This article belongs to Great American Dumb Ideas column.

In the beginning
Most living creatures don't worry much about, "Who am I?"
Humans do, of course, and sometimes we let it show. We want to know who we are and we want others to recognize us as unique. Americans didn't invent external identity. It's a human characteristic. We all wear the signs and symbols of personal identification, but America is what I know, so that's where most of my examples come form.

My interest in the area began many years ago with an idea advanced by one of psychology's historians, Professor John A. Popplestone of the University of Akron. He talked about exoskeletal defense systems, and he spoke in the language of Freudian theory; here I will simply refer to the problem as external identity.

The appeal
The idea is to define who you are to those around you by using unique clothing, tattoos, hair styles, and insignia of all sorts. The car you drive, the wine you drink, the vocabulary you affect, the breed of dog you own, your use of slang - the list of available identifiers is endless. Take our average policeman: we know him by his club, gun, badge, uniform, and cruiser. There's no mistaking a policeman, but is appearance really his whole personality?

The military is an interesting paradox in which everyone starts out wearing the same uniform (external identity). The military, however, controls identity by allowing certain individuals to add stripes, ribbons, metal insignia and even special weapons.

Advertisers understand that people need to enlarge their sense of self through external markers of ego, the preferred external identity, and they exploit that desire in their advertising.

There are some observable built-in identifiers such as hair color, skin color, sexual characteristics, weight, height, and other physical characteristics. And even these can be altered or manipulated to present a certain image to the world.

Why is all this important? Well, we all have what psychologists call ego. A somewhat better term is ego strength. Under the best of conditions, ego strength is a strong, internal sense of self, a sense of identity that involves memories, knowledge, skills, relationships, and all the other important things in an individual private life. A strong internal confidence in self sets us apart from others and is a sign of good mental health. But, the internal ego, however strong it may be, cannot be seen except in behavior. It is not visible. If we don't want to explain ourselves to people we meet, we use external markers upon which others may base their assumptions.

Because of various unfortunate circumstances, some people end up with a poor internal organization of personality, a poor and shifting self understanding. They may try to shift their identity to more tangible and visible external markers. The more poorly organized the personality and the weaker the internal ego, the more dependent the individual may be on external markers.

Depending for identity on external markers or signs is often a sign of weak internal ego strength. This means the person is likely to be troubled by self-doubt. He or she, in spite of what may look like a strong personality, may be suggestible, inconsistent and anxious. When we see a highly marked person our cause for concern as therapists is about that person's quality of mental life. These are usually unhappy people because outward symbols cannot replace a real self.

The price
External identity separates people into groups and classes. Getting rid of external identifiers, on the other hand, seems to make people fade into the social background. It takes a degree of self-assurance to accept this relative anonymity, to walk through life as an almost invisible person.

It is helpful to take a financial inventory of how much your external ego is costing you. Add in that extra fancy muscle car, the hundred dollar silk neckties, the very rare breed of poodle on you huge leather couch, the fine French wine you serve your guests, and your heavily mortgaged home. The bill can come to thousands or even millions of dollars.

The price of any elaborate external ego is also spiritual. When we get caught up in building a material external self, there is little time for contemplation, meditation, generosity and compassion.

Making money on it
Obviously, advertisers love people who have to buy a self, people who believe their problems will be solved if they can only acquire those signs and symbols that will gain the respect of others. They are dependent upon the opinions of others, and this can put them in a very vulnerable position. One way to profit from the weak ego strength of others is to sell markers. There's money to be made selling everything from macho motorcycles to Rolls Royce automobiles.

A young person is often engaged in the struggle for self-identity. This leads to ridiculous Mohawk haircuts, extensive and dangerous body piercing, clothing fads, and gang insignia. But what is gained when everyone in the group ends up with the teenage rebel image? By accepting what peers view as appropriately rebellious, they all end up looking pretty much the same, they still have no enduring sense of self or of personality organization.

A second way of cashing in on the problem is to sell cures. Become a therapist, astrologer, philosophical guru, etc. Invent and sell a secret formula for personal peace. This might work for a while; however, inner peace and serenity are free and easily produced when your client decides to want that.

Is there a better idea?
Dependence on external personality markers is hard to break. If one wants to change, one needs help and encouragement on the path to real freedom. Buddhist teaching, in it purest and most basic form, argues that misery is optional, that we make our own misery. Beyond external self, beyond even the internal ego strength, lies selflessness, sometimes known as enlightenment.