Know thyself. But how?
September 11, 2010 2:30 PM   Subscribe

How do you come to know who you are?

I used to be very aware of who I was and what I cared about. Over the years, due to myriad factors, among which are varying degrees of codependency, mind-melting reading, and drug use, I've lost all sense of identity. This is complicated by my aversion to self-proclamation/egocentricity and my awareness that identity is fluid and always changing. I'm surrounded by people that have chosen a pronounced image, a lifestyle and very strong opinions about what constitutes good taste etc etc. I'm reluctant to chose any variation of any of the above for fear of getting stuck in some artificial construct. The consequences of which are that I feel like I have no face or any place where I really belong. I live in a t-shirt and jeans. I drive a modest, nondescript car. I don't announce my presence when in a room. The last time I had a well-developed image was in high school. I dropped it my senior year because it started to strike me as absurd. Now, at 26, everywhere I go, people are living an image. I'm now at a point where I feel very strongly about discovering myself once more, but I don't know how. I fear that a lot of the cultural things I've always loved - horror movies, the halloween aesthetic, heavy atmosphere, etc. are holdovers from the past that I've just been clinging to, however much I may still actually love these things, but I can't say so with any degree of certainty. I've tried counseling but all they gave me was a breakdown of identity from a psychological standpoint (ie, self as construct, self as context, self as experience). It's not worthless, but I feel like it's not enough either. The MeFi community has offered sagely advice time and again. So I ask you all: What do I do?
posted by mediocritease to Society & Culture (53 answers total) 64 users marked this as a favorite
 
You are who you decide to be. Self-consciously creating a self-image is for people who need that to reinforce their identity. If you feel like you need that, go for it, I don't think it's really that bad. If you don't need it, then you're set. There's no rule that you need to spend hours every day in introspection, you're not going to happen upon the perfect description of your own existence in the world.
posted by bluejayk at 2:39 PM on September 11, 2010


I realize it's not an easy question to answer, and I even feel a bit like a heel for asking, but I appreciate your reading suggestion for sure. I guess I'm just wondering how other people have discovered what they feel is their "true" self, if such a thing even exists.
posted by mediocritease at 2:39 PM on September 11, 2010


Self-consciously creating a self-image is for people who need that to reinforce their identity.

I've kind of always suspected as much, hence my aversion to such things, but I find myself feeling like the odd man out a lot, which is troubling to an extent.
posted by mediocritease at 2:42 PM on September 11, 2010


Your true self is not your clothes, your car, your taste in movies or music. I hate to use this word as I think it's been corrupted for political purposes to the point where it raises hackles, but I think "values" are part of the foundation of identity. For example, you say you drive an unflashy car. Why? Maybe it's because that's the car you can afford. You value living within your means. Tada! That's part of your identity.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 2:44 PM on September 11, 2010 [8 favorites]


I'm not sure how helpful this is, but I feel almost exactly the same way and arrived there in much the same way (if you substitute "crazy depression" for "drug use"). It felt like this massive crisis to me for what felt like a long time, that I didn't know who I was or how I felt or anything about myself.

I didn't do anything to make it start happening, but it did. The best example I can think of is when I was on a roadtrip from the Southwest (current home) to the Midwest/East (originally from the Southeast/Midwest), and I drove through Missouri--my traveling companion was sleeping in the passenger seat and I hit those tree-covered hills and mountains and I almost cried because of how much it reminded me of Kentucky. And then I knew something about myself--that I needed to make my someday future home in a place with trees and greenery. It's a little thing and it probably doesn't mean much but it was so moving to me.

I keep wanting to write a list of things that I know about myself, but I can never think of them when I sit down to actually do it. Maybe you should keep a special notebook for that sort of thing, and when it suddenly occurs to you that you know something about yourself, you can write it down. Like, I know I want to live somewhere with trees (the desert is absolutely not cutting it). I know that I want children (though not, yet, if I should have them). Try and think of these little things and you might find that you know more about yourself than you thought.
posted by LokiBear at 2:45 PM on September 11, 2010 [3 favorites]


I think you're confusing two types of identity.

There is a public face we all wear. This is the "image" that you're talking about -- people choosing one of myriad stereotypes to fill so as to make themselves known.

Then there is who we really are. It is a very very rare individual (perhaps a Zen master) who brings themselves completely to the public table, and in fact it is often socially awkward to do so. Despite the facebook-everything-is-fair-game culture we're entering, there is still room and still a necessity to have a private self.

So I think my question for you is: Which identity are you looking for? Who you really are and what you really like, or how you want to present yourself to others?
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 2:51 PM on September 11, 2010 [1 favorite]


I'm 28, so I'm probably not in a very different situation, but in the last couple years I've felt more and more a firm, stable identity in a way that I didn't before. One very concrete reason is that I lived mostly in the Northeast (grew up in Boston, school and work in NYC), and then I left to live in North India for a year, and then after that I went to live in California. Living in India made me realize all the ways in which I am (for better or worse) someone who grew up in the States; living in California made me realize all the ways in which I am (for better or worse) someone who grew up in Boston and lived in NYC. Furthermore, I study South Asia for a living, and thinking about all the problems of the colonial and post-colonial period made me realize how much my family's (rather distant) Irish immigrant background has shaped my values.

I guess what I'm saying is that I feel like my identity was always there, in bits and pieces, and that over time I've come to discover it. I don't think that it's something that you can totally create, because that would mean trying to erase your past, which can create all kinds of problems and might not be satisfying in the long run. I can definitely remember, just a couple years ago, feeling like being in my twenties was all about waiting for something to happen, and not feeling like I was a real person. I feel that less now, but I don't think there was anything specific that I did to cause that; I think it just happened through interaction with my receding past and my developing present.
posted by goodglovin77 at 2:52 PM on September 11, 2010 [4 favorites]


I live in a t-shirt and jeans. I drive a modest, nondescript car. I don't announce my presence when in a room.

