Who are you?” said the Caterpillar.Alice in Wonderland-Lewis Carrol
This was not an encouraging opening for a conversation. Alice replied, rather shyly, “I—I hardly know, Sir, just at present—at least I know who I was when I got up this morning, but I think I must have been changed several times since then.”
Who Are You, is not the typical question many of us get asked daily, nor is Who Am I, a question many of us normally ask ourselves. Yet as simple and straight forward as these questions might seem, many people struggle to conceptualize and communicate a response that clearly expresses their self-concept/self-identity or how they see themselves. When asked the question-who are you, many of us go with the obvious responses that include sharing our name, job title, family relations, hobbies, religious beliefs, and cultural background. While these responses explain parts of our self -identity, they barely scratch the surface of who we are as individuals. The “who are you” question challenges us to, pause and think about our beliefs, perspectives, experiences, values and how we make sense of the world around us.
So, who are you and why should you care?
Understanding Self- Identity
How do you identify yourself?
- Do you identify according to your job/skills?
- Do you identify yourself according to your family relations?
- Do you identify according to your feelings or your natural talents?
- Do you identify according to you race or socio-economic status?
Encyclopedia.com defines “Self-identity refers to a person’s self-conception, or self-definition that people apply to themselves because of the structural role positions he or she occupies or a particular behavior he or she engages in regularly. Self-identities reflect the “labels people use to describe themselves” (Biddle, Bank, and Slavings 1987, p. 326).”
Based on this, there are no straightforward answers to the question of who we are. Since none of us are any one thing, our self-identity is just as complex as we are. Like onions, our self-identity has several different layers and can shift as we grow, mature, and evolve. Nonetheless, our self-identity affects how we show up and approach life, bounce back from hardships, work with others, develop and maintain relationships, make decisions, and navigate life challenges. And, understanding who we are, can help us cope with stress, improve work performance, and increase our overall psychological well-being.
What is Social Identity?
The societies we live in and our cultural backgrounds play a huge role in defining our self-concept/identity. And the concept of social identity offers us one of the best ways of developing a better understanding of who we are and how others experience us. The Center for Creative Leadership (CCL), defines social identity as “the labels that people use to categorize or identify themselves and/or others as members of specific groups.” Afterall, how we see ourselves influences how we interact with and treat others. And as organizations and workplaces become more diverse, understanding our social identity will also determines how we lead, manage and work with others.
Based on CCL research, our social identity is made up of three parts represented by concentric circles.
- Given Identity: This is the outer ring which presents information about our ascribed characteristics for which we had no choice about. They include traits we received at birth such as name, nationality, race, ethnicity, sex, and personality and other physical descriptors such as height and age.
- Chosen Identity: This second ring represents characteristics that you control, the choices you made and the skills you have. Examples of your given identity includes your career or occupational choices, religion, hobbies, political affiliation, sexual orientation, and relationship status etc.
- Core Identity: The innermost ring signifies the qualities that make you unique. While some of these may change over your life, areas such as behaviors, values, and deep-seated beliefs remain constant.
Social Identity Example
Based on this social identity model, my given identity, includes being a 42 years old, 5ft. 6in. black woman who was born in Kingston, Jamaica to a teenage mom. I have two sisters and one brother. I’m extroverted, outgoing, assertive and love people. For my chosen identity, I am educated to the graduate level and have spent the last 18 years working as a learning and organizational development professional. I reside in USA and have dual citizenship. I am also a single mom to one beautiful daughter, a Christian and friend. I enjoy reading, writing, dancing, swimming, watching movies, great conversations and hanging out with friends. At my core, I believe God, I love people and I am passionate about learning. I value friendships, responsibility, consistency, communication, and love. And I am deeply committed to becoming a better version of myself and helping others so the same. So how about you?
And just as our social identities can change, some aspects of identity can be less or more noticeable depending on where we live. For example, when I lived in Jamaica, I never paid much attention to what being Jamaican meant. But, when I moved to the Northern Virginia area with a more diverse population, my identity as a Jamaican became increasingly significant. As I interacted with my new environment, I experienced a need to maintain my self-identity, while I sought to reinvent myself and to establish who I am and where I come from. Suddenly, my car had Jamaican plate holders and little flag, my ID lanyard at work was in Jamaican colors and I made sure to speak Patois more often than I ever did while living in Jamaica.
Challenges to Self Identity
So, what happens when who you are changes? That is, the way you see yourself and your identity is challenged.
Major life events such as migration, an accident, death, divorce, debilitating illness, and other hardships can fundamentally change aspects of our identities. These changes to identity may cause some people to question their WHY, lose their way, their sense of purpose and to struggle with how they see themselves as well with other people’s perceptions of them. In fact, studies by Harvard Business Review, reveal that transitional experiences, such as job changes or romantic breakups, typically decrease self-concept clarity.
The research also goes on to state that “when living abroad, people’s exposure to novel cultural values and norms prompts them to repeatedly engage with their own values and beliefs, which are then either discarded or strengthened.” On the other hand, the studies also states that another common response some people have to moving abroad is culture shock. In that, the “anxiety that results from losing all of our familiar signs and symbols can produce a level of anxiety that leaves them feeling alienated and isolated and unable to establish a clear sense of self”.
When all is said and done, understanding our self-identity may help us to find commonalities with others around us, bolster our self-confidence and improve our overall self-awareness. In turn, this can improve our abilty to develop and maintain positive relationships, reduce communication breakdowns and misunderstandings. And best of all, knowing who we are can also enhance our capacity to deal with stress, adapt to change, be resilient and navigate life’s challenges. So, know thyself.
Until next time, Remember, ItsALearninglife!