How do I stick with a name I'm choosing for myself?
February 22, 2011 10:18 PM   Subscribe

My parents gave me a hard-to-pronounce name, and when I got to grade school my classmates started calling me something similiar for pronunciation ease. I picked a new name for myself in Highschool, but I haven't been able to stick to any name since then. How do I stick to whichever name I choose?

It's gotten worse as I've grown older. In HS I usually stuck to a name for at least a year, now I've started changing my mind every few weeks. There's usually a list of names I like equally and can't decide between.

I legally changed my name when I was 17, but that was more of an attempt to force myself to stick with one... it didn't work. The name sounds pretty, but doesn't have meaning to me, and that bugs me. Problem is, the names that do mean something to me don't sound pleasing to my ears... and so on.

I'm letting myself legally change it once more since I was 17 the first time around and rushed myself, but I want the next name I choose to be the last.

I'm not asking for name suggestions, since I know that's something I have to do on my own. What I would like help with is actually sticking to what I choose.
posted by Autumn to Grab Bag (29 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
What do people call you?

I grew up not much liking my name. It means very little to me, in a "what does your name mean" sense as well as in a "personal associations"* sense. In a sense, I might as well answer to 1138 or Jennifer or Hey You. But this is my name. This is what people call me. Even though it doesn't feel like it sums up all of who I am, it gets the job done (enough that it's my username here, when I could have picked just about anything).

I don't think a name needs to be The Ultimate Sum Total Of Your Complete Identity Forever. At the end of the day, it's just what people call you.

*I'll admit that I like that Sarah is the only character in the bible who openly laughs at God. But it took decades to arrive at even that simple "a fictional character I like has this name" sort of association.
posted by Sara C. at 10:36 PM on February 22, 2011 [3 favorites]

What an unusual question!

I'll offer you some perspective from the other side of the coin: other than a month long period of time in preschool when I insisted on being called "Jessica" like my best friend, I've never considered changing either my first or my last name (First name is Phoebe; last name is a cardinal direction). Even when I got married. To be honest, the idea horrifies me. It's not just that I like my name (which, for what it's worth, I do). It's that my mother picked my first name for me based on a singer she admired and I grew up with my parents making up jokey rhymes on it and sure, people always spell it wrong or make the same hackneyed jokes about being named after the character on Friends, but it's mine. It's who I am, and a big part of that is the history I've shared with my name. The fact that my metafilter username is the name my sister teased me with growing up (a portmanteau of my first name, and the name of the jedi), and so on.

I wonder if you shouldn't go back to the point of first departure: embrace the difficult to pronounce name that your parents gave you. Surely it had some meaning to them, even if it was just that they liked it? The fact that it was something your parents chose for you when you were a wee peanut of a person means plenty in my book.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 10:46 PM on February 22, 2011 [5 favorites]

At the end of the day, it's just what people call you.

I kinda agree with this. I don't really like my name either (it's Katrina, which has never meant much to me and now means Very Destructive Hurricane to most people). But yeah, it's what people call me, so oh well.

I'm not sure what you are asking in terms of sticking with your new name, except that I would say, don't make the change until you FIND that name that combines meaning and sound in a way that pleases you. It's out there. Having named four kids, I know it's hard. But when you find the right one, you'll know. It should resonate with where you've been and with your hopes for the future. You should always be able to look back at this choice you made and know why you made it, and identify with the person you were when you chose this self-identification. Think of it maybe like getting a tattoo--if you were going to do that, what image would you choose?

If you can hit on the right name, it shouldn't be a problem sticking with it.
posted by torticat at 10:50 PM on February 22, 2011

On non-preview, I really like PhoBWanKenobi's comment.

Even if you chose some derivative of the name your parents gave you, you'd be preserving some of that sentiment while putting your own feelings into it. And returning in some form or another to your birthname might help you own the name as a permanent identity.
posted by torticat at 11:03 PM on February 22, 2011

I have a family of name changers, people who use the last half of their name, people who turn their names around backward. And a couple of us who are pretty fixed on our names, but use variations on them anyway. I use variations depending on who I am talking with:
First Middle, First, FM, FF, Fir, or (if I'm feeling pissy) Mrs. Last. I think you are talking about some more than this, but it has helped me realize that my name, and how I feel about my name, helps me present my face to the world, and lets me choose how to present myself. Perhaps you are changing around because you haven't decided yet who you are.
For specific tips about sticking with it:
Pick a name that has meaning for you, and that can be varied a little. Enlist the cooperation of your family and friends, and don't be shy about reminding them. ("You do remember that I go by 'Q' now, don't you? Thanks!" my cousin said to me at the family reunion. I haven't called her Susie since.) The older generation in my family never messes up and calls a name changer by a former name. I find that remarkable
posted by SLC Mom at 11:41 PM on February 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

I have the most common name for my birth year, and its historical significance is something I distance myself from in other circumstances, and I'm not fond of how metrically boring it is when spoken aloud. My wife likes neither the sound of her name nor its meaning. My dad hated the perfectly good nickname his family called him. My mom doesn't like the shortened version of her name that people sometimes use by mistake.