That's an identity of sorts. Combined with your username, and the way you phrase the (albeit limited) info in your profile, you sound like someone who chooses to blend in and be somewhat contradictory about himself, to make himself obscure. Maybe so you can observe other people better? There's a lot of looking at others and what/who they are, or what they pretend to be, in your question. Or maybe that's a pose too, just as much as the people around you with their "images." It's impossible to tell just from this question.

I'd just say that you were right when you dropped your high school persona, and the people around you now sound, well, tiring. You can just exist, you know, without defining yourself as "this" or "that", and that way is fine too. That way is better, I would think. Not everyone is just one thing. Which you actually said, anyway: This is complicated by my aversion to self-proclamation/egocentricity and my awareness that identity is fluid and always changing. That doesn't mean you have no identity; that's part of your identity, or your belief system.

I hate when people say this to me but I'm going to say it anyway: you're thinking about this too much.

On preview: LokiBear and goodglovin77 make a very good point about traveling or moving around - that's how I found out a lot of who I am, and where it came from.
posted by DestinationUnknown at 2:56 PM on September 11, 2010 [1 favorite]


So I think my question for you is: Which identity are you looking for? Who you really are and what you really like, or how you want to present yourself to others?

It's a little bit of both, I think. I'm isolative by nature and kind of a quiet guy, so mostly I feel like I need to have a way to put myself out there, but I don't want to just grab some arbitrary fad and run with it. Nor do I want to exaggerate some singular aspect of myself solely for public consumption. It feels disingenuous. But at the same time, I feel like...I don't know. Like No Face from the Dick Tracy movie. Is this completely ridiculous? Should I be okay just being nondescript? As I said before, I do feel a bit like a heel for even posting this, but I need perspective.
posted by mediocritease at 2:58 PM on September 11, 2010


If you're looking for your real self, let me cast another vote for getting yourself out of your home culture for a while. You'll learn more about yourself in two months than you would in a lifetime of navel gazing.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 2:59 PM on September 11, 2010


I hate when people say this to me but I'm going to say it anyway: you're thinking about this too much.

It's the bane of my existence.
posted by mediocritease at 2:59 PM on September 11, 2010


If you're looking for your real self, let me cast another vote for getting yourself out of your home culture for a while. You'll learn more about yourself in two months than you would in a lifetime of navel gazing.

I've actually been giving this some serious thought for a few weeks now.
posted by mediocritease at 3:00 PM on September 11, 2010


You are being very hard on yourself. Accept your preferences . . . however they were created, you are entitled to enjoy what you enjoy, and dislike what you don't. It is also okay to have it be part of your identity that you like to challenge yourself to experiences for the sake of the challenge.

I'd suggest you start to take note of the ways you like experiencing the world, and the ways you don't. And the things you like about your background and milieu, and the things you don't. Listen to your own body and your own soul.

You are in there, though perhaps your voice has been muffled by your willingness to question your own druthers and silence your own thoughts.
posted by bearwife at 3:01 PM on September 11, 2010 [1 favorite]


Should I be okay just being nondescript?

Only you can say.

About 10 years ago I finally came to grip with the fact that I am a geek. Not the good kind, the socially awkward kind who has the uncanny ability to stop just about any conversation dead by blurting out the first thing that comes to mind.

Honestly I'd much rather be nondescript, but that's not an option that is open to me. I am who I am and if I'm going to be awkward I'm going to be awkward.

That's my decision, and I think the only one who can decide would you "should" be okay with is you.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 3:04 PM on September 11, 2010 [1 favorite]


You know I'm going to just come out and say this, because this is not the first "How do I figure out Who I Am" question I've seen the past few days.

I don't think there's any such thing as a succinct "identity" that makes life meaningful for people. I think there are tribes that people belong to* - and chances are you already belong to one and probably know what it is deep down (though this sort of thing usually isn't deeply meaningful on an individual level). And there are your own personal traits, habits, likes, and dislikes - but chances are those don't align perfectly with any easily explainable label about Who You Are. And, frankly, if they did, I'd feel sort of sorry for you.

The only way Personal Identity is really important is when it comes to standing up for yourself and your beliefs. The only way to discover this stuff is to get outside yourself and discover what's important to you. You can only answer that question through experience of the world, not via strangers on the internet. Alas.

*This is probably what your "identity" meant in high school. "I am a goth." "I am a hippie." "I am a jock." That sort of thing. And you were right to understand that these sorts of identities ultimately don't mean much beyond the social pecking order of high school.
posted by Sara C. at 3:07 PM on September 11, 2010 [1 favorite]


The question you're asking yourself is very hard, maybe impossible, to answer. So, your obsessive search for an "identity" is an outlet that allows you to bug and annoy yourself over and over and keep telling yourself that "something's not right with you". It's a way of self-criticism that is not constructive (because the question is, essentially, unanswerable, and so you're going to keep failing as long as you try to answer it).

Maybe instead, you could start telling yourself what is right in your life. What do you like about yourself? Make that your "identity". It's not necessary to be "sure" about it, and of course it's going to change - but there should always be something you like about yourself. Can you find something?
posted by The Toad at 3:09 PM on September 11, 2010 [2 favorites]


Welcome to an ego-less identity in an ego-driven world. It's not easy, and may require therapy in order to be fully comfortable.
posted by rhizome at 3:12 PM on September 11, 2010 [2 favorites]


It's the bane of my existence.

If you know what the bane of your existence is, you know more about yourself than a lot of people. For real.
posted by DestinationUnknown at 3:15 PM on September 11, 2010


The only way Personal Identity is really important is when it comes to standing up for yourself and your beliefs. The only way to discover this stuff is to get outside yourself and discover what's important to you. You can only answer that question through experience of the world, not via strangers on the internet. Alas.

Let me reiterate, I'm only looking for perspective in the experience of others, not necessarily concrete answers. And imploring strangers on the internet affords me an honesty that I may not get from people I know on a personal level. Unfortunately, it also affords me a few lousy attitudes.

I'd like to thank Tell Me No Lies, LokiBear, Bearwife, goodglovin77 and DestinationUnknown for their input. You've been very helpful and have my sincere gratitude and respect.
posted by mediocritease at 3:17 PM on September 11, 2010


Welcome to an ego-less identity in an ego-driven world. It's not easy, and may require therapy in order to be fully comfortable.

