50 Shades of “Me”: Do You Know Who You Are?
Who are you? This is a question we get asked a lot not only by strangers but also by our friends, partners, parents, colleagues, and most poignantly ourselves.
Please tell me more about yourself.
Do you feel more like a [xxx] or more like a [yyy]?
What do you want to do when you grow up?
How would you describe yourself in one sentence?
What defines you more, being a [xxx] or being a [yyy]?
You’re [xxx], [yyy], [zzz],… which one of those would you like to focus on?
Sometimes, people don’t ask. They offer you an easy solution right away.
If you don’t [xxx], you’re no one.
You’re a [xxx]. You have to do this!
You have not achieved anything yet, how can you call yourself a [xxx]?
I need you to be [xxx] right now.
We have all been there. Who are we? What is our role to play?
This question proves crucial when we face important decisions in our lives — when we don’t know which career path to take, whether we should stay committed to particular relationships, or how we can maximize our full potential.
Typically, we simply weigh a list of pros and cons, or ask someone we trust for advice.
Although people are naturally curious and they like to understand things that happen around them, their mind tends to get pretty lazy when it is asked to examine itself. Understanding all of the shades of “me”, their functions, benefits and drawbacks, though, can give us invaluable insight into our life choices and their consequences.
The roles we play throughout our lives almost always fall into one of these boxes:
Box 1: What did others make me to be? = INFLUENCE
Box 2: What do others want me to be? = EXPECTATION
Box 3: What do others think I am? = REPUTATION
Box 4: Who do I feel I am? = IDENTITY
Box 5: What am I good at? = ABILITY
Box 6: How do I present myself? = FACADE
Box 7: Who was I born to be? = PURPOSE
The term “role” reminds us of drama, where an actor plays a character of someone else to entertain their audience. For the spectators, the play is an opportunity to enjoy themselves, for the performer, it’s a job, a passion, or a way to earn a good living. In the end, both parties get what they anticipate and want.
We tend to think that roles we play and struggle to fit into throughout our lives are mostly the result of our effort to please other people. Yet, this can’t be farther from the truth.
Every single individual has their own needs and interests that they aspire to satisfy, even in the process of satisfying needs and wants of others. Therefore, most of the time we don’t fulfill people’s needs as if we were angels sent from Heavens to make people happy. Even though there may be a few disputable exceptions, people are not natural altruists. Their actions and behavior towards those around them are habitually driven by their need for one or more of the 5 As: affection, appreciation, attention, approval, and acceptance.
It means that every time we deliberately paint a new layer of “me”, we aspire to belong and to be liked, valued, heard, or respected. Practically several times every day, we rush to figure out which behavioral outfit to wear. And each role we choose to play at each specific moment in time carries a certain value for us.
Acts and words of others make me accept a role, which can help me cope with the world I live in, or more precisely, the world I believe I live in.
In general, people make me feel pain or they make me feel pleasure, which contributes to formation and distortion of my own self-image. As a consequence, I behave in a certain way to fit myself into this self-image. Why? Because my self-image results in my unique interpretation of all the things that happen around me and to me.
To put it simple, how I see myself directly affects how I see everything else. And when we understand something, we become comfortable with it, no matter how it impacts our well-being. That’s how we get trapped into a self-fulfilling spiral.
If I identify a role which falls into this box and which either wastes my energy or is directly harming me in any way, there are two ways to get rid of it. First and foremost, I shall start learning, step by step, to accept the fact that what people do or say is never about me. When someone loves me unconditionally, I should accept that love and cherish it, but I shouldn’t let it define who I am. Obviously the same goes for expressions of hatred, rejection, or indifference, for example.
I was born sufficient and worthy, and only I decide who I am.
The second way is related to the importance we attribute to individual people in our lives. Often, we get influenced by acts and words of men and women whose role in relation to us is “an energy-sucker” or “ a random passerby”.
Some human interactions make us feel good, some make us feel bad. And many of them should just be let go with no feelings attached.
People expect you to behave in a certain way and you meet their expectations not because you’re “obliged” to do so, but because you “choose” to do so. Although we may feel at times that “there’s no other way”, we always do have control — not necessarily over how all the circumstances turn out, but definitely over our experience, our thoughts, emotions, and our current and future behavior.
The value that we place on a role that is derived from the expectations of other people is linked to our effort to attract what we want (affection, appreciation, attention, approval, or acceptance) and to avoid what we don’t want (aversion, depreciation, indifference, disapproval, or rejection).
Here it is important to realize that we not only seek approval or run away from rejection of other people, but that often self-acceptance, self-affection, or self-esteem are at stake. For example, if we play a role of a caretaker towards a relative in need, we may do so out of love, compassion, and gratitude. However, at the same time, we are avoiding pain that would result from hating ourselves for not adhering to our values.
