Identity and how we see ourselves is an intriguing topic. So many of the choices we make in life can be traced back to our self-identity – how we see and experience ourselves, what we believe about ourselves, what we think we can and cannot do, what we believe we do and do not stand for, what our character is, what our personal qualities are, what our gifts and strengths are, what our weaknesses are, what we can and cannot change about ourselves, who likes us and who doesn’t.
Issues of identity are also linked to issues of consciousness and awareness. Our ability to stand back and see ourselves — the silent witness as Eckart Tolle referred to this entity and ability.
So I’m intrigued about how we see ourselves, and the links between this and our self image and self esteem. In two recent posts, one about body image and the negative messages we send ourselves and how harmful they are, and another about special clothing items that make me feel “most me”, I touched on the issue of identity – it’s clearly a central, foundation issue, but I didn’t explore it any further in those two pieces.
Which is what I’d like to do now. What is identity? How does it form? How do we become aware of our self-identity?
And by the time we become aware of it, is our sense of who we are so fixed that no real or lasting change to how we see ourselves is possible? Certainly there are those that believe that “give me the child until he is seven and I’ll show you the man” (a quote attributed most often to St Francis Xavier), the concept that the gripping documentary series Seven Up was based on.
Even if all that is possible is to observe and notice our self-identity, there is great value in that. My experience with people is that self-reflection, directed toward self, is not something that many people do. So those who do engage in reflections on “who am I?” are in the minority. At least, that’s been my experience.
I’ve long been intrigued by issues of identity, and have had a range of experiences in many settings where identity is discussed. Here’s a few:
- As corporate facilitator, I worked often with high performing teams and leaders in global firms. The focus of these sessions was often in the area with an umbrella term of “soft skills” – issues of communication, leadership, teaming… you know, people related topics. In some of these sessions, we would engage in a process of discussion about the team, or the broader organisation, and who and what it was, and wasn’t. The question was often phrased in metaphorical terms, providing both an element of fun and disassociation which was necessary for people to engage with the exercise. The question might be: “If Acme Finance Company was a car… what kind of car would it be?” This discussion was so engaging, so intriguing, that I would often have to draw it to a close before people were ready to stop talking about it. And of course, the ‘answer’ was much less important than the discussion, and often no consensus could be reached. But it sure yielded an interesting conversation!
- A couple of years ago, I was attending a conference in San Francisco of the Association of Psychological Type International, the board of which I had served on for a few years. Professionals who work with psychological type are interested in the condition called “being human” and what makes us who we are. A group of us were sitting around with a nice bottle of red wine and discussing what kind of domestic animal/pet we would be. This started off as just a fun, almost silly discussion — are you a long-haired indoor ‘designer’ cat, or a lap dog, a Labrador, or perhaps “39 flavours” moggy cat from the local animal rescue? The variations and possibilities were endless! But the interesting thing was how impactful this discussion was, much later, on how we saw ourselves, and what others thought of our self image (as expressed as a domestic pet) and how others see us — and what we make of all of that.
- I was invited to be part of a profile experience called Leading Questions on a website that is focused on helping women feel better about themselves and combating so many of the negative messages women are subject to, and take on board, about their body image. I was asked ‘what is the one thing I say most often about myself, to myself?‘. This question really pulled me up short, as I realised that I still say quite negative things to myself on a regular basis. My awareness of this ongoing negative self-talk had dropped to alarmingly low levels, and I had allowed myself to fall into the very bad habit of not interrupting that cycle, and replacing those negative words with more positive ones.
- The work of Malcolm Godwin in his amazing book “Who Are You? 101 Ways of Seeing Yourself” – a book I literally could not put down for days, as I devoured the many ways in which Godwin laid out that we can see and experience ourselves.
How do you see yourself?
So what are some of the ways you can see yourself? What are some of the metaphors you can use to help you see yourself as you are, or in a completely new different light?
There are no doubt hundreds of different ways you can see yourself, but here’s 21 metaphors you might find fun and illumating to play around with (and I should warn you that almost all of these are a bit esoteric and deliberately so. It’s your imagination we are tapping into…):
- If you were an animal (of any sort)… what might you be?
- If you were a domestic animal/pet…. what sort of pet might you be?
- If you were a bird… what kind of bird would you be?
- If you were a car… what kind of car might you be?
- If you were a vehicle of any sort… what might you be?
- If you were a colour… what colour, or collection of colours, or pattern of colours, might you be?
- If you were an item of clothing… what might you be?
- If you were words…. what sentence or statement would sum you up?
- If you were aware of the words you say most often about yourself…. what would those words be?
- If a celebrity was chosen to play you in the movie of your life… who would that be?
- If you were the title of a book…. what book would that be?
- If you were a song… what song would that be?
- If you were a kitchen object… what would you be?
- If you were a meal…. what kind of meal would you be?
- If you were a fruit… what sort of fruit might you be?
- If you were a person from ancient times …. what kind of person would you be?
- If you were a person of the opposite sex…. what kind of man/woman might you be?
- If you were a country or a geographical region …. what might you be?
- If you were a landmark …. what might you be?
- If you were less of who you are right now… what would that make you?
- If you were more of what and who you are now… what would that make you?
Of course what is most fascinating, fun and ultimately illuminating about any of these questions is the discussion you have, either with yourself (you can talk it out loud – would suggest you do it in private, or perhaps through journaling) or with others.
It’s not the answer you come up with (“a jeep that desperately needs a wash” or “Jodie Foster” or “a peacock” or “those patent animal print slides with the bling on the front I bought in Dallas”), but the process you go through as you ponder the question. And your answer to the question “Why?” in response to your initial answer to each question.
It’s also fascinating to ask others their answers to their questions about you. What kind of bird or landmark or song do they see you as? Only to be asked of people whom you trust and who have a generous and abundant outlook on life (and others).
When you have some time this week, or soon, pick a few questions you like from the above list, or make up your own, and ponder: Who Am I?