Do you choose your identity, or does it choose you?
This might sound like one of those abstract and ultimately meaningless questions but it’s well worth considering. In computer games, particularly role playing games, we are often given the opportunity to pick which character we want to play with, or to create them from the ground up. In real life though, there is no such thing as a ‘character creation tool’. Rather we are born the way we are and we forge our identity further beyond that point through a combination of our choices and the events that we allow to happen to us. Often ‘choice’ doesn’t really factor into it.
Again then: did you choose your identity, or did it choose you?
Who Are You?
One of the easiest (‘easiest’ in relative terms at least) ways to begin to answer this question is to start deconstructing who you are and how you currently define your identity.
For most of us, that will essentially mean listing a number of different labels. You might consider yourself to be a ‘football player’, a ‘painter’, a ‘father’, a ‘brother’, ‘short’, ‘stocky’, ‘brow haired’, ‘funny’, ‘shy’. These are all labels that contribute to your overall identity, only some of which you will have actively chosen yourself, and not all of which you would necessarily have chosen.
Even when some aspects of your identity are in-line with the way you might have chosen to portray yourself. Even when these descriptions are largely flattering and accurate, that’s not to say that they will be perfect. For instance there are many psychologists who say our personality is not in fact ‘fixed’ at all. That means that no person can adequately be described as ‘shy’ or as ‘outgoing’. Rather they might be shy around certain company, or within certain situations.
Likewise you will probably debate whether or not you should be described as ‘stocky’ or ‘touchy’ or ‘shy’ – and even if you agree with that description, you might prefer that that wasn’t how you were described. You can end up agreeing with your perceived identity and believing that you are a ‘shy’ person, but not actually wanting to be described that way anymore. And this is how the problems start…
How Your Identity Becomes a Cage
This ‘identity’, whether largely positive or negative, can unfortunately become something of a cage in that it defines you and heavily influences the way you act and the decisions that you make. If you see yourself as a shy person, then this actually makes you all the more likely to act in a shy manner, and it makes it all the more difficult for you to break out of those behaviour patterns. If your identity is ‘shy’ then you will expect yourself to behave in a shy way, and you will avoid situations that a shy person would avoid.
Sometimes even identities we actively choose for ourselves can create these kinds of problems. A good example can be taken from Ido Portal. Ido Portal is something of an internet sensation, and a guy who promotes the importance of movement and of engaging with our bodies. He teaches people everything from how to get up off the floor to how to do one handed handstands. Thing is though, that he started as a student of ‘capoeira’ (a Brazilian martial art) and when he decided he wanted to branch out and learn more about movement generally he described feeling almost as though he was ‘betraying’ capoeira in the process. Like Bruce Lee, he made a conscious decision to avoid labelling his own teachings subsequently for fear that ultimately any label would otherwise end up restricting his options and narrowing his thinking. He described a situation previously where he was serving his passion, as opposed to his passion serving him.
The same could be true for you if you’re a bodybuilder, a footballer, a musician or an artist – perhaps the best way to advance yourself would be to look outside of your discipline and thus to find new ways of training, of working or of improving upon your craft.
There are many identities that we ‘adopt’ for ourselves in this manner. Perhaps you think of yourself as a bodybuilder, or maybe you’re a teacher, or a writer. Perhaps you’re a vegan, a Justin Bieber fan, or a Christian. The problem is that once you pick that label and it becomes part of your identity, it then removes the shades of grey and forces you to act in a certain way. I’ve known vegetarians for instance who are only vegetarian because they have difficulty digesting certain meats – yet they avoid all meat because they ‘are vegetarians’.
Maybe you’re a vegetarian for ethical reasons, or for diet beliefs. That’s fine, but then if you forgo lunch because you’re out and you can’t find anything that fits with your diet… hasn’t that ‘identity’ become a prison? Hasn’t it become destructive? Surely you could just once make an exception in order to avoid going hungry – it would barely impede your long-term goal. Who cares if it ‘compromises your values’? Needs must and ignoring the ‘shades of grey’ is naïve and ultimately detrimental to your cause. Likewise, I have a friend who is t-total (because he doesn’t like the taste or feeling out of control) and plans not to have any champagne at his wedding even though he admits he would like to. One sip of champagne would hardly have any negative effects, it would just be a little ‘out of character’.
And how many vegetarians, religious followers or political affiliates are there out there who long ago decided they didn’t believe so fervently in their cause anymore… yet continue to serve it for fear of appearing inconsistent or having to reassess their identity. Do you really still hold the same beliefs you did 20 years ago, or are you just hanging on to them out of some misplaced loyalty? Maybe it’s time to rethink your affiliations, or maybe you could just find a way to make them work better for you as the person you are now.
How to Break Out of Your Identity
The reason many of us are so trapped by our identities is at least partly down to our need for consistency. People like to act consistently and when we act in a way that doesn’t match what we know about ourselves it creates ‘cognitive dissonance’ which is an unpleasant sensation and one we tend to try quickly to correct.
The other urge comes from our desire to belong. Many of the labels we give ourselves are somehow related to communities, disciplines, classes or organisations and this makes us feel like a part of something bigger. When you become a martial artists, or more specifically a Karate Ka, you then become a part of that community and this is very comforting. Saying that you are a student of ‘movement’ meanwhile is a lonely path to take – even if it’s the right one for you. This is probably the way agnostics feel when branching outside of their particular religious community to explore other ideas.
Another factor is ‘confirmation bias’. We like to feel good about ourselves so we tend to seek out people and information that back up our way of life and disregard any information to the contrary. Ultimately we end up supporting our existing views more and more, removing any chance of being objective.
As with anything, it is possible to learn to break out of your expected identity a little though, it just takes practice.
Try experimenting a little by changing small things that you consider part of your identity – perhaps eat one sausage if you’re a vegetarian, or doing something you wouldn’t normally do. Even just buying clothes that you generally don’t wear can be a small step in the right direction and help to demonstrate that it’s fine to break patterns.
Likewise take a look at the labels you give yourself currently and make the conscious decision to make them work for you rather than vice versa. Try to stop referring to yourself through these terms and stop making decisions through those lenses – decide instead to do what serves you best in the current circumstances. When someone asks you about yourself, practicing avoiding using labels or definitions and instead talk about what you do, what you enjoy or your plans.
Finally, read ideas that are contrary to your own and spend time with different people. The more opinions and information you have coming in, the more balanced and objective your own ideas and opinions will be.
The best time to do all this is when you are going to be changing your circumstances or environment. If you’re moving home, starting a new job or otherwise mixing up your routine and/or meeting new people, then this is a great time to try reinventing yourself. Habits are very much tied into our environments, so when you let go of your surroundings you might find it easier to let go of your identity. And that’s when you can start to really be yourself…