Hear, hear.
posted by mediocritease at 3:18 PM on September 11, 2010


On reflection, I'll add that another very important way in which I came to feel an identity is that I've done things. Some of them are things that I'm happy about, but a lot of them are things that make me feel kind of sick to remember. But having done those things and made the (still incomplete) effort to comes to terms with them has contributed a lot to my sense of who I am and what I'm about.
posted by goodglovin77 at 3:19 PM on September 11, 2010 [3 favorites]


This thing we call "self" isn't some nugget that gets buried in the sediment, waiting to be dug up. I think the self is the sediment itself - of the people you love and who love you, of the ones who have hurt you and you them. It is the sediment of all of your experiences and your decisions, your actions and inactions. It is your values and how you choose to abide by them or not. It is an accumulation. It is part your temperament and your sensibilities. It is the accumulation too of your tastes, your qualities, and your characteristics.

The self is not something you can point to, but it is something you can inhabit. You inhabit it by figuring out what makes you feel whole in the world and then go about finding a way to live by it. If that means you go all Baudelaire and set out to make life beautiful, you do that. If it means you you go all Mother Theresa and set out to ease the suffering of others, then you do that. The self is in the cross-hairs of being and doing. The more your actions, your beliefs about yourself and your values square up with each other, the more you'll inhabit this shifting thing called 'your self.'

You're right that the self is fluid, amorphous. You're one step ahead of most in understanding this without being so freaked out by it that you have to hang your whole identity on the rather thin hooks of what car you drive or what movies you like. You're right to be suspicious of images - they have a place in the constellation of you but they are not, by themselves, you.
posted by space_cookie at 3:42 PM on September 11, 2010 [22 favorites]


Couple things here --

First you may be comparing your insides to other people's outsides. These are two very different things to compare: the strong visual of other people's "individual brands" if you will, compared against all the contradictory murmurs that go on inside of each one of us.

I will echo what others already said upthread, travel is a wonderful way to assess where you are, and who you want to be. You can even try on a different personality while you are away, see if it fits - see if you are comfortable with the change, make little amendments to make it fit better. Then bring it home with you.

...or simply bring home the insights about the person that you already are.

I will also say something that may grate the eyes of a 26-year old, but here it is: you are still young, and in your formative years. You have a lot of living ahead of you, with choices, adventures, excitement and disappointment. Disappointment in particular may shape you further, as it is a strong motivator for a change or a readjustment. Adventures and excitement will sharpen your days, and serve as markers to further define who you are.

I developed the strongest sense of "myself" only in recent years - this took close to four decades to assemble the little puzzle pieces, and for them to gel and form. I was born on one side of the country, and moved to the other. I've had careers in several disciplines. I traveled for work and pleasure to 27 countries now. During these trips I learned who I was, who I wished I was, and who I did not want to be. The travel also forced me to think harder about what stories I tell about myself, and what stories I believe about myself.

I appreciate your question because you do break the 'who am I' into construct, context and experience. This is food for my own thought too - I think I can influence the latter two, but not the first one.

I also propose that you think about the person that you want to be. How would you feel like, being this person, on the inside? What would others see on the outside?

And - which of the two matter more to you?

A fascinating question, one that I meditated on myself, during my last month-long trip. I hope some of the above helps with your quest. All the best to you mediocritease.
posted by seawallrunner at 3:45 PM on September 11, 2010 [5 favorites]


Linking to a movie might seem a bit thin, but I've always found the question 'How am I not myself?' comes in handy with this kind of feeling. That and Vonnegut's "We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be." (Also, whatever comes next will relate somehow to the past, however you feel about that past. What's done is done, and other clichés.)
posted by robself at 3:48 PM on September 11, 2010 [1 favorite]


It's the likes you, seawallrunner, and the few others I mentioned by name, that keep my from abandoning all hope of finding everyday-good in people. I'm not talking about grand compassionate gestures or charitable actions, but just responding to people on a basic level with patience and respect instead of some kind of pious posturing or derision. And frankly, I'd prefer to be thought of as young at 26, when so many of my peers think of themselves as old. Best of luck to you, sir.
posted by mediocritease at 3:52 PM on September 11, 2010 [1 favorite]


EDIT: I CAN type, really.
posted by mediocritease at 3:54 PM on September 11, 2010


Rather than starting with the question of identity, maybe you might consider stepping back and identifying your temperament--those first impulses in a given situation (one test; there are other sites out there). The Myers-Briggs test has always struck me as nonsense, but I'll be darned if it hasn't turned out to be quite accurate (YMMV). However, it might be *one* starting point among many to find out what you prefer and what you actively dislike. It may be helpful to follow up with Please Understand Me II for more details.

One of the best things I have done for myself is to keep a small journal of quotations that resonate with me. As I look over what I have copied down over the years, I see lessons I needed to learn, ideals I aspired to, and ideas that moved me. It is a private journal and a private action. But useful, in its way.

When you know what you tend to be, choose to live in its spirit and not chase the images of, and for, others. I wish you luck.
posted by MonkeyToes at 4:14 PM on September 11, 2010 [2 favorites]


You are who you are because you do what you do - not the other way around.
posted by Dr Dracator at 4:17 PM on September 11, 2010 [2 favorites]


You're confusing an identity with a persona or, if you will, a personality.

Identity is what makes you persist, as you and not as something else, across time. It's really not clear that anyone actually has an identity as such. At any rate, it's a very deep and contentious philosophical question.

On the other hand, a personality is something that you may be handed as a result of your upbringing. Most of us are handed an incomplete personality, and we manufacture the difference. The question is, how important is it to have a clearly defined personality? To other people, it's pretty important—(most) other people like to know where they stand with you. So it's good to know your limits and your preferences and your commitments, and communicate those to others. On the other hand, you may feel that your limits and preferences are fluid, and that to announce them is futile because they will be different tomorrow. That will make others uncomfortable to some extent. Should that in turn make you uncomfortable?

