s imagine he was so disappointed that he chose not to participate in his birthday dinner. And let’s imagine he woke up the following morning feeling the agony of defeat so much that he could not get out of bed. The longer he suffered and the worse his mood got, the more we would be concerned. At a certain point, we would frame his reaction as some kind of psychopathology.

The goal of this post is to help you see something we like to call the “identity matrix.” The identity matrix consists of three basic elements: 1) the identification of something in the world (an event, idea, or feeling); 2) identifying that as being relevant to the self; and 3) being invested or assured of the meaning of the interpretation. It is a central process operating all the time, but the key elements are often outside of our awareness.

Let’s continue with the example and imagine my father starting to get suicidal as he relives the loss over and over. “It is just too much,” we can imagine him saying. “I can’t live with the disappointment. I think I want to kill myself.”

By exaggerating my dad’s reaction in our thought experiment, we can feel the pull to want to question what is going on: Why did he care so much about this event? What is it about this event that is so relevant for him? Why is he so attached to this particular meaning? Why can’t he see that his attachment to this interpretation is causing him problems?

It would be obvious to me that my dad is losing out on so much by gripping this event and its meaning in this way. I would wish that my dad could wake up and realize the following: 1) he is focused on this particular event when there are an infinite number of things he could be focused on; 2) he is making this particular event extremely relevant for himself in a way that I wish he could see was not necessary; and 3) he was attached to the meaning in a way that is rigid and extreme.

To see what I mean, take a moment and think about what the game means from the vantage point of the Swedish players. For them, it was a glorious win. Now consider folks who were upset with the U.S. Women’s Team for some of the players’ political statements. Some Americans were actively rooting against them because of this, and so they interpreted the outcome as the team getting their just desserts. Now think about fans of the Moroccan team who do not care about the U.S. team. Now think about all the people who do not care about the World Cup. Of course, we can go on and on.

As you adopt these other perspectives, zoom out a bit on the process. Hopefully, when you do, something starts to become apparent. Although my dad’s reaction was odd and extreme, the process was not. In fact, the identity matrix frames our everyday lives. That is, as conscious agents, we are constantly in the process of (a) becoming aware of some entity through (b) a particular lens that gives it meaning in relation to our lives, and (c) we potentially become attached to the meaning of the event going forward.

This process and its implications have been richly analyzed by the philosopher Rob Scott1. Rob is open about the fact that, as a child, he lived a pretty brutal life, experiencing massive amounts of abuse and neglect, and was deeply troubled by what the world had done to him. Because of this and the meaning he gave it, he struggled with the law, drugs, and relating to people. Then, one day, when he was 19, he had a moment of insight. Specifically, he woke up to the identity matrix he was living through.

That is, Rob saw that he was living in a matrix of meaning that was formed by the lenses in his head. These lenses were causing him to see meaning in the world in a particular way. Prior to this moment of enlightenment, he had simply experienced these interpretations as the world in itself. But he made a fundamental shift, such that he then saw that what he was actually experiencing was a matrix of meanings that he was attached to rather than the world as it was.

If we transfer this process back to the hypothetical example of my dad, we could imagine him “waking up” after three days of being in a suicidal depression and realizing, with a fresh pair of glasses to see himself and the world, that he was trapped in a particular identity matrix. Rob’s work is about helping people see the identity matrix. It is very powerful because once you learn to see the identity matrix, then you can start the process of choosing how you want to relate to it. And the capacity to flexibly shift one’s identity in an adaptive way is one of the most important and valuable psychological skills you can have. So the take-home point of this blog is to learn to see the identity matrix that you are in, especially if you find yourself attached to making meaning in a way that might be problematic.


1. Scott, R. (2020). Fundamental shift and identity shifting. Professional presentation made to the Theory of Knowledge Society. See also Rob Scott Coaching.

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