“Who are we but the stories we tell ourselves, about ourselves, and believe?” — Scott Turow
My life has been fast and furious since I quit my job six months ago.
I launched my book ‘Stretch for Change.’ and a behavior change firm. I’ve been writing every day— dozens of articles and half-way in my second book. Keynote speeches, workshops, consulting projects: I’ve been traveling a lot.
I changed what I do and why I do it, but did I change who I am?
As I looked back, I couldn’t see myself in the shadow of the man I used to be. But it was still ‘me.’ Our identity resembles our shadow. It changes its shape, it evolves. But it’s still ours.
“A man who stands for nothing will fall for anything.” — Malcolm X
Change encourages self-reflection. You can’t get back in the driver’s seat of your life, without understanding who you are.
What I love about my work is that it goes beyond helping individuals and organizations drive change. I help them reconnect to their ‘true-selves.’
As Elastigirl from The Incredibles said: “Your identity is your most valuable possession. Protect it.”
This post if for you: reconnect with your true-self.
The Multiple Layers of Self Identity
“We contain multitudes.” — Walt Whitman
When I ask someone “who are you?” they normally reply with their name and occupation. Our profession, especially in the US, plays a critical role in our identity. It takes further probing — asking ‘who are you’ over and over — to get past relationship status, music preferences or hobbies. And connect with the deeper self.
Your identity has multiple layers. Some more superficial than others. Who you are is more than just your job or gender.
Psychologists define ‘personal identity’ as the idiosyncratic things that make a person unique: our qualities, beliefs, personality, looks, and expressions. Sociologists, no surprise here, believe our identity is a byproduct of our social affiliations.
Henri Tajfel, the creator of the social identity theory, proposed that “who we are” depends mostly on our group membership(s). Groups give us a sense of social identity: a sense of belonging to the social world. Our social class, family, sports team, etc. are a vital source of pride and self-esteem.
Social influence is like your shadow; it’s always there though you don’t notice it. Few people choose their identities. Instead, they simply internalize their family stories, the beliefs of their parents or the dominant culture.
The truth is we are both our personal traits and social influences. But, most importantly, we are our choices.
“One of the greatest tragedies in life is to lose your own sense of self and accept the version of you that is expected by everyone else.” — K.L. Toth
Pause and use the following diagram to reflect on your multiple layers.
WHAT YOU DO: Your hobbies, job, profession, the sports you practice, etc. What you do is not static either. It can change over time or be multifaceted too. One person may hold multiple identities such as teacher, mother, or artist.
WHAT YOU ARE: Your name, nationality, gender, social class, age, race, physical characteristics, abilities/disabilities. All these play a significant role in how you see and experience the world.
WHERE YOU BELONG: Your family, friends, professional associations, sports clubs, etc. All these affiliations influence your identity, affecting your opportunities and possibilities.
WHAT YOU BELIEVE IN: Religion, political affiliation, the causes you support, etc. Your values and beliefs drive what you say ‘no’ and ‘yes’ to. But can also blind you. More on that later.
“I am not what has happened to me. I am what I choose to become.” — Carl Jung
You are all these layers. Not just one or two. Both what you inherited and what you grow to be.
Your choices define your true identity.
Your Identity Should Guide Your Journey, Not Get You Stuck
“Patriotism is, fundamentally, a conviction that a particular country is the best in the world because you were born in it.” ―George Bernard Shaw
Look at the list your created to describe who you are. Do you see inconsistencies or contradictions? That’s normal. Don’t panic.
Traditionally, our society viewed our identity as something linear. Thus, focusing on the most superficial layers. To understand the world, we must learn to see the different shades of grey. Your identity is not black and white.
You are not betraying yourself if your behaviors are no longer consistent with your beliefs. What’s causing that tension? Have you lost clarity on what you stand for? Or is it merely that you’ve grown and evolved?
Our identity is fluid: which comes first, beliefs or behaviors? I used to think that trust was lost once it was broken. Now, I’ve learned trust is fluid and can be rebuilt.
In this day and age, we are victims of an ‘ideological divide.’ Sexual, religious and political orientation are used to draw a line between “them” and “us.” They have become so prominent that many people confuse them with their whole identity.
When one layer takes over our entire identity, we lose contact with our true-self.
“We do not grow absolutely, chronologically. We sometimes grow in one dimension, and not in another; unevenly. We grow partially. We are relative. We are mature in one realm, childish in another. We are made up of layers, cells, constellations.”– Anais Nin
Your identity should guide you, not imprison you. That’s what beliefs do: they make us see the world through a right/wrong approach lens.
Beliefs are assumptions we hold to be true. They arise from learned experiences, resulting from the cultural and environmental situations we have faced. But do those beliefs help you make wise choices?
Take religion for example. The purpose of the practice of religion is to achieve the goals of salvation for oneself and others. If we are all on a journey to the same destination, why attack others because they take a different road to get there?
Defending our beliefs blind us: we stop seeing our true-self.
You cannot shut someone off just because they don’t belong to your same political, sexual or religious party. Even a fool can teach you wisdom. Learn from those who think differently.
The Shadow You Used to Be
“The curious paradox is that when we accept myself just as I am, then I can change.” — Carl Rogers
Your identity changes shape, it evolves. But it’s still yours.
You are not just your beliefs but all your layers. But, most importantly, be open for some layers to change through time. Like Buddhists say: nothing is constant, everything changes through time.
