Just who do you think you are?

When I was a young newlywed, my mother-in-law often told me “you don’t know who you are.” She usually reserved the remark for those times when I’d been a bit of a pill … and that seemed to happen a lot.

At the time I was a 30-something professional, building a career, enthusiastic in my evangelical faith, and trying to figure out how to be a good husband. It was a time of becoming in my life when, like Robert Frost, I approached a variety diverging roads, each offering tantalizing, but mutually exclusive opportunities.

My mother-in-law had a very definite perception of me, and that did not always line up with my own self-perception, what I wanted from life or who I wanted to be.

The truth is, when my mother-in-law told me “you don’t know who you are,” I’m guessing it was her way of saying “just who do you think you are, mister,” or “I don’t like where you’re going in life … with my daughter in tow.” While she’s not known for sugarcoating her concerns, she will always challenge you to think and understand.

To be fair, I can be a bit of a dreamer with the bad habit of thinking aloud. And that’s the kind of thing that can frighten a blushing bride’s mother. While I never threatened to run away to the circus with her daughter, I did talk of leaving a great job and heading off to the seminary in Missouri or a creative writing graduate program in Ohio.

I’ve never seen dreams as the substance of an identity crisis. Instead, I see myself as just another traveler who continues to evolve along the road. But, as I noted in Playing Dodgeball with Dylan, I have at times struggled with identities others would assign me.

With more years of life and marriage under my belt, my dreams and sense of “new becoming” have tempered, and I’m definitely less likely to take an exit for the circus. I’ve accepted most of what life has thrown at me, and much of what I know it will never give me. I find the here and now a pretty good place. And I’m far less likely to take on identities others wish for me.

Clearly, I’ve been thinking a lot about identity lately: Our identity as private individuals as well as our sense of who we are culturally, ethnically, professionally or religiously. How much of that identity do we manufacture for others to see, how much do others put on us, and what is organically real in our hearts?

As I see it, identity is not absolute and concrete. But, if excessively squishy, it can lead to life adrift, with no anchor or home port. As I continue this navel-gazing, I think there could be four elements to identity:

  1. Internal: The foundation of who I am. Honest familiarity with my real self is optional and often takes some courage.
  2. Projected: How I want others to see me. Again, honesty is recommended, but not mandatory.
  3. Received: How others perceive me, regardless of my attempts to influence their perceptions. This is where thick skin comes in handy.
  4. Influenced: This is how others prefer to see me. Often projecting stereotypes or desires that are directly influenced by their own identity issues.

As I continue to explore identity, it would be great to have some company along the road.

Who do you think you are? How do you know? Who do you want to be? Post your thoughts on the matter and share with me your stories of “finding yourself” along the road.

4 Comments Add yours

  1. Identity is not fixed, nor should it be.

    I grew up in a family with some very nasty people in it, whose perceptions of me were often unkind and inaccurate. Only in the past four years — and I am now in my 50s — since the death of one of them and cutting off contact with another am I getting much clearer, and happier, about who I really am, not the projections of women who were insecure and jealous. It takes a lot of energy to counter reactions like those of your mother-in-law.

    One of my favorite expressions is “What you think of me is none of my business.”

    1. Jeff Hutson says:

      There’s a lot of conformist pressure out there. Problem is, everyone wants conformity to a different ideal. Life was exhausting when I tried to please everyone. The nice thing about middle age is that I don’t care much who I please … except for my wife.

  2. Pamela says:

    I find that because I am constantly growing, so is my identity. I can do things I never thought I could do and am going places I never thought I would go.
    I find my primary identity in who I am in Christ. That is who I really am, as I learn to walk it out in the flesh on this earth, surrounded by imperfect people like myself. I am a daughter of the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. I have authority in Christ Jesus over the powers of darkness, and live as a child of light. However, I am also a servant/leader who must be willing to get her hands dirty loving and serving the least, the last, and the lost in this world. I know who I am because God has spelled it out in His Word. The book of Ephesians is one example. The first three chapters tell me who I am in Christ, the second three tell me how to live it out.
    The labels people put on me, or that I put on myself, frequently identify a part of who I am: daughter, sister, mother, friend, teacher, prayer warrior, student, Conservative Christian, pro-life etc. Occasionally I don’t think a label describes me at all, but maybe it describes something I don’t see. I doubt if any of us sees ourselves as others see us.

  3. Jean says:

    As I continue the long walk I find that my sense of identity is not a static thing. I give myself the freedom to rearrange, to re-think, to explore and to come up with new aspects of who do I think I am. I believe this to be growth and I am not threatened by it, but it can be terribly difficult. The absolute I always seek is to be authentic, to be true, to be honest – first with myself, my God, and then with those close to me. I recently made a huge revision of the who-I-am, one that took a turn into a greater reality, having outgrown a past claim of the who. My about-face came to be after a long time of consideration, exploration and contact with my higher power. This change startled and disturbed a couple of people in my life – but not all who know of it. In truth, this is a fine thing because these dear loved ones now know me better than before, as I do myself — this is good and it is enough, for now.

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