I imagine there are plenty of people out there who're happy with their names, but I suspect it mainly happens by accident, like I happen to be pleased with the time of the year in which my birthday falls or like I happen to appreciate the significance of the name of the street I live on. I also enjoy how I'm from a small state not close to where I live, and I like its flag, so I have that on my desk as if to signify something even though it doesn't really.

What I'm driving at is I think perhaps one approach to sticking with the name you choose is to look around for other random associations in your life that are more interesting and focus on them. Be happy about them instead, even as you recognize how they don't matter very much either. Maybe that puts it into perspective so that you can embrace the whateverness of your new name.

Or maybe you wind up changing again in a few years. I know you want to stick this time and feel secure in your name, but there's not really anything wrong with changing again, and it's just as well to be secure in that thought too. The important thing either way is feeling confident and happy with yourself.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 12:59 AM on February 23, 2011 [1 favorite]

Autumn: The name sounds pretty, but doesn't have meaning to me, and that bugs me.

It may be worth noting that for most of us, the first names we cart around have no special meaning to us at all aside from the fact that we've had them since birth.

If you liked the name you picked at 17 and you're using it, I am not clear on why you wouldn't continue to use it.

In HS I usually stuck to a name for at least a year, now I've started changing my mind every few weeks.

I'm unclear on this. Are you asking other people to change what they call you every few weeks?

What I would like help with is actually sticking to what I choose.

Well perhaps by taking any further changes off the table? I mean, just stop thinking of changing your name as even being an option. This must be possible because for most of us it really isn't.
posted by DarlingBri at 2:10 AM on February 23, 2011 [4 favorites]

Why don't you just go by Autumn?

It's a pretty name and meant enough for you to use as your handle. Otherwise I agree with Sara C.
posted by waterandrock at 5:07 AM on February 23, 2011 [1 favorite]

It's interesting, that in our culture we freight names with so much meaning and obligation "Your parents loved this name, therefore it's your DUTY to keep it because it means so much to THEM!") that many other cultures don't. There are cultures where people have childhood names and change them at adulthood, others where people change their names at every important life event and can go through five or more names in a lifetime. We in Western culture, on the other hand, make it all about ONE name being the very soul of your identity as well as a family duty.

It might help to think of your name in this perspective. You don't have to freight your name with all sorts of deep significance or family obligation. On the other hand, keeping your name for a certain period of time is much more practically feasible - friends, workplaces, and official records won't be confused and snarled in red tape or "This is John, er I mean Jacob, er I mean Jingleheimer Smith, um, I forgot your name, what IS it again?"

Monsieur Caution has a great suggestion about looking at other things in your life that might have significance to you and focusing on them. Are you focusing too much on your name to make your life interesting or full of meaning? You don't have to have an interesting name to be an interesting person - after all, when you think about it, "Elizabeth Taylor" isn't a hugely glamorous, eye-grabbing name in and of itself, it's the celebrity who made it so.
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 5:14 AM on February 23, 2011

But it sounds like you want a name with meaning to you, but you don't have a name with meaning. I'd imagine it'd be easier to stick with a name that meant something to you.

Until you find that name, you should probably back-burner this idea. Just keep in mind, though, that I am called what I am called because I've always been called it not for any other real reason. My name is not me, it's an avatar of me. So it's okay to not be attached to it. Don't feel like we all think we epitomize our own names. With millions of people named Joe out there, it's damn near impossible for me to be the definitive Joe.
posted by inturnaround at 5:25 AM on February 23, 2011

I think you're attaching too much importance to your name.

Tons of people don't like their name - I know I didn't many times. But then you realise that your name isn't supposed to define you, it's you who must define your name. What I mean is that Einstein may be a pretty derpy name, but thanks to the efforts of one particular individual, that name is a synonym for genius, science and intelligence today. You'll find tons of other examples like that:

Mark Zuckerberg: Are you thinking "Lol, more like sucker-berg" or "Facebook"
Nietzsche: "Knee-what?" vs. "German philosophy, nihilism, big mustaches etc."
Osama bin Laden: "Who's bin's laden with what?" vs. "Terrorism, fundamentalism, radical Islam etc."