Regardless of whether it should, it seems that it does. Or maybe you're only made uncomfortable by the definiteness of others' personalities. You may think you're missing something. And, doubtless, you are—you're missing the company of people who prefer to associate with known quantities. On the other hand, you see a fixed personality as absurd, so you would be morally uncomfortable presenting yourself as a known quantity.

And that, I think, is at least part of your answer. You need to associate with people who also have the sense that nothing is permanent. And remember that once you leave the simplicity of childhood, there is no such thing as an unmixed emotion, and that you will start to discover drawbacks and deficiencies even in the things you once felt single-mindedly passionate about.
posted by bricoleur at 4:41 PM on September 11, 2010 [1 favorite]


When I was younger, everything was in black and white. I was a feminist eco-warrior who was into the alternative music scene and dressed accordingly. Defining myself was easy.

As I've gotten older, shades of grey crept into everything I used to be so clear about. I know myself better, but it makes it more difficult to define myself as it's more nuanced. (I've changed from being someone who fought the system from the outside to someone who believes that change is best effected from within, with all the compromises that entails; I still love music but don't get to gigs as often as I used to; I'm still a bit alternative in how I dress, but it's less confrontational as I'm older and have an office job, but I do have my own sense of style)

I've also realised that you actually change over time. Listen to how your friends describe you to people - if you're someone who doesn't put on an act when hanging out with your friends, then they can probably describe you better than you can yourself - they're seeing you more objectively and don't have the same hangovers from the past.

You might have loved horror movies and been into the halloween aesthetic - now you still have a soft spot for horror movies but also love a good black comedy or italian art house movie too. You might have spent high school being really shy, but now you're someone who might still feel shy, but your friends see as someone who is a good listener and who their friends always enjoy talking to.

Who you are now is likely to be more complex and more difficult to define than it was when you were at high school, and that's good. The trick is to be able to describe it - but accept that it will take many more words than it used to!
posted by finding.perdita at 4:55 PM on September 11, 2010 [1 favorite]


Unfortunately, it also affords me a few lousy attitudes.

I didn't intend to come off as though I have a "lousy attitude". I just think you're sort of barking up the wrong tree.

Do you want to know what happened in my life to set me on the path of Knowing Who I Am (to the extent that I do, and that I think such a thing is meaningful)?

I was a temp in the world trade center as of September 10, 2001.

This extremely shitty life-shattering national tragedy happened to me. Which caused me to question a lot of things, as well as setting in motion a very specific chain of events that led to certain very specific experiences that I had to go through to become who I am now. Nine years later, I have carved out a degree of space for myself in this world.

Obviously what was true for me cannot possibly be true for you. You will have your own life-altering experiences that will set you on your own path. Nobody can do that work for you, and to be perfectly honest I don't think our experiences can even inform yours because everyone is different. You will have to find your own way. Maybe you should start thinking more about that, and less about Who You Really Are.
posted by Sara C. at 5:08 PM on September 11, 2010 [1 favorite]


Wow Sara C., like they say "how do you follow that". Put's short term jobs in perspective.

mediocritease, so identity, you are what you are. If you want to, really want not just trying to fit in, but really want to be flamboyant, dramatic, hipster, elvis-clone, or whatever, go for it. If not... not. Take the current extreme example. Lady Gaga. From my occasional observation, her crazyass costumes seem to be authentically what she wants to do. But we've seen folks that are just trying too hard and clearly just don't get it. Try to avoid that. Just think for yourself (you're asking the right questions). Dressing up to please someone (like a wife) is not unreasonable. The are times to fit in a bit. Don't worry, you'll get it figgured out in a few decades, or well that's what I keep telling myself ;-)
posted by sammyo at 5:30 PM on September 11, 2010


An identity is not static. At least with humans, it is completely dynamic.
What you are today is definitely not the same as waht you were 10 yrs ago,
or what you will be 5 or 10 yrs from now. Part of you identity is defined as the
sum of all past experiences, how they shaped you , and how much you value them.
Note that even your values system and belief systems will definitely change over
time, and that will affect who you are, and thus, your identity.

So learn to accept this. Learn to embrace this life process, which is always changing.
Maybe at this point in your life, your identity is a "soul seeker"? or an "identity seeker"?

You also got to learn that outside appearances do not define you. Learn to be comfortable
with yourself if you are wearing jeans and a tshirt, or black leather, or a suit. Just be
you. Dont let the norms that society dictate in terms of appearance and belonging
to certain peer groups, or predefined subcultures pressure you into trying to fit,
and thus find an "identity".

Let me congratulate you, because you are weathering the often uncomfortable,
painful, apparently non-sensical process of growing up, maturing, exploring
your limits. The more you learn to be outside your comfort zone, the better.
And unfortunately, there is no single recipe, or set of rules to abide that will
help you speed up your "identity crisis". But that's the beauty of it, only YOU
will find it, by living through it.

You will come out a much better person, well rounded, wiser after this
little crisis ends. You're in the right path, dont despair.
Best of luck.
posted by theKik at 5:37 PM on September 11, 2010 [1 favorite]


From my occasional observation, her crazyass costumes seem to be authentically what she wants to do. But we've seen folks that are just trying too hard and clearly just don't get it.

Funny, as much as I enjoy Lady Gaga's music, I've always considered her persona as someone who is trying too hard and clearly just doesn't get it.

Also, rumor has it lately that her entire "personal brand" was stolen wholesale from another young performer she had collaborated with, who later killed herself. No idea to what extent that is true, or how it is meaningful.

But I think bringing up Lady Gaga is actually a great analogy. Part of why we all think that we need some kind of Image that is Authentic to the kernel of Who We Are is the degree to which the media saturates everything we do. When a large-ish percentage of people you "know" are known only through pop culture/the media, you get this sense that you are supposed to be about something, that there is supposed to be a driving narrative for who you are. Because that is how personality is packaged for public consumption. Which has fuck all to do with how real people really think of themselves.
posted by Sara C. at 5:48 PM on September 11, 2010 [1 favorite]


You are what you is, dude.

