We are expected to define ourselves surprisingly often in modern society: when we meet new people, when applying for a job, when presenting ourselves online. There are so many different ways in which we can define ourselves that it is hard to know where to start and which definitions really count. Here, I wish to discuss some of the ways people think about their identity and what makes them tick – and what the drawbacks may be.
I once read somewhere that we all wear a series of hats and that these are the roles we undertake in certain circumstances. For instance this may the hat of son, wife, football coach, accountant, carer, blogger etc. A hat is a role that we regularly step into and so it is a major feature of our lives. When you speak to others about your hats they will always result in the making of assumptions. For example, when you read that list you may have had some preconceptions and even stereotypes of what a wife or account is like; their qualities, behaviours and skills. Sometimes this can act as a helpful shortcut – if you fit the general stereotype then people will gather a lot of information about you at once. But, and this is a big but, quite often we don’t fit the assumptions perfectly and that results in a clash between what we think we have communicated about ourselves and what the receiver has interested about our concept of self.
The other major drawback about using your hat to explain who you are is that the hat you wear changes often – and the person you are may look and feel different depending on what hat you are wearing. Therefore, the real question we want to address here is who are you when you don’t have one of your hats on? When you are just you?
Many people will choose to define themselves by the things they are good at, especially if those skills and talents play a large role in their lives. Take for example a person who is a keen chess player or an individual who frequently plays football. Using these to inform others about your character can be much more helpful than the hats in the sense that they show people what you care about. Often, to possess a talent or skill means that you must have practiced that activity over time and shown commitment to it – which can give more clues to your character compared to the hats. However, it can still come with unhelpful assumptions that will need to be addressed.
Skills and talents will often feel more intrinsic to who you are than the things you do – because they are a part of you. Expressing them to explain what makes you, you can be very helpful. But the issue that could affect a small proportion of people is the identity crisis that can occur if those things go away. E.g. The chess player loses memory with age, the footballer sustains an injury. Who are you when your defining features slip away from you? And if you no longer have those things, do you still feel like you anymore? This can be a very difficult identity change to deal with.
There are other features of the self that can also lead to the same issues. When people define themselves by hobbies, the people they surround themselves with, the things they own, the place they live and a whole manner of tangible things then there is always a danger that focussing your self worth and identity on those things can result in problems. Dependence on something that is not permanent can lead to unhealthy behaviours: Over focussing on income because possessions are to important to your self image. Clingy behaviours in relationships because a person is so important to your identity that the thought of losing them is unbearable. These are more extreme circumstances but you can see how these external factors can make the issue of defining yourself and discovering who you are really difficult.
So what have you got, that makes you, you, that is virtually permanent and consistent?
What this means is that your self image boils down to a core set of principles. While this may seem reductionist, what you will find is that if you reflect on your job, hobbies, roles, loved ones, passions, skills and talents they will most likely be motivated by a series of principles that sit beneath it all. The talent of singing may be built on the principle of creating beauty or the principle of expressing your emotions. Working as a nurse may be built on a principle of caring for others or perhaps serving one’s country. The same job may be held by different people for a whole host of different reasons – rooted back right to the principles that guide them. These principles inform the way you perceive others, activities you choose to engage in and the way you relate to others.
Sitting down and consciously reflecting on what makes you, you can be a very moving experience and really help you to clarify other decisions in your life. Sometimes we can be tempted to make decisions based on immediate or temporary circumstances, such as taking a new job because it comes with a change of scenery. But if you have a strong sense of what your principles are it will help you to recognise if your decisions fit with your biggest motivators. To find the principles that guide you and make up your identity you can start right at the surface level of the hats. Keep asking yourself why you wear that hat until you come down to something long lasting about who you are inside, that is very difficult to change or take away.
Defining yourself is no easy task, and for the most part using your hats, skills, talents, hobbies, relationships and other such things will be enough to give people a flavour for who you are. But if you are interested in true self discovery then finding your guiding principles that your identity is based on can be a very enlightening and rewarding experience for the long term.
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