Who are you? When faced with such a blunt question, it’s interesting how a person responds. What thoughts come to your mind to give a sense of your identity to a stranger? Usually, we default to the basics: our jobs, where we live, our relationship status, etc.
But if those common identity markers all change, have we lost our identity?
A few months ago, I faced this very scenario. Instead of “working in entertainment in Los Angeles” I was “working in venture capital in San Francisco.” At the age of 27, I was in a new place (that I knew little about) and in a new job (that I knew little about), feeling like a little bit of an impostor. At the same time, I no longer had the local group of close friends who knew me best that I had built up in LA over six years. It felt a bit like starting from scratch.
In today’s social-media-entrenched world, we constantly try to define our identities in 160-character bios and profiles on various social networks. Outside of that, there’s a multitude of ways we can frame our sense of self—from physical traits to nationality, religion, politics, and other group affiliations to self-assessed personality traits, beliefs, hobbies, who we associate with, and more.
To be sure, we change and evolve in most of those categories throughout life. I wouldn’t want to identify exactly the same as my 18-year-old self (social media features like Facebook Memories remind me of this on a daily basis). If we’re constantly growing and changing, what’s the safest thing to tie our sense of self to?
One dimension I’d rule out immediately is the physical. Only the luckiest of us will live long enough to get very old, and ailments and deterioration are inevitable. If your identity is heavily tied to beauty or age, you’re setting yourself up for declining self-esteem. Professionals who find success early and identify as “young” within the ranks of their field may become depressed once others their age have “caught up.”
Having a secure sense of self that doesn’t rely on external factors liberates us to explore and experiment in our lives.
Group affiliations can also be troubling for identity. While they may provide a feeling of security and community, they tend to set up an “us versus them” dynamic that may put you at odds with people outside of the group even if they don’t know you personally. Further, other group members may define you with their words and actions or even co-opt the group’s identity. It’s risky to let others define you based on a label that you may have a different definition of.
Let’s also not rely on the vague personality traits we each believe we have to define us. Any descriptor is relative to the rest of humanity, and the accuracy of them is subject to what others think (I know plenty of people who think they’re funny despite any outside validation, myself included). Your sense of self should not depend on pleasing other people, and in comparing ourselves with other people, we will always find “room for improvement” in some sense or another.
Tying our identities to our careers and achievements can also easily lead to disappointment. While it might be a controversial opinion—especially in Silicon Valley—professional fortunes can change quickly. When your sense of self is attached to your job, you risk losing confidence when change occurs, which is often the time you need reassurance the most. If you are only what you do, you’ll likely always need to do more to maintain your self-esteem; you might even pursue professional success and recognition at the expense of other aspects of your life, like relationships and hobbies. One of the most common regrets of terminally ill patients reflecting on their lives is “I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.”
Our sense of self, I think, must be built on more stable elements. It seems the core tenets of true identity have some key distinctions:
- They’re chosen by us.
- They don’t rely on outside validation or influence to be true.
- They generally don’t change drastically in short periods of time or because of a single event.
- They can be claimed for free regardless of material wealth or social status.
With this in mind, it seems it’s our individual morals, values, purpose, hobbies, and genuine friends—including family—that define us. These components remain relatively constant throughout life’s various ups and downs—winning the lottery or experiencing misfortune, getting in shape or falling ill, receiving compliments or being insulted.
I’m not proposing people change their LinkedIn and Twitter bios to lists of friends and morals, but internalizing these elements of your life as the core of who you are can lead to confidence, security, and contentment. Ultimately, having a secure sense of self that doesn’t rely on external factors liberates us to explore and experiment in our lives, embracing change while remaining confident in who we are.