When you say "Now, at 26, everywhere I go, people are living an image" I would ask you to consider it possible that in fact they are not "living an image" but rather, you are imposing that interpretation of your perceptions of them, on them. This is something a lot of us do in our mid-twenties. We have moved beyone the rote, unthinking conveyor belt of childhood, school, college, first job... we've spent a few years working, we're trying to get laid, to find "the one"... we're wondering how to get comfortable with being adult. So we look around us, we look at the other people around us and what we see is facade. We see the impression they give us. We notice the way that impression makes us feel. Oh look at the clothes they wear. Look at the films they like. Look at the way they talk. Man, they're... like this. They're in this box.

The mistake is to think that the facade, the impression, is all they are. It isn't. It's telling us something about ourselves, not them. They are just as deep, complex, conflicted and nuanced as you are, but you're seeing the superficial aspects and markers of their nature and extrapolating too far from it. That yuppie dude with the rectangular glasses, the cool girlfriend and the annoyingly confident manner in the progress meeting? He's into philately and bondage and he spent a year off his tits on dope in Amsterdam. He's not the sorted, 2-D cipher he seems from the little bit you see of his life. And hey, how do you think you look to him? Do you think he sees into your soul, or does he see something that's just a veneer? Something that might look like "living an image"?

But to your question: again, you are what you is. Don't overthink it. What do you like? What makes you happy? What do you need to do to feel secure and content? Do that. Is it "normal"? Does it match what your peers and colleagues seem to be into? Doesn't matter. Do the things you need to do, but learn to be comfortable with people who seem to be into other things. You don't have to be like them, but you can still like them, you know? And when you do, you'll get to know them better and I bet you'll be surprised by how much more interesting they are than that facade you saw.
posted by Decani at 6:04 PM on September 11, 2010 [7 favorites]


Having this question is an amazing gift. Being the one who is open to finding out is the best "identity" of all. Don't solidify into that one, either.
posted by Wordwoman at 6:54 PM on September 11, 2010


You don't have to be like them, but you can still like them, you know? And when you do, you'll get to know them better and I bet you'll be surprised by how much more interesting they are than that facade you saw.

Please don't misunderstand, I'm not trying to reduce the people I see to a meaningless facade, nor am I bitching about not "fitting in." I'm more or less just trying to understand it. Because so much of it seems arbitrary to me, I wonder what leads people to make the choices they do in personal style yada yada. It all seems like a collection of selling points. As Sara C. said, it seems "that there is supposed to be a driving narrative for who you are. Because that is how personality is packaged for public consumption. Which has fuck all to do with how real people really think of themselves."

And to Sara C., I'd like to offer an apology. You seemed a little condescending in your initial response, but I didn't have all the info I do now. While I don't necessarily think that you view my post as petty, I can certainly understand how it might seem that way to someone who has witnessed firsthand that kind of mayhem. Also, I agree that Gaga is trying way too hard. Name dropping Andy Warhol a couple of times and wearing some unusual outfits does not necessarily an artist make. But I digress.

Anyway, I thank you all for your input. Godspeed.
posted by mediocritease at 7:41 PM on September 11, 2010


Flag this if you think it's off topic, but I suspect your problem isn't what you say it is. I am not a mind-reader, and I'm not you, so I can't be sure. When I say "I suspect," I mean that literally, with full knowledge and acceptance that I may be wrong.

Upon what do I base my suspicions? Well, first of all you're smart. I can tell from the way you write. You're an intellectual. You may not think of yourself as one, but I classify you as one, because you write about existential matters. Welcome to the club. I do that, too.

Being caught up with "the meaning of life" and "who am I?" can be fine, and maybe it really is what's bothering you, but, for people like you and me, it can also be a smokescreen. When something is upsetting you, it sucks to have someone tell you that's not what's REALLY upsetting you -- that you haven't peeled away all the layers of the onion and found the core -- but at least with me, it's usually the truth.

I'll be more specific: in the past, when I've obsessed over existential matters, the truth was that I was lonely because I didn't have a girlfriend. Or I was scared of being poor. Or I felt like a failure because I wasn't as talented as I wanted to be. Or I was upset about one of the many other mundane but very, very human things that everyone deals with (or works hard not to deal with). Some people drink to avoid facing those things. Other people -- people like me (and maybe you) -- avoid those things by focusing on grander philosophical issues.

Those serve a couple of purposes. They let us avoid dealing with the truth that we're animals -- that most of our actual problems are frustration from not getting enough sex, loneliness from not getting enough companionship, boredom because we're not stimulated, hunger (or fear of going hungry), social status anxiety, etc. People mostly worry about the same things chimpanzee's worry about. We just dress up our worries in more sophisticated clothing.

Again, I may be wrong, but before you discount what I'm saying, I recommend you ask if your house is in order. Do you have a girlfriend/boyfriend? Do you have a job that you enjoy? Do you have hobbies you enjoy? Do you have wonderful, supportive friends you like being with? Are you free of financial worries? How's your relationship with your parents?

It's totally normal if some of those ducks aren't in order. Few of us could draw smiley faces next to all those things. But if some of them have frowns next to them, I suggest you deal with those issues FIRST. Because if you do, you may find that the existential angst vanishes.

Another purpose served by this sort of thing is romanticizing. When I was younger, I so wanted to believe that my problems weren't run-of-the mill. Like the young Woody Allen character in "Annie Hall," I wanted to believe this poetical, operatic lie that I was upset because "The Universe is Expanding." But look at the actual life of the character in that movie. He's not upset because the universe is expanding. He's upset because he lives in poverty with two crazy parents who fight all the time.

I also am suspicious because you're 26. Sorry if that's condescending. I guess it is. But I'm being condescending to my the younger me, too. (And if I'm reading too much of me into you, I apologize.) When I was younger, it was REALLY hard for me to look my real problems squarely in the eye. Like an emo kid, I turned my problems into operas in my head. We mock emo kids because they seem to make a big fuss over nothing. But I think they really ARE depressed. They're just too young to face what it is they're upset about.

