“Nothing of me is original. I am the combined effort of everyone I’ve ever known.” – Chuck Palahniuk

If I asked you ”Who are you?” It is you who know yourself better than anyone else, Isn’t it?

You have spent every moment of your life with yourself. You know what kind of person you are in real, right? You know if you are an extrovert or introvert. You know if you are a smart geek or an athlete or trendy fashionista, right?

But, have you ever questioned yourself what makes you think you are really who you think you are?

I know it sounds cheesy, but have you? Ever?

Fluidity of our Self-Identity

Social media makes us hyper-vigilant about how we want to be perceived. Carefully curated Instagram feed, cool pictures on Facebook —— we portray our best images and want everyone to believe we are interesting, funny, smart etc.

However, these also raise questions about the authenticity: who are we when no one is watching?

Even those who understand themselves sometimes find out there is more of them.

During 2008-2013, as a part of a non-profit, I did seminars left and right. These pushed my public speaking skill to an extent where I could easily engage audiences on various topics without doing much homework. I was very comfortable on-stage and words flowed from my mouth effortlessly.

But, I was a different person while having one-on-one conversations, especially with ladies.  I struggled with what to say next and obviously, conversations ended in awkward silences. I blamed my introverted nature and never tried to improve. “The introverted shy guy” became my self-identity.

Come 2014, I started to work for a self-development company in Malaysia. I lived with one of my colleagues and we decide to help each other to extend our comfort zones. We used to go for lunch together and challenge each other to talk to at least 4 strangers. We made ourselves more accountable by paying 50RM for each failure.

Now in 2017, I can walk up to anyone and have conservation without breaking a sweat. People often call me “charismatic” and “charming”.

And I am not alone. Many people undergo such drastic changes. What they think about themselves changes completely later in life.

Who are you really?

I recently came across Charles Cooley’s the “Looking-glass-self-theory”. It’s a very interesting read. This theory postulates that self-identity is dynamic and people you interact with have a direct effect on your identity. Like, you can be both funny and serious depending on how you think others think about you.

How?

Coolie argued, while interacting with others, you imagine how you appear before others and unconsciously gauge their reaction. And based on others’ reaction (acceptance or rejection) feeling of shame or pride strengthen or weaken your assumption about the identity. If your friends and acquaintances laugh at your jokes, for instance, you might consider yourself as funny.

It’s an unconscious process and no matter how much you believe you don’t care about others’ opinions, your brain tricks you.

I am not who I think I am,
I am not who you think you are,
I am who I think you think I am.

Now, no one can read others’ mind, right? So when you think about others’ perception of yourself, in reality, you just dwell on your own assumptions (based on their reaction). Thus you erect a self-construct which you call “this is who I am”.

Now this construct crumbles when one of the following things happens:

  1. Your perception of others’ opinion about you changes. For example, the idea of public speaking sends chills down to some peoples’ spine. However, with ample experience, they become confident and their self-perception changes.
  2. Your environment and social circle change. When you mingle with new people or travel you explore some unrevealed sides of yours.

So stop stressing about knowing who you are. Identity is dynamic and subject to changes.

How does dynamic nature of self-identity affect you?

How you see yourself plays a very crucial role in your life —your sense of fulfillment and happiness are entangled with it. A person, for instance, who thinks highly of himself, is always happier than a person with a poor self-image.

The loss of self-identity, on the other hand, inflicts emotional pain. Do you know why does break-up feel so excruciating? Because when you stay in a relationship you make your partner your biggest source of validation. But when things fall apart, you lose that source of validation and you get slapped with the identity crisis. Same thing happens when your dream shatters before your eyes.

However, you can use fluidity of identity in your favor. Start from changing your surroundings to influence your own self-image and hack your way through. Only when your belief would be in sync with how you see yourself, success would be the matter of time.

In a nutshell, you are a lot more than you think you are. Whether you want to stay confined in your self-constructed identity or use the flow to reach a new height is your choice only.

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