What people do is what always defines them, and that is when names acquire importance. So go do something awesome.
posted by Senza Volto at 5:32 AM on February 23, 2011

2nd'ing Rosie. A lot of people say I look like a Steve, Jon, Josh, Mike, Carl, etc. Basically everything other than my name: Jason or Jay. Complicating that is around the time of my birth *everyone* was named Jason, so many that I was in classes of 25 with six Jasons. So around new people I answer to all of them as a result.

My last name was actually pulled from my great grandmother. Her husband was born as an Arrington but fell out with the family and took his mom's surname. So there isn't much face value meaning there either.

What does have meaning to me is my ability and willingness to adapt. That's my identity. My name just makes it easier for other people to cope with it!
posted by jwells at 5:40 AM on February 23, 2011

I hated the name I was given as a child. Hated it. Boring first name I never connected with, ugly and mockery-drawing last name of estranged father. When I was 14 or 15, I started thinking very hard about what to change my name to. For years I made lists, tested out top contenders in my mind, considered how first, middle, and last names sounded together. I even tested out signatures. Finally, at 19, I was totally sure I had one I really liked, and I changed it. Pretty much the best $150 I ever spent. I'm 31 now, and everyone is astonished when I tell them what my name used to be. Even though the new one is quite uncommon in every part, it's very Me, and everyone else seems to agree.

I would say you need to stick to being called by the name you changed to at 17 until you reach a real conclusion. Don't think of changing your name every few weeks so much as testing the merits of a new one. And I would counsel against asking people to call you different things so often, if you are doing so. It's hard enough to get people to switch over once!

If you're keeping your last name, start with that. Write a list of all the first names you can think of, then circle the ones you like and move them to a shorter list. Think about combinations. Are you keeping your middle name, if you have one? (By the way, I hope for your sake that you're keeping your last name, because that was by *far* the hardest part for me to figure out for myself.) Think about what sounds and combinations of sounds or letters please you. I realized I am very partial to L's and N's and S's and V's during my process, and I tend to like a lot of vowels. Stuff like that can be very helpful in guiding one.

For me, it wasn't about the official meaning a name might have, it was about the flow, the sounds, and the general aesthetics of the thing. The meaning that it has now is... me. Which is lovely. I finally *like* my name, and find it fits well enough not to obsess over it all the time.

It's a little difficult to discuss this sort of thing much further without being more specific about actual names, so if you'd like to hear more about my name-selecting process, or discuss where you are with yours and what you're looking for, feel free to MeMail.
posted by Because at 5:40 AM on February 23, 2011

I want a tattoo. But I am a flighty miss. I don't want to wind up 70 and resentful of my youthful self for having burdened my body with something with which I've come to no longer identify. So I have some rules: 1. Design it myself 2. Keep the same design, unchanged, for a year before it can be put down in my scar tissue in ink.

Legally changing your name is such an undertaking these days that I would treat that decision with the same caution. It will be harder now than it was when you were 17 - utilities, credit cards, library cards, bank accounts, phone bill, transcripts, you name it.

What if you chose your favorite name so far and committed to keeping it for a year? By the time the year is up, you'll be less in the habit of changing it biweekly, and you may even find that it's begun to form associations you like.

I've gone by many different names, too. My legal name is Katherine, which is ripe for nicknaming, and through elementary school and junior high I changed my nickname every year or so.

In junior high, I stumbled onto a nickname that was short for the alias I used on a dial-up BBS, and the friends I made there began calling me by in in real life because it suited me far better than my nom de plume at the time. When I switched schools in 9th grade, it came with me, and I just didn't have the energy to switch it out anymore. But I haven't regularly gone by anything else since, and at some point in there I started loving my name. It's quirky and unusual, no one ever gets it on the phone without me spelling it, it's a little bit difficult to say...and I love it.
posted by kitarra at 5:56 AM on February 23, 2011 [1 favorite]

I think you're having choice paralysis, trying to find THE PERFECT NAME. Each time you pick one, it turns out to not be perfect, so you change.

Someone once told me that the most beautiful sound in the world is your mother saying your name. I suppose for some people that person may not be their mother, but the question is: what do the people you love, and who love you, call you?