If you can't figure out what it is you're upset about, more therapy might be useful -- maybe with a different therapist. This, to me is odd stuff to get out of therapy: "self as construct, self as context, self as experience." I've been in therapy, and my shrink and I never talked about grand philosophical stuff like that. Lord knows I TRIED to steer the conversation that way, but my therapist insisted we stay on Planet Earth. She made me talk about all the stuff I didn't want to discuss but needed to: my body image, my loneliness, etc.

Whether I'm on the mark or off it, I wish you well. And please note that it's normal to not "find yourself" until later in life. I didn't really start feeling confident about who I was until I was nearing 40. And that seemed to also be the case for many of my friends.
posted by grumblebee at 8:15 PM on September 11, 2010 [29 favorites]


People are living an image because it makes their life easier. Many of them don't have a choice because they don't have the power to be empty. It makes things easier but they have to take tradeoffs along with that. You can't eat your cake and have it, too. I've smoked a lot of salvia years ago and my take is that it genuinely exposes many things are much more fleeting than they appear, identity being one of them. If it's completely gone in 20 seconds while I'm still clearly present, I don't see how it can be very real. I don't "buy" identity!
posted by rainy at 8:25 PM on September 11, 2010


Being caught up with "the meaning of life" and "who am I?" can be fine, and maybe it really is what's bothering you, but, for people like you and me, it can also be a smokescreen. When something is upsetting you, it sucks to have someone tell you that's not what's REALLY upsetting you -- that you haven't peeled away all the layers of the onion and found the core -- but at least with me, it's usually the truth.

I'm very uncomfortable with how perceptive you are. I'm not intentionally throwing up a smokescreen, nor am I reaching for grandiosity in an effort to skirt practical problems. Rather, this admittedly partially-concocted dilemma stems from several areas of my life with which I am dissatisfied, but I'm not quite sure what will make me less dissatisfied, and I guess I've ultimately thought myself into a corner. I won't go into details - it would likely go on for years.
posted by mediocritease at 8:33 PM on September 11, 2010


I don't think your post is petty, at all*. Which has nothing to do with the "mayhem" I have seen. (Not much - I was on the subway for most of the scary part.)

Though I think that your connection there might be sort of an answer to your question.

OK. So I'm a 29 year old. And a white person. And a woman. And a film industry professional. And a writer. And a Brooklynite. And a "hipster", according to some people, though I hate the label. I'm an alumnus of a certain university. I'm a feminist and a socialist and a bisexual and a survivor of abuse and a foodie. I also went through life experiences that have huge associations for a lot of people (whether that's being at Ground Zero when it was zeroing out, or some other major events of the early 21st century I have participated in first hand, veritable Forrest Gump that I am.)

In one sense, all those things are Who I Am. But in another sense, none of those things really define me. Though they probably do define me in the eyes of other people. Especially in the eyes of strangers who might not know about each of those different attributes.

The same is, of course, true of you. And of the friends you seem so sure are secure in their identities.

*Just impossible to answer for anyone who isn't you.
posted by Sara C. at 8:38 PM on September 11, 2010


The same is, of course, true of you. And of the friends you seem so sure are secure in their identities.

There's definitely something about your tone that, however right you may be, really doesn't sit well with me. Like a subtle snobbery or contempt. I never claimed to be certain of anyone's security in their identities, only observed that people seem to have well-crafted ones. Also, I'm aware of the dubiousness of labels (see my mention of "self as construct.") What I'm getting from you is less "here's what you might do to alleviate your confusion" and more "pull your head out of your ass," the latter not being very helpful. But thanks anyway.
posted by mediocritease at 8:45 PM on September 11, 2010


only observed that people seem to have well-crafted ones.

Exactly.

People are just people. Unless you're working with an image consultant to fabricate a personal brand you can potentially monetize*, you probably don't have a "well-crafted" identity.

Not "pull your head out of your ass" so much as what many others have said - you are observing something from outside and applying that to your own inner life, when it doesn't really work that way. I don't think of myself as A Victim Of 9/11. I think of myself as the slightly awkward woman who sits at the desk next to the office supply closet and can't figure out how to work her new iPhone. Or whatever, as the case may be.

*Do you live in Los Angeles by any chance? If so that might be the answer to your question.
posted by Sara C. at 8:55 PM on September 11, 2010


Unless you're working with an image consultant to fabricate a personal brand you can potentially monetize*, you probably don't have a "well-crafted" identity.


That is, if nothing more, a generalization and a narrow one at that. That being said, you have managed to help me gain a little perspective on where this is coming from. No, I don't live in LA. BUT this was triggered by someone I know personally who is trying to make it in the music biz. Who, hilariously enough, is currently in LA and loving it. Even on the subterranean level, it seems image can be crucial. He's taken a few of his very particular interests and painted every facet of his life in their image, much the same way I did years ago. I don't think there's anything wrong with that, of course. He's brilliant, in his own way, but still seems to me kind of a caricature of a person. I recognize that I have no idea what his internal life is like, but that's only part of the equation. Regardless of his pathologies and conflicts, he projects a very clearly defined image. My previously mentioned dissatisfaction and confusion regarding many other areas of my life being on my mind at all times, my brain just took it and ran with it. I should have also made greater effort not to conflate the concepts of image/persona and identity. So, indeed, I think I do owe you a genuine thanks. And I apologize for taking a defensive stance.
posted by mediocritease at 9:21 PM on September 11, 2010


There is knowing yourself, which is directed self-examination, and there is moving through the world with confidence. I think you are actually asking about the latter. I have always struggled with that myself, and, being an introvert, felt especially overrun by people who seemed to charge through their lives all loud and colorful and opinionated.

Here is what I did. I looked around at people I knew who seemed genuinely well-grounded, interesting, and confident and tried to figure out what it was that gave them that confidence, the ability to move through the world as captains of their own lives. The one thing all those people had in common was this: they all had a craft that they spent a lot of time practicing.

