Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Who Am I, Really? Are My Roles My Identity?

Dear Friends,

America not a social occasion goes by without someone asking within the first 5 minutes of meeting someone “what do you do?” People ask each other about their roles making a living and producing value for society to help them define each other quickly and feel more at ease. The context of your major life roles gives them a way to figure out what relationship to have with you, and what value you have or could provide to them, and what they may need to do in exchange. It provides social rules and guidelines for behavior. I am primarily “John’s mom” to my son’s friends, I was “the social worker” to hospital staff, and a “student” in seminars I attended. This need for definition is both limiting and comforting.

I remember being surprised traveling in Europe years ago when the question of “what do you do?” didn’t come up in conversation for a long time. Instead, people wanted to know “who are you?” They were interested in what moved you and what you had passion for. They wanted to know what values you had and what essential components flavored ALL your roles. Their way of figuring you out was to look at what makes you tick.

We all have many roles in life that we play, and these roles we play or refuse to play take prominence on the different stages we act on. When we are with our families, we are focused on being (or rebelling against and not being) mothers, brothers, daughters. When we are providing something society requires in exchange for wages we are waiters, doctors, teachers, plumbers. When we are learning a skill, we are students. We are all of the roles we play, yet no one role completely defines us. And if one role does define us, the threatened or actual loss of that role is devastating to our sense of identity.

We see people become lost with a diminished sense of meaning and purpose when the role or context of a role that has become part of their identity is removed. This happens when we retire, children move out, we lose spouses, become chronically ill, or move away from a familiar environment.

However, some people feel restricted by their roles and seek out role changes to provide them with a renewed sense of freedom and ability to find and reconfigure their essence pieces into a new definition of self.

Here is an exercise to help you discover and cultivate the question “Who Am I, Really?”

This will help you learn to live more from a sense of identity that is integrated into yet transcends the roles you play. You can begin to develop this skill by asking and answering a few simple, yet profound questions.

FIRST - you want to ask and learn “what is my essence, what defines me?” This question alone will provide tremendous insight if you really answer it.

Caution - this question alone is not enough. You could think about it all day. Most of us do think about this while resenting or feeling stifled in our life roles. We then become more involved with worrying about how “this isn’t it” or “this isn’t me” than actually working with developing what IS.

SECOND, you want to ask - "what actions do I take to develop and demonstrate it in ALL my roles?"

There are some details you can explore that may help you in answering these questions:

1) Is there something I do everywhere, all the time? .

2) What about me flavors and spices every role I play, yet is also independent of all those roles?


Have you noticed how unsettled people become when your behavior doesn’t match their idea of how a role “should” be played, or when your idea of how to act in a role doesn’t match theirs? The simplest example is the discomfort people have with not being able to tell what someone’s gender or sexual orientation is.

Have you noticed how unsettled you become when the behaviors you feel are needed for your various roles clash, or the demands of your roles conflict with each other? The ultimate choices of behavior you make in these situations tell you a lot about your self-identity.

DON’T FORGET - we have all sorts of ideas of who we really are, but we also have to then take the actions to manifest them ,or they remain untapped potential. If your actions don’t show it, how is anyone else to really know it, or get to know the real you? Define yourself in your roles, don’t let your notions of a role define you. Our roles provide opportunities to express our essence, yet usually we use them to limit ourselves and others. How can you start right now to make every action, in every role, more authentic and real? Ideas, feelings, and core values are internal catalysts, motivators and fuel, but no matter what role we are in, our actions are what tell others who we really are.

Embrace yourself, be yourself. Let your words express your essence. Let your deeds match your words. There will always be opinions, there will always be judgments. Someone will always think and feel something about you. It might as well be about who you really are!