That's your name.
posted by you're a kitty! at 6:17 AM on February 23, 2011 [5 favorites]

I chose mine. It ended up that I chose something meaningful to my heritage, though far removed, and thus it meant a connection to something from my past, this made it easy to stick with and say "yes, this is me". The problem is that you will feel like you have no identity, much like if you moved to a new city and had no friends or roots there, just give it time and let yourself grow into that name, soon it will be your identity.
posted by zombieApoc at 6:53 AM on February 23, 2011

I don't like it that so many people are discounting the importance of feeling one has the right name. That may be true for you (whoever), but it is clearly not true for the OP. Telling her it's no big deal is not helpful. "Learn to live with it" is useless advice to someone who clearly does not want to, isn't asking for help with that, and lives in a society where it is permissible to change one's name.

I myself have felt uneasily misnamed for 10+ years, often don't immediately respond to my name as it simply does not register, and will legally change it when I find the right one. I wouldn't like to be told it doesn't matter or I'm looking at the issue incorrectly.

Certainly a name is not the full definition of a person. But it ought to at least feel appropriate to the person being called by it. If it doesn't, why live with it? The idea of thoughtfully seeking one's own correct name is rather beautiful to me.
posted by jessicapierce at 8:06 AM on February 23, 2011

Respectfully, jessicapierce, I think the issue here is something deeper than just feeling misnamed: OP is so paralyzed by the prospect of picking THE PERFECT NAME that she changes her name weekly. And many of us have names that are imperfect (I'd venture to say that most of us have imperfect names)--some commenting here have even chosen new ones. But part of what entrenches names, old or new, with meaning is the history we share with it.

It's unlikely that the perfect name exists. It's likely that several very-good-but-in-some-ways-flawed names do.

I like kitarra's likening it to a tattoo. I'm a heavily tattooed person, though, and while my first tattoo is, yeah, a little cheesy, you reach the point with decision making where sometimes you just have to choose and leap in. I think that here, restricting choices might be a good idea--it usually is when someone is overwhelmed by options.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 8:22 AM on February 23, 2011

"It's unlikely that the perfect name exists. It's likely that several very-good-but-in-some-ways-flawed names do."

Absolutely agreed - and I didn't mean to come off as sounding like I believe there is only the One True Name for anyone (myself included). That's a bit idealistic and it would be a shame to remain dissatisfied through holding out for true perfection. Personally I feel like when I hear the right name for myself, I'll know it - but I'm open to there being more than one right one out there.

As others have mentioned I'd love the OP to clarify what she means by "changing my mind every few weeks." Does this mean mentally, privately changing her opinion on what feels like the right name, or actually asking others to call her by a rotation of changing names?
posted by jessicapierce at 8:31 AM on February 23, 2011

There are a few questions I have about day-to-day logistics. What do people at your work/school/daily grind call you? Have you known them for more than a year? Have they seen/heard you change your name? What happens when someone who you met under a different name meets someone you know now?
posted by Michael Pemulis at 8:40 AM on February 23, 2011

Response by poster: Hey,

To answer a few questions:

People at school/work call me the name I changed it legally to since it's required on the forms. I haven't known them for more in a year. Actually, I have very few long-term people in my life because I moved around a lot. When I was young I got called a different variation and/or mispronunciation of my birth name whenever I moved. In HS I'd use the moving to try out a new name, in moving to/from college I did the same thing, sooo... I never really got attached to any one name and don't have to worry about new people meeting old people.

That being said, I don't tell people to call me something different anymore. People I've met recently know I'm in the process of switching names and don't tend to call me anything in particular. They know I'm deciding and won't share with them the choices until I know I'm going to stick with one.
posted by Autumn at 8:54 AM on February 23, 2011

I hope I didn't come across as saying "you will find your perfect name" either. What I am trying to say is:

- The idea that there is one "effable ineffable singular Name" (to quote T.S. Eliot) for all of us, and that it defines who we are as special snowflakes, AND that we owe it to Mommy and Daddy who spent hours poring over name dictionaries just to find that perfect name, as a symbol of how much they love us, is very cultural-specific and not human nature.

Incidentally, my own mom didn't put much thought into naming ME and kind of picked one on the spot because she needed one for the birth certificate. Oh, what hours of loving thought went into that! And how I owe it to her to keep it! I changed my own name (first and last) in my early 20's and have kept that name ever since.

- It isn't wrong to keep changing your name, but it's a hassle to do it in official documents; it's a hassle when you want people to remember what your name is now and not keep calling you by your old one(s); and it can be a hassle if someone looks at your changing roster of names and wonders if you're a con artist.

Don't try to find your "soul mate name;" settle for "good enough name." And be sure other aspects of your life validate you and give you meaning so you're not hanging everything on your name. (Rather like looking for a relationship, in fact!)
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 8:56 AM on February 23, 2011

People I've met recently know I'm in the process of switching names and don't tend to call me anything in particular.