Therefore, if you identify a role that you’re reluctant to play in your life, ask yourself twice if you’re chasing someone else’s expectations or your own.
There are two types of roles in this box. Those we have actively contributed to and those that have been created without any involvement on our side. Sometimes we get into a conflict in our relationship because we play a role for our partner that we didn’t choose ourselves. Or, often, we behave in a way that builds up a reputation we enjoy, although we don’t necessarily plan to actively assume responsibilities that may eventually arise from it.
If we accept a role that is based on what others think about us, we usually do so either because it brings about some sort of benefit, or because we don’t want to disappoint. If our reputation is far from positive and we still choose to live up to it, even though it’s not a part of our true identity, the reasons can stem from cracks in our self-esteem or represent a desperate call for any type of attention.
What people think and what they expect is usually closely tied. If expectations of other people create problems for you, try to see yourself with their eyes. Who do they think I am? What makes this image real for them? Is there a way to change this image without making them feel betrayed or disillusioned?
I am who I think I am. It’d be a big mistake to base our identity on various proofs we assemble throughout our lives (diplomas, achievements, money etc.) to make others accept us just like we believe we deserve to be accepted. Only we decide who we are and we do not need to prove any of it to anyone.
When people tell you otherwise, it’s usually because their own self-esteem is not rock-solid. In general, humans tend to target other humans at spots that are weak in their own world.
Yes, some healthy dose of bravery is needed here. It may take long years before we even admit to ourselves who we feel we are deep inside. And when we finally do, this may catch us puzzled and scared. What if I’m delusional? What if they think I’m a fraud? What if I’m not good enough to claim this persona?
The more we are aware of our worth, the easier it is for us to explore and acknowledge our identity.
When was the last time you asked yourself who you were? You have never stood on a stage but you still feel like a musician? Who is there to tell you that you’re not one? You can’t have your own children but you have always felt like being a mother? Who is there to judge you? The numbers on your bank statement aren’t impressive but you feel like a rich man? Who can tell you what the criteria are? Do you feel like an athlete even though your doctor forbade you to practice challenging sports? Who can take it from you?
This box of roles is usually the easiest one to handle. We like to be good at something, we like to stand out. However, two issues may arise.
First, we may never learn that we’re good at something. As children, we need support and encouragement of our parents. As teenagers, our self-esteem is fragile, therefore one badly timed comment can doom our natural talent forever. As adults, we suddenly feel lost. Things that were obvious when we were little suddenly seem so hard to figure out.
Second, what we are good at is not always a part of our identity. Maybe our parents spotted a certain gift in us and did their best to motivate us to develop faster and achieve higher. And one day we realize that yes, we’re successful and admired by many, but that we’re playing a role that is not close to our hearts. We no longer grow and polish our true selves, we simply satisfy what others expect from us.
What am I really good at? What am I able to do? What brings me joy? How can my skills help others?
All in all, it’s useful to possess skills and abilities that can address other people’s needs. They help us create value and even generate revenue to sustain ourselves or our businesses. On the other hand, just because we’re good at something, it doesn’t mean that this fact defines who we really are.
This box of roles is often jammed full. Even small babies learn quite fast what behavior makes their parent happy and how to get what they want. Of course, as adults, the circle of people that can get us what we want is much larger.
Some of us are first-class experts at manipulation, i.e. acting in a way that gives us control over behavior, opinions, and feelings of others. On the other side of the spectrum are individuals who totally suck at empathy and deciphering needs, wants, expectations, and interests of anyone else than themselves.
If we do create a facade and a role that gives us some benefits in life, it doesn’t need to be targeted at a specific person. Wearing a mask for the entire world can make it easier for us because a) we don’t value our true self enough, b) it is advantageous for us in certain ways, c) we have better control over a person we created than over a person we are.
Maybe you don’t believe that you were brought to this world for a reason. You’re juggling all the roles in your life like a zealous magician who receives a lukewarm applause now and then, and when he tries exceptionally hard even standing ovations at times. But at the end of the day, when he removes his makeup and extravagant costume, he feels lost, and people on the street ignore him as he quietly leaves to his empty home.
All the roles we play have their own meaning in the world we painted in our head, and their own defined value. Yet, what habitually happens is that we lose track of them. We lose count of how many of them take turns to make our everyday decisions. We are unaware which one of them has control over our thoughts, emotions, and actions.
Some of them drain our energy, some of them keep our head over the water. Some of them keep us positive and motivated. Some of them sabotage any and all of our efforts to achieve success.
Living in contradiction to our true self is very demanding and tiring. That’s why we need to understand all the roles we take on and reduce those that our harmful to our inner harmony, values, fulfillment, life goals, and relationships with those we care about.
Then a day may come when we realize that we do what we were made to do, we’re good at it, and others not only think the same, but they also pay respect and offer their support. And then we will become free, and we will not hesitate a single second if someone asks: Who are you?