As a Jamaican immigrant living in the US, amongst people from diverse backgrounds, owning my self-identity and being authentically me – has not always been easy. This February, as we celebrate Black History Month, I have found myself thinking about how the concepts of self-identity, self-belief, self-acceptance and how they interconnect and shape our lives and actions.
Here is what I mean-as individuals, we see and understand ourselves in relation to the world around us. How we see ourselves, what we accept and believe to true about ourselves, what we believe we can or cannot achieve, is heavily influenced by our upbringing and our early socialization. In turn, our sense of self determines, how we see ourselves and others, how we present ourselves, how we engage with others and ultimately, how other people experiences us. So, I wanted to explore, how our understanding of all these self-related concepts can and do influence the trajectory of our lives for better or for worse.
What Does Self-Identity Mean?
Let us start with self-identity -which refers to how we describe ourselves and the labels we use. When asked to describe ourselves, our answers can typically range from references to our given identity (things that are true about us at the time of our birth) such our gender, ethnicity, family to our chosen identity (choices we make later in life) such as profession, religion, marital status, or whether you are a parent or not. Another important aspect of our self-identity is our core identify, which reflects our deeply held beliefs about what is good and important i.e., our values and attitudes. Here you will find insights on what truly matters to the individual and what drives them. So, our self-identity is the sum of our given, chosen and core identity-all that we hold dear. For me, all these elements of my self-identity, continue to be a source of pride and influence my attitudes to everything- from relationships, faith, work, parenting, education and even my notions of success.
However, owning my self-identity and operating from it has not always been that simple. In the 8-years that I have lived here in the US, I have always been surrounded by people from all walks of life. Coming from Jamaica before that, where our motto is “Out of Many One People”, I have always valued and respected diversity. Yet, my experiences have proved to me that some people and environments- welcome, respect and value diversity more than others. And even where diversity is welcomed, immigrant minorities like me, can still struggle in building, maintaining, and navigating positive interpersonal relationships (personally and professionally).
One example of how this plays out for me as Black Jamaican woman is when I am complimented by people who hear me speak – they talk about my accent and how lovely it sounds. In response, I typically smile and say thank you, because I very proud of my Jamaican heritage (100% Born and Grown). However, I have also worked in environments where, I have had a coworker (Who looks like me) say- “I don’t like you all” (meaning immigrants) and accuse me of receiving preferential treatment (due to my Caribbean heritage) , as compared to other African American women like herself. I have even had another colleague (Who does not look like me) say- “your energy is shutting me down”. When asked to expand on her statement, she alluded to my use of hands (gestures) when speaking -which is part and parcel of how I express myself.
These interactions have always given me pause and led to moments where, I have had to turn to my comfort circle for advice and encouragement. For individuals less self-assured than myself, these experiences can undermine one’s sense of psychological safety and can cause an individual to begin to doubt and question him/herself , values, and abilities. Afterall, how do you react in situations where you have been disrespected and treated unfairly, (because of another person’s biases and stereotypes)? Do you stop speaking up in meetings? Does it make you want to step back and not own your space at the table?
I know first-hand, how challenging it can be – to be the only black person and immigrant in a meeting, to speak even when your voice is unpopular, to be the youngest manager in the room, to walk into a classroom on back-to-school night as the only single parent surrounded by married couples. I have also known the frustration of always having to police myself and my daughter (Due to my knowing that, the standards used to judge one set of people, will be different from those used to judge her or me). Yet, at the end of the day, I continue to resist the urge to blend in and instead, resolve to be authentically me and not dim my light for anyone.
Self-Belief or Self-Regard
The next important self-concept to unpack is self- regard. Whether you call it self-regard or self- belief, this one speaks to how we see ourselves as individuals. Do you believe/ see yourself as worthwhile, important and valuable? Our answer(s) to this question, often determines how we interact we with others, how we behave and how we allow people to treat us. Self-regard is also key aspect of developing our emotional intelligence. Having high self-regard will help us to communicate confidence, positivity, and improve our ability to influence and engage others, as well as, bounce back from hardships. On the other hand, having poor/low self-regard, can result in tendencies towards self-doubt, negative self-talk and not feeling empowered to use our talents and skills to pursue our goals and dreams.
Our self-belief will serves as the blueprint for our lives and drive our actions. Having high self regard, does not mean that, you see yourself as better than others. To the contrary, it means that, you have high aspirations for yourself, confidence in your abilities and you are actively working towards reaching your full potential.
What is Self -Acceptance
Self-Acceptance begs the question- do you accept you? This is not a trick question and the answer is not straightforward for some. A huge part of self-acceptance is having an awareness of one’s strengths and weaknesses, limitations and opportunities for growth and development. Accepting some truths about ourselves can be difficult, especially, when we are confronted with feedback or information that challenges how we see ourselves. When and where this happens, try not to dismiss all negative feedback because of how it makes you feel. Chances are, if you have received similar feedback from more than one person, you should take some time to look at it objectively and see what you can learn from it or do differently. At the same time, do not feel obliged to accept everyone’s opinion of you. The more self-aware we become, the less likely we will be blindsided by our actions and how we impact others.
Another factor that might impact our ability to accept ourselves is social media. Every day, we are bombarded with images of what our bodies, beauty, family, relationships, success and achievement should look like. One unfortunate result is that, many of us feel pressured to ‘Keep Up with the Jones’s, or find ourselves in a comparison trap, where we assess our progress and achievement by looking at other people’s ‘highlight reel’. In so doing, we struggle to come to terms with the reality that, each of us have a different path, different skill, talents, and challenges. Your season and timeline for any key milestone or goal (Marriage, children, financial freedom, home ownership, education, fitness) is different from mine. Work your own plan. Run your own race. Accept where you are right now, at this stage of your life and celebrate your small wins.
Your thoughts and experiences on any of these self-concepts may be similar or different than mine, I’d like you to, spend some time thinking about how you see yourself, what you believe is true about yourself and how you will honor /accept yourself at whatever stage of growth and development you currently find yourself in. At the end of the day, it is not about perfection but progression. Just commit to honoring who you are, where you are right now, while committing to work toward becoming the best version of yourself.
Until next time, Remember, It’s A Learning Life!