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Identity Renegotiation (IR) is unique among approaches to mental health because it emphasizes the ways in which individual experiences and relational processes are influenced by the environment. 

Since 2020 people around the world have been in the grip of grief and loss caused by COVID and other widespread infectious diseases.  Daily life for many people is dominated by the challenges of trying to protect against infection--exacerbated by closings of many facilities and crowding at others.

At the same time video technology has increased awareness of systemic racism, showing scenes of police violence directed towards minority groups. And the effects of global warming are creating anxiety about fires, tornadoes, and drought. Throughout the world, people are facing unique circumstances that threaten relationships as well as personal ability to manage feelings and behavior. 

In these times the IR message is that everyone is capable of change and change can be coordinated with our families, loved ones, employers, and others. With awareness of social forces, people can replace and/or modify identities that threaten their well-being. 

These times are also calling for changes in the delivery of mental health services. Social distancing needs have led to many therapeutic services moving from f2f to virtual contact. I have been a leader in this movement, using distance technologies for 20 years, teaching other professionals about the process of creating meaningful relationships in a variety of formats including video, phone, and email.

A Helping Approach for the 21st Century

It is now over 100 years since professional counseling and psychotherapy were created. They were considered “modern” at the time, but so was indoor plumbing. What were the conditions of people's lives that time?

  • Economies were growing and the new "nuclear family" was considered to be a universal goal.
  • Marriage was essentially mandatory and divorce was not an option.
  • Sexuality was generally repressed and the problems of the typical patient--a woman--were blamed on that repression.
  • Gender and sexual orientation were assigned at birth, and those who questioned their group membership were considered to have mental disorders.
  • Individuals were seen as having “personalities” that were separate, established in early life,, and hidden from themselves and others.
  • Helping was defined as a process of uncovering repressed parts of the self.

But in the last few decades, a period that has been labeled as “postmodern,” conditions have changed: 

  • Birth control technologies have changed many people's experience of sexuality, and a greater awareness of sexual diversity and gender fluidity has allowed many others to celebrate their identities, their attractions ,and their loves. Polyamorous relationships have become more open and accepted.
  • An avalanche of communication technologies and a global economy have increased cross-fertilization among cultures and promoted sensitivity to differences including gender, sexual identity, race, religion, nationality, ethnicity, class, ability status, and age. 
  • Some economies seem to have stopped growing, resulting in reduced opportunities or poverty for young people and career paths include twists and turns. 
  • Stepfamilies, single parent families, cohabiting partners, single adults, and multigenerational households seem to be outnumbering nuclear families. 
  • With longer lives, aging has changed and older adults are living complex lives that often include new romances.
  • The 2020 COVID-19 pandemic has created a need for many people to make immediate changes in their careers and their personal lives.

At the same time, the Euro-Western ideal of the separate “self,” dating back to classical Greece, has been challenged. People are reconnecting with an ancient image of a Relational Self--a person whose life is intertwined with others, who is responsible not only for self but for the social group. This fits with contemporary experiences of global interdependence.

In a world where difference is a constant—understandings and skills for collaborating with others seem to be the most basic needs. In counseling, education, and other human service fields, the theory of Identity Renegotiation focuses on those understandings and skills.

Goals of Identity Renegotiation Counseling

Identity Renegotiation offers a supportive framework for understanding people’s problems and a plan for organizing the helping process. Identity Renegotiation Counseling (IRC) works by helping people to:

  • View their lives in terms of universal themes of complexity, continuity and change;
  • Value differences, seeing the strengths in conflicting viewpoints;
  • Appreciate universal human needs for validation and support; 
  • Become more  sensitive to ways in which people coordinate thoughts, behavior, and feelings; 
  • Develop skills for collaborating to achieve mutually desired changes; and
  • Reduce problems by renegotiating identities with loved ones, colleagues, co-workers, and larger communities.

Structure of Identity Renegotiation Counseling

The goals of Identity Renegotiation Counseling are flexible and can be applied to the unique needs of particular individuals, groups, couples and families.

Whether clients seek help one at a time or together, counseling is available in traditional face-to-face settings and through online connections. These online contacts are often text-based (chat, text message, and e-mail) because language is very powerful, but voice and video technologies are extremely helpful with strained relationships. Readings and homework exercises can provide support for clients as they begin to change their ways of thinking and acting. Progress is generally rapid as both historical accounts and present realities are changed.