Who are you, really?

As you try to answer me, you probably have some labels come into your head right away--role related labels like "dad" or "banker" for example, or maybe preference and personality descriptors like "fun-loving" or "sensitive". None of those labels are necessarily wrong.

But last week I stumbled upon an article in The Ascent by Kitiara Pascoe. In the piece, Pascoe throws out the idea that your sense of identity actually can be a stumbling block. Cling too hard to the definition of who you are, Pascoe argues, and you inadvertantly can stop yourself from taking positive journeys and having experiences that truly change and develop you. You can get sucked into a pit of "can't" and "not" that keeps you stuck.

How does clinging too hard to your identity story play out in real life?

It's rearing its head, for instance, when someone hands you a paintbrush and you laugh off the offer because you're "not an artist" or "can't paint".

It's happening when you tell someone you're a writer rather than a speaker, or that you can't lead just because you've always been on the sidelines.

No matter the variation, the end result is always the same. You don't get anywhere different.

Now, I'm not arguing--and I don't believe Pascoe is, either--that you don't need a sense of who you are. You do. Psychologists have linked a sense of identity to healthy confidence and group seeking/inclusion for decades. Rather, the argument is against the idea that identity is or should be static.

As expressed in the Handbook of Self and Identity,"[The] assumption of stability is belied by the malleability, context sensitivity, and dynamic construction of the self as a mental construct. Identities are not the fixed markers people assume them to be but are instead dynamically constructed in the moment. Choices that feel identity-congruent in one situation do not necessarily feel identity-congruent in another situation. This flexibility is part of what makes the self useful."

Like personality, identity is fluid. We build it slowly through everything we go through and learn, through our interactions (or lack thereof). I used to be a couch potato, for example, but now, because I changed my routine and challenged myself, I consider myself to be active, a runner.

And in the same way, I see abilities in myself now that I never recognized before I had kids. Change in identity is especially easy to see in seasoned professionals and retirees, who often tell their successors and mentees that they are this or that now compared to when they were young.

And every time you pine for someone to add a label behind your name, you're asking them to acknowledge who you have become, the new, more complete sense of identity you've built for yourself.

Importantly, Pascoe points out, too, that our identity journey isn't always about tacking on a new piece. Sometimes, like a good architect, we have to go back to old pieces, to foundational pieces that don't seem to have much support (evidence) anymore, and do some work to save our internal structural integrity.

Like Pascoe, for example, I did years of theater. Part of me still thinks of myself as an actress. But am I not an actress anymore just because my participation isn't what it used to be? Maybe I just need to audition and get back in touch with that skill.

And if you've lost touch with parts of yourself due to choice or the increasing responsibilities a business calls for, you can do the same kind of renovation, too.

The big picture is that, as William Ernest Henley writes in his inspiring poem, Invictus, you are the master of your soul. You can decide who you become, no matter what the world barks at you. The only requirement is being open to the new story.

So when you wake up tomorrow and see all those emails, when that concept floats through your head, when you get that invitation or hear of that new class, ask yourself what mold you want to press yourself into, or like Steve Jobs, ask yourself "If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?". The choice doesn't belong to anybody else but you.

Published on: Apr 4, 2019
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