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  • Penny Muller

Identity Matters

Can we have a positive self-identity in a world that wants to label us?

Our way of socialising in this society makes perfect sense. We meet someone and we ask, "What do you do?" It's considered to be one of the least personal questions to ask, I suppose. It's a way to have a little inkling of who a person is in advance of knowing him or her. For me, this was always a bit confronting and problematic. I wanted to sum up my entire self in one word to project my identity out to whoever was asking, and I was never able to do that with my job title. To me, my job title has never reflected who I am but only the work that I'm doing at a particular time. My job title was always a temporary solution until I could find something that suited me better. So, I have usually said, "Well, at the moment I'm doing............" - the moment sometimes being several years.

Because of this, we can tend to forget that we have multiple identities. We forget that we are a complex mix of facts, figures, traits and preferences that all come together to form our identities. We can start to see ourselves through the eyes of others, or the ways in which we perceive that others view us. This might be as someone who does a certain job, is married or single, is male or female, dresses a certain way, does or doesn't wear makeup, paints, ice-skates, etc. Our identity can also consist of things we feel that we are not good at or don't like. Because others are familiar with these aspects of our identities, we feel that we have to stay true to them. Maybe people see us as someone who isn't good at maths, doesn't exercise, refuses to go camping, won't eat artichokes, or never wears overalls.

Yes, other people become attached to our identities just like we do. They feel safe when they know what to expect from us, and we feel secure in being able to define ourselves. I've always felt that it was very important to form a strong self-identity. This helps us to have a vision of how we fit into the world, who we might like to spend time with, where we might like to live, what we might like to do with our time, and how we might like to contribute. It's a way that likeminded others can find us and connect with us. It provides us with ways to express ourselves and be creative. It also creates inner harmony, enabling us to embrace and be at one with who we are.

On the flip side, we need to loosen our grip on our identity a bit so we can grow. The more we find out about life and ourselves, the more aspects of our identities we might find that we would like to explore. There's absolutely nothing wrong with changing your mind, either. You might never have tried eating an artichoke cooked a certain way, and it might just turn out to be your favourite food. As life circumstances change, new opportunities open up. You might settle down when you're young and never travel, only to turn into a champion grey nomad in retirement. Or, you might go from nomad to settled, from performer to accountant, or from married to happily unattached. We should never limit opportunities because of attachment to our identities or because of what others expect from us.


When reflecting on your identity, there are a few things to remember:


You are more than your work...

You are more than your weight, height or shoe size...

You are more than your achievements...

You are more than your family background...


You are also more than the work you have done in the past, the way you looked in the past, the work you will do in the future and the way you will look in the future.

If you're feeling that there's a part of your life that's not working well, choosing to focus on an aspect that you feel good about really helps. Let's say that you're not enjoying your work. Spending time on your favourite hobby will remind you that you have other skills and interests. Reminding yourself of the things that you did well in the past or some things that you really enjoyed can also help. Make a commitment to yourself to revisit them. If you still feel at a loss, remind yourself that there are so many ways of 'doing life'. What do other families do? How do people in other countries live? What different values do they hold? How to they create a balance between work and relaxation? There are so many new things that can be tried. Be on the lookout for what other people are interested in. Fresh ideas may come to the surface. New aspects of your identity might be waiting around every corner.

I've been fine-tuning my style of marking students' assignments lately, using comments like "The assignment could benefit from additional discussion of......" to place the focus on the work and not on the person. The student is graded on the work that they submit, however the student is not defined by the quality of his or her work at any given time, which may be affected by his or her personal circumstances, timeframe, past experiences, skill level at the time, engagement with the topic, and whether or not he or she had a good English teacher at school. Another way to respect people's identities is to acknowledge the person first. This comes from my teaching background, but we might say, "This is a person who has autism / or a disability / or an eating disorder", rather than "This is an autistic person, a disabled person, or an anorexic person. A person who has autism might also be an accomplished artist, or writer, or sportsperson.

Identity matters, otherwise we lose our anchor, but we should see identity as a complex, growing, changing thing that allows us to explore multiple possibilities. Releasing identities and finding new ones is a continual process. We must allow this process in ourselves if we want to live our best lives. Most of all, we must not let other people dictate our identities. If a new you emerges, other people will adjust in time. And, we will adjust to others around us changing. Allowing others to change enables them to enrich their lives, and also helps us to allow change in ourselves. Acknowledge the you that you were, the you that you are, and the you that you want to be. Embrace the adventure, the challenge and the joy. You are much more than you see in the mirror. You are much more than your boss thinks you are. You are much more than you believe is possible.



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