If you do not know who you are, others will tell you. They will define or label you in a way that suits them, which usually means casting you in a degrading or humiliating role. Resisting this is vital if you are to live with self-respect.
The Basic Problem
The obvious question is why? Surely people are too busy with their own lives to worry about labelling or defining others. And when they do consider problems like “authenticity” and “identity” wouldn’t it be their own rather than yours? The answer is that people base their identity and self-esteem on comparisons with others.
To understand this it may be useful to draw on the ideas of Alfred Adler. Adler was an Austrian psychologist and one of Freud’s earliest followers. Gradually, he concluded that Freud placed too much emphasis on sex. For Adler, people were motivated more by a sense of inadequacy (it was Adler who coined the phrase “inferiority complex”). Such feelings are unpleasant, and so we try to escape them. And it isn’t only the weak and ugly who feel this way. To be human is to be inferior. Confronted with the power and indifference of nature most of us feel helpless.
People want to feel good about themselves. They want respect and admiration, to stand out from the crowd, achieve something and be someone. Unfortunately, this depends on how we feel we compare to others. As Gore Vidal once joked, “it’s not enough for me to succeed, I want others to fail”. Imagine you are taking a college exam. Your final grade will be either A, B, C, D or E. What would you prefer? To be awarded a B but have the others in your year get Ds and Es, or be awarded an A along with everyone else? Most people would choose the first option.
People define you in a way that makes them feel good about themselves. And the more insecure they are, the more inclined they will be to do so. Think back to High School. At no other time do you have so many insecure, confused people in one place, each trying to understand themselves and establish a new identity. The quickest escape from their confusion and insecurity is by bullying and humiliating others. Remember how certain children would be labelled “nerds” or “geeks”? Remember the ridicule and hostility when they challenged those labels (when the nerd asks a pretty girl on a date, for example, or got a cool new hair cut)?
You have probably experienced this for yourself. When someone moves to a new area or starts a new job, they feel other people judging and evaluating them. Who are you? Where do you fit? Are you cleverer than me? Better educated? Richer? In other words, do you pose a threat to their self-image? They want to know whether they can label you in a way that will make them feel good about themselves.
Even among friends there is often a power struggle. Within a group of friends, one individual usually dominates while another takes on the role of clown – the one who embarrasses himself when asking people on dates, the one who never has any money, etc. Or he will take on the role of “the quiet one” or “the sensible one”. Sometimes people become so sick of these labels that they lose their temper, others become angry when someone breaks free (when the loser or clown of the group sets up a business and makes millions, for example).
The same thing happens in families. Indeed, even parents can grow angry at the child who breaks free. For example, a mother favors her youngest son, who shone at school and was loved by everyone. When the middle son becomes a famous TV star she resents him. This is not how it was supposed to be! Her youngest son was destined to be the star, not the middle son. And yet all he does is sit around smoking cannabis and watching TV.
Women often experience this when they have a child. For example, one evening a new mother leaves her daughter with her parents, puts on her favorite dress and goes to a dinner party. At last, she thinks, some adult conversation about books and current affairs. To her amazement, however, the very people who once listened no longer do. She feels invisible. Everyone ignores her opinions on the recent election and instead ask her which school her child will attend, what her first words were, etc.
People define you in all sorts of ways: by your job, nationality, race and so on. Often, they cannot see beyond these stereotypes. Italians are supposed to be passionate and fiery, Englishmen polite and gentlemanly, French people arty and intellectual. Even positive stereotypes can be restricting and suffocating.
Negative definitions, however, are much worse. Unfortunately, people often internalise these. The boy whose father was a criminal knows he has been labelled with “criminal blood”. He may then feel obliged to live up to this. When a mother says to her child “you’re just not academic,” the child never forgets. For the rest of her life she avoids any form of learning, cutting herself off from things that interest her because “it’s just not me.” Or imagine two friends, the first of whom loves literature and studies creative writing at college. In later life, the second announces her plan to write a novel. The first had planned to do the same and is furious. She is the arty one, not her friend! In exasperation, she yells “but you’re not creative!”
Should you meet a new group of people – work colleagues, for example, or new neighbors – you may sense that they are working out if you are a strong or weak character. In other words, are you someone who will allow them to define you, or do you already have a strong and stable self? Are you already too much your own person? People do not sit down and rationally think these things through. On the contrary, they feel or sense it. Indeed, they may be trying to work out if you will define them.
First, you need to know who you are, and that means being an individual. Do not hide behind any form of collective identity. Or, to put it another way, do not look for something outside to define you: class, nationality, money, job title, religion, etc. People often cloak themselves in these identities because they haven’t the strength or courage to develop their own.
Second, you need to recognize what people are doing. Attempts to define you will often be slow and subtle. People cast you in a certain role and then treat you accordingly. If they encounter no resistance, they do it even more, maybe encouraging others to join in. And they will even seek your approval. Again, this can be very subtle. Usually, they gain from what they are doing; they define you in a way that makes them feel good about themselves. An example is the average looking girl who goes to a nightclub with an ugly friend. She knows that this friend makes her seem more attractive than she really is. Short men, on the other hand, dislike being in a group of tall men and may seek out friends of a similar height.
Be alert to the things people say. What lies behind those words? What are they insinuating? For example, someone takes a chance in life. He leaves his old job and sets up a business. After a couple of years it begins to flourish and the money rolls in. At dinner one evening he says “I envy people like you. I mean people who never feel the need to take risks and test themselves. Life must be so much easier.” Though disguised as a compliment, he is implying that he is brave, that he has tested himself and has come out on top. He is a winner – at least compared to you. Resist this sort of thing. Argue and disagree.
Of course, a certain type of person is usually targeted: bland, unadventurous and lacking insight. If they sense that you are sharp and observant, on the other hand, they will be put off. And who can mould or re-define a bright and colorful individualist? Cultivate all that is different and eccentric in yourself. And be open to new experiences, forever stepping out of your comfort zone and embracing new experiences. Never reply “it’s just not me” unless you are sure it just isn’t. Who is this “me”? Maybe you need to update your sense of self. Just because your school friends made you feel like a boring little nerd when you were 14, that doesn’t mean you are. That shy 14-year-old is dead and gone. You are now a 40-year-old mother of two! Are you still allowing those nasty little children to define and restrict you? Can’t you see how crazy that is?
If you do try something new, you can be sure someone will pass comment. For example, imagine you do a parachute jump. On Monday, you show your work colleagues the photos. One of them says “I never thought someone like you would do a parachute jump.” Smile and reply “what do you mean ‘someone like you’? Who am I?” Don’t be aggressive, but do look them full in the face. If they reply “well, you’re not very adventurous are you,” don’t affirm this, just reply “oh, that’s how you see me is it?” and then turn back to your other colleagues. Too often, out of sheer politeness, people join in with their own bullying.
Finally, do not do the same to other people. Only when your conscience is clean will you feel strong enough to resist their attempts. In particular, note the way you behave in romantic relationships. Do you allow the other person space to be who they are? Or are you trying to mould them into something? Nietzsche’s famous “Ubermensch” is useful model here. Nietzsche did not believe in a stable, fixed self, nor in fixed moral laws. For him, it was up to each individual to develop their own self and their own beliefs and values. Judging others and insisting they see the world as you do is a sign of weakness. Instead, focus on your own life and your own growth.