I was born and raised Catholic. But, at some point, those beliefs limited my potential as human being. I felt that some of the principles contradicted the nature of the religion should be about (e.g. Catholics go to Heaven, but others can’t get a ticket).
The same with the notion of ‘guilt’ that is present in most religions. This idea damages our self-worth. We are emotionally punished for something that — supposedly — happened over 2,000 ago.
On the other hand, Buddhist psychologist Chögyam Trungpa, author of “the sanity we are born with,” believes that ALL human beings are born with inherent goodness, health, and clear perception.
Starting with a clean slate helps build our self-esteem. Self-appreciation can kill or break a person. Research shows that there’s a definite link between low self-esteem and crime.
When I abandoned Catholicism, I started exploring other faiths. I labeled myself “agnostic.” I was less acceptant of those who followed a religion. But something was missing. My behavior felt like simply opposition rather than a choice.
After years of reading and meditating, Buddhism became my choice. I don’t label myself as a Buddhist, but I’ve adopted many of its principles, lessons, and thoughts. They’ve shaped my life’s perspective. And helped me become more acceptant of others.
I consider Buddhism a more inviting and comprehensive spiritual practice. But also it gives a lot of room to the individual to make decisions rather than dictating what’s right or wrong. It helps pursue and build your inner goodness.
Baha’ism is another great example. Baha’is believe all religions come from the same source, have the same foundation and shine the same light on humanity. They believe in the oneness of all the great religions. This temple promotes openness: no matter your faith you are welcome to pray there.
Probably Baha’ism has many flaws. I’m not an expert on this “collaborative religious” movement. But it’s approach is very interesting. It encourages not to let our religious, political, sexual or sports affiliations undermine those who don’t belong to the same club.
Accepting that others are different is the price we pay to be unique.
When you are confident about your identity, you don’t need to use your beliefs to exclude those who are different. You are in control. Not others.
“I’m the one at the sail; I’m the master of my sea.” — Imagine Dragons
Our identity is fluid, not rigid. What about yours?
Neuroscience supports the Buddhist notion that our self is continuously changing. As Evan Thompson, a philosophy of mind professor at the University of British Columbia, as cited by Quartz demonstrated: “From a neuroscience perspective, the brain and body are constantly in flux. There’s nothing that corresponds to the sense that there’s an unchanging self.”
“We are what we believe we are.” — C. S. Lewis
Who you are, changes over time. Reflect on that.
Meet Your True Self
“Tear off your mask; your face is glorious.” — Rumi
Psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott introduced the term ‘true self’ to describe a sense of self based on spontaneous authentic experience, and a feeling of being alive, having a real ‘self’.
The false-self, by contrast, is a defensive façade to get others’ acceptance that, in the end, steals our joy and vitality.
The notion of self in Buddhism is more complex: “to fully perceive ‘the nature of the self’ is one way to define enlightenment” (a state of wisdom combined with infinite compassion).
Buddhist teachings talk about a ‘no-self.’ This complex concept doesn’t fit well with our assumption of an eternal soul. Thanissaro Bhikkhu provides a more practical explanation. The questions about self or no-self are irrelevant. Lack of attachment is what matters.
Letting go of attachment to our identity/ego/self leads to happiness. As Bhikkhu explains: “Once there’s the experience of such total freedom, where would there be any concern about what’s experiencing it, or whether or not it’s a ‘self’?”
“I am none of that. I am nothing, and I am everything. Your identities make all your problems”. — Buddhist teacher cited in Jack Kornfield book.
Neuroscience supports the Buddhists’ view that the ‘self’ does in fact exist.
“You’ll often come across people who say the self is an illusion created by the brain. My view is that the brain and the body work together to create a sense of self. And it’s misguided to say that just because it’s a construction, it’s an illusion.” — Evan Thompson
Being true to yourself feels lonely. But trying to please others will make you feel lonelier. And empty too.
Building you identity is a path of self-discovery. Keep walking.
An Exercise to Embrace Your Fluid Self
“A great deal of chaos in the world occurs because people don’t appreciate themselves.” — Chögyam Trungpa
Accepting who you are is the most crucial step. That includes accepting who you were and who you want to be. Self-acceptance frees you from attachment to your beliefs. Get rid of your self-defining labels. Learn to be tolerant of yourself so you can be tolerant of others.
Being yourself is not easy. Getting rid of other’s expectations is a hard exercise. But the reward is enormous.
Try this exercise:
- List all your labels using the identity diagram previously described.
- Find tensions and contradictions. Ask why? What’s driving those?
- Using the template below, select the most relevant moment in your life (e.g. childhood, adolescence, etc.). Write down your values, beliefs, key choices, social affiliations, what made you feel proud about yourself, what made you feel disappointed. Write one sentence to answer ‘who are you?’ Complete this for each ‘moment.’
- Now review your journey. See what changed through time. Ask yourself why. Try to make sense of your evolution. Embrace those changes and, most importantly, realize your identity fluidity.
- What do you want to do differently? What values, beliefs, behaviors do you want to stop, ignite or accelerate?
- List three things you’ll start doing to become more tolerant with those who think differently to you.
“The deeper I go into myself, the more I realize that I am my own enemy.” — Floriano Martins
Your identity is a never-ending journey:
- Embrace your own fluidity.
- Stop seeing people through a right/wrong lens. A problem can be solved in many different ways.
- What worked yesterday might not be the best solution for today.
- What you believe imprisons you. Letting go frees your mind.
You are your choices. Is not what you have but what you become that matters.