Having a craft, having something you do and are good at to me trumps any decorations you put on yourself and all arbitrary preferences you conjure up. It can also take you deeply into your self, more deeply than examining your psyche for the shining nugget of your most authentic personality ever can. For example: I am a writer. I write for at least an hour every day. And the first twenty minutes are always thrashing around on the surface of my mind with all the stupid existential garbage floating around: Who am I really? What am I even doing trying to write when I should be spending my time doing something more productive? Am I just a huge talentless loser? What if I say nothing interesting today, tomorrow, this week, ever?

I have learned how to get past the first twenty minutes by paddling around that garbage or gently pushing it aside. You ignore it, plug your nose, and go deep and stay deep because it’s the only way into the quietest, truest part of your self. Once you are under you stay under and get your real work done: you play your scales, keep running, keep writing, keep moving. And when you come back up you know you have done some real work, that you can truly call yourself a musician, a runner, a writer.

Ironically, it is when you are concentrating the most deeply that you will be the least aware of your own self. Your ego falls away when you are in a flow state. This is good; you want to quiet your mind. The knowledge that you can shed some parts of your ego and go deeply into your self, and are well-practiced at your craft will make you able to move confidently through the world.

(Two books that helped me a lot: Writing Down the Bones and Wild Mind, both by Natalie Goldberg. They’re books on writing, but they can apply to almost any craft.)
posted by guybrush_threepwood at 10:23 PM on September 11, 2010 [8 favorites]


I have found one of the best ways to discover who you are is by examining the things you do that are not common amongst the groups you associate with.

For example, why is it you feel the need to respond to (and even criticize) so many of the comments here, when that isn't the norm for the community?
posted by paradoxflow at 10:24 PM on September 11, 2010


BUT this was triggered by someone I know personally who is trying to make it in the music biz. Who, hilariously enough, is currently in LA and loving it. Even on the subterranean level, it seems image can be crucial. He's taken a few of his very particular interests and painted every facet of his life in their image, much the same way I did years ago.

Well. OK. Do you want to make it in the music biz? If not - and if you don't also want success as some other form of celebrity/media personality - I wouldn't worry about it anymore. It has nothing to do with you, or really with anyone who isn't trying to become a celebrity.

I know a few people who are in the process of doing this sort of thing because they want to be pop stars, or get on a reality show, or go into politics (which is a very different, almost opposite, sort of personality curating). It's weird seeing the public face, and then reconciling that with the way that I know them, or the way that they must see themselves, and all the different levels of what personality means.
posted by Sara C. at 10:39 PM on September 11, 2010 [1 favorite]


For example, why is it you feel the need to respond to (and even criticize) so many of the comments here, when that isn't the norm for the community?

Why do people post follow-up questions in their comments if no one wants answers? Some of those responses were an effort to further clarify my dilemma, which I think is well within bounds. Some were to show gratitude on a more personal level for what I thought was good advice (God forbid). And as for criticizing, without going back through the entirety of the thread, I have to say that Sara C. was the only one on the receiving end of that, and it was admittedly a reaction to the preface for her original post, which I felt implied exasperation over the very question itself and a need to condescend to answer. I may have misunderstood - one of the hazards of the medium. Furthermore, had I not engaged her in that discussion, I wouldn't have come to the conclusion that will ultimately resolve this post. If I needed to know how to install a dishwasher, my responses would have been likely unwarranted. In this context however, perhaps minus the criticism (although let me remind you that it was ultimately part of the resolution), I think responding to the comments was not only warranted but necessary. If you have a problem with some of the content, flag it - isn't that the norm? - don't add fuel to the fire.
posted by mediocritease at 11:47 PM on September 11, 2010


Maybe it just boils down to the fact that 'dressing up' works for those people who are happy to short-cut the self-analysis. There's nothing wrong with off-the-peg identities if they fulfil the needs of the person wearing them, and that's what counts. Maybe they are comfortable and happy that way. I am not a foodie, if I'm hungry I'll eat whatever's to hand and be happy, but my foodie friend will not, she'll seek out the exact specific thing she wants or she'll go without until it shows up - she just has a much more subtle palate than I do when it comes to food. Maybe you're like that, in terms of signifiers, you're not happy to don those currently available, so you're keeping it neutral until you've found 'what fits'. As you're discovering, that's the hard bit.

For those of us who feel perpetually mutable and fluid, finding what fits will never be easy, but it comes in time. I'm now 34 and I've learned, through travel and life and heartbreak and letting go and taking back and fucking many things up and getting some things right - through all those things described better in comments above - that actually there are things about me that remain consistent, but nothing will externally signify who I am inside other than how I relate to people. There is no shortcut to presenting 'this is who I am!' to the world. Because the world is largely indifferent to what I think about myself. It is not, however, indifferent to my actions.

Grumblebee's comment fits my experience exactly, obsessing about identity was just a way for me to avoid the hard work of dealing with the things I needed to make me happy. Once I started understanding those things and acting in line with my basic requirements, my identity ceased to matter. I stopped expecting people to interpret my thoughts, and worked on expressing my values through my actions. It's been a revelation. I'm now much more expansive, I no longer feel any requirement to identify as this or that. I'm wearing 'myself' much lighter and more confidently these days.
posted by freya_lamb at 3:11 AM on September 12, 2010 [1 favorite]


Who you are is something that develops in close relationships with other people. That song lyric "You're nobody until somebody loves you," isn't all that far off. Look beyond the images of others and empathize with their need for them. Accept who you find yourself to be even if it makes you uncomfortable.
posted by Obscure Reference at 5:42 AM on September 12, 2010


Go and hang out with some older people. From people in their thirties, starting families, all the way to retired folks. The "crafted identity" you mention seems to generally be associated with people who are too young to be really comfortable with who they are, and are trying on some kind of stock, "off the shelf" identity from popular culture to see how it fits them.

In my mind, if you want to be authentically "someone", do something. Get an interesting job, start a business, become really good at some kind of hobby, volunteer somewhere, go backpacking in another country. During this process, hopefully you'll meet plenty of other people who are also getting on with life without feeling the need to paint themselves like a film set.

When you are really comfortable inside with who you are, you won't need an image - you'll just be you, and that will be enough.
posted by emilyw at 6:18 AM on September 12, 2010


I'm very uncomfortable with how perceptive you are. I'm not intentionally throwing up a smokescreen, nor am I reaching for grandiosity in an effort to skirt practical problems. Rather, this admittedly partially-concocted dilemma stems from several areas of my life with which I am dissatisfied, but I'm not quite sure what will make me less dissatisfied, and I guess I've ultimately thought myself into a corner. I won't go into details - it would likely go on for years.

I am sorry. I didn't want to make you uncomfortable. My response would have made me uncomfortable had someone said it to me when I was going through what you're going through. But, at least for me, discomfort means I'm getting closer to the truth.

I never thought you were intentionally being misleading or fake-profound. If that were the case, things would be much easier for you. You could just quit doing that. IF I'm right and your question is an attempt to avoid whatever is really bothering you, it's probably not a conscious attempt. It certainly wasn't for me. I successfully fooled myself with a lot of my bullshit. Most of us are talented bullshitters -- especially when we're bullshitting ourselves.

Rather, this admittedly partially-concocted dilemma stems from several areas of my life with which I am dissatisfied, but I'm not quite sure what will make me less dissatisfied,

Yup. Been there. Done that. Still do it on occasion. The thing to understand is that you don't have to solve the problem right now.

I hate talking in abstractions, so I'm going to pretend that your problem (or your worst one) is that you're lonely. If that's not it, substitute whatever it is. That was usually my problem when I got all angsty.

My thinking (mostly unconscious) was this: I'm lonely. I see no way to get unlonely. So what's the point of dwelling on my loneliness. However, if I don't dwell on it, I'm still unhappy. I can't get rid of my unhappiness, and I don't want to think "I'm unhappy because I'm lonely," so I'm going to think "I'm unhappy because Life Is Without Meaning."

There were two things I didn't understand: (1) that's a temporary drug. It won't help in the longrun. Because if, somehow, I find "meaning," I still won't have dealt with the underlying problem: loneliness. So I'll either have to deal with it eventually or find another drug. I -- and maybe you -- will keeping having to hop from drug to drug until I'm willing to face the actual problem.

(2) facing the actual problem doesn't necessarily mean solving it. Sure, it would have been great to have had a girlfriend (though, I suspect, I would still have been lonely, because the loneliness was really coming from something internal -- a feeling of unworthiness). Facing a problem means FACING it, not solving it. That might be as "simple" as "just" saying "I'm not depressed because I'm searching for meaning in a Godless universe, I'm depressed because I'm fucking lonely!"

(For me, saying it means saying it to someone else. If I just say it to myself, I haven't really said it. A best friend is great. If I don't happen to have one, a shrink will do. And the thing is, we've all felt loneliness. If you tell me you're upset because the universe is expanding, I can't say much except "Yeah, man! It's, like, cosmically sucky." If you tell me you're lonely, we can actually have a conversation, because I've been there too.)

Not all problems are solvable. If you're upset because you have terminal cancer, you might be able to find peace, but you're not going to be able to make your cancer un-terminal. Bot those problems are in the minority. Most human problems -- loneliness, sexual frustration, body issues, financial woes, social-status fears -- ARE solvable. Which, paradoxically, is the hard part. We don't solve must of our problems because we don't want to. Because we suspect we know the cure, and the cure is too scary.

What I found, in therapy, is that there were three layers to most of my problems:

LAYER ONE: the bullshit. The thing I said was my problem to avoid dealing with the real problem.

LAYER TWO: the problem, which I pretended was unsolvable, because the solution was too painful.

LAYER THREE: what I needed to do to solve the problem, which I didn't want to do because it was REALLY scary -- because it involved serious work on myself, rather than something external to me or something out-of-my control.

Example: once I got past my "the universe is expanding" stage (layer one), I admitted I was miserable because I didn't have a girlfriend (layer two). I then insisted on clinging to the idea that I could never have one, because I'm too ugly and no woman could ever be attracted to me. In fact, I asked my therapist to help me learn to live a life of celibacy. She wouldn't. She knew that I was refusing to deal with something -- something really painful.

That seemed SO unfair. I was already in so much pain! Why would I use pain as a smokescreen to hide other pain? Answer: because people do that all the time. Saying "I'm too ugly to attract women" was deeply painful, but it was also out-of-my-control. It let me off the hook. Too ugly? Whatcha-gonna-do? That painful "truth" allowed me to skip doing any work on myself.

When I finally understood that, I started confronting the things inside myself I needed to fix: my fear of rejection (which was stopping me from even asking girls out), my feelings of unworthiness, etc. When was when things turned around for me. A couple of years later, I was engaged. 2011 will be my 15th anniversary. But even before that -- even before I met my wife... even when I still didn't have a girlfriend -- I started feeling better when I courageously faced my actual problems, even though I hadn't solved them yet.

Stepping back up my ladder, we get this: I feel unworthy. I don't want to ask a girl out, because she might reject me. I know that will hurt like hell, because it will reinforce me feelings of unworthiness. So though I knew a potential solution to my problem, I was scared to try it. I didn't want to feel like a coward, so I smokescreened with "fate." By bad luck, I was born ugly. It's not my fault, and there's nothing I can do about it. But even THAT was too painful, so I climbed higher up the bullshit ladder until I reached the cloud called "my life has no meaning."


I won't go into details - it would likely go on for years.


I'm not asking you to go into details, but are you SURE it would take you years to explain what's bothering you? Could that be another smokescreen? Most problems are simple, even if their solutions aren't.

THIS is not a problem: "I like this guy named Bobby, and he doesn't like me back, which would be okay, except we got drunk and slept together once, and now I'm all confused, because blah blah blah..."

THIS is a problem: "I'm lonely."
posted by grumblebee at 7:22 AM on September 12, 2010 [17 favorites]


When that bad feeling suddenly goes away, what are you doing, wearing, saying, feeling, standing before? That tells you what matters.

When I finish making or doing something and I feel good, that's a clue. When I realize that something I just *finally* did has been bugging my quietly for a long time, that relief should be another clue.
posted by wenestvedt at 7:14 AM on September 13, 2010


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