So you meet people, and they call you "Hey You"? You just... don't have a name until you find The Perfect Name?

That's a lot of pressure. No wonder this is so hard.

Is it possible that you could reframe this whole issue into the search for a nickname? Leave your official name as is for the time being. Let people settle on calling you something for now. Over time, as you establish close on-going relationships with new people, settle on a nickname that you love. In a few years, if you're still happy with the nickname, then start thinking about officially changing your name.

I know plenty of people who don't go by what's on their passport. It's perfectly OK to do that.
posted by Sara C. at 9:11 AM on February 23, 2011 [2 favorites]

So, you have a bunch of names that you like and you can't pick? Get your friends to pick. Take your closest friends and say that you can't decided between these names and ask them to pick the one that best suits you because you just can't decide.

Maybe they won't come up with a consensus, but maybe they'll all agree that you just look like an Emily (or Rose or Juniper or whatever) and, hey, you like the name, so why not?
posted by It's Never Lurgi at 11:37 AM on February 23, 2011

I really like the idea of just sticking with a name for a year. A name will start to feel more like yours when people call you by that name. Or if it still feels really wrong after a year, you've certainly given it a good shot.

I've never been crazy about my name (it still causes me trouble on a regular basis) but eh, it's mine.
posted by mskyle at 12:18 PM on February 23, 2011

Do you *have* to stick with one? Could you maybe give people a few options and allow them to pick whatever fits best or feels most comfortable to them? You may find you evolve a preference naturally over time.

One of the things I like about being called Rebecca is that there are so many variations available. Over the years I've been called Becky, Becca, Bec, B, Becks, Beckster Rebbie and Recca and that's just the ones I can think of (let alone the sillyer versions like Little Becks, RebeccaBear, Rebebecca, Beccles, Beckity). I tend to associate different forms with different contexts. It's always nice when someone feels comfortable enough with me to adopt a shortened version.
posted by *becca* at 2:01 PM on February 23, 2011

Have you seen the play/movie Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead? In it, there are two characters - Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who wake up one morning having been called into existence by the needs of someone else's story. (Hamlet's story. The play is based on imagining the backstory of two bit characters in the play Hamlet.)

All they have to go on, in figuring out who they are and what they're here for, is these names and the fact that they were "sent for" to help the king and queen figure out what's going on with Prince Hamlet. They don't even know which of them is Rosencrantz and which Guildenstern. They each try out the names, but find them to be equally "plausible but not instinctive". And the name thing represents the larger problem they face, of figuring out who they are when they have so little to go on, so little that is "given".

Are you at a point in life where you feel like very little is "given", that you have a paralyzingly open field of possible lives you could live? And that if only you could figure it out, then you would know which name is yours?

You might enjoy reading the play or seeing the movie - there's a good version with Tim Roth and Gary Oldman in the title roles, which I think is streaming on Netflix if you have that.

My only advice is, be open to decisions in life that ARE "instinctive", but don't wait for every decision to have an instinctive right answer. For many of life's decisions, even big ones, we have to go with one of the options that seems plausible, even if it's not instinctive.

This is a strange fact about the human condition and what "freedom" means to us. We have contradictory impulses about freedom: we want freedom to choose among alternatives - so we want to be free from constraint -- but also we don't want our choices to be arbitrary - so in some sense we do want to be constrained by what's "instinctive" or "right for us".
posted by LobsterMitten at 3:09 PM on February 23, 2011 [4 favorites]

How about having a paper to do list made with your preferred name and your favorite avatar? Another idea is to get some letters from the craft department of a store and hang your name on a wall you see each day. Attach your picture or a mirror to the letters, too.

Seeing your preferred name combined with your image hundreds of times in a month might help reinforce this aspect of your identity, I hope.

Good luck with that, I've got a difficult name and I feel for you!
posted by dragonplayer at 6:48 PM on February 23, 2011

You sound like my doppelganger in some aspects. I was pulled into four High Schools in three states, went to three different colleges in three years, and now live in yet another state, and as you can imagine I don't have a whole lot of people close to me. Through all of this people have called me different names depending on the location or the group of friends. Friends from childhood call me A, friends from my first highschool call me B, friends from college call me C (my real name now) and friends from some of my groups I am in call me D (a nickname).

My point? I don't think there's a good solution to your problem. You don't want to feel tied down to something you might not like in a few years, but at the same time you feel if you wait too long you might lose that history you'd feel with the name 15 years from now (reminds me of some people's fear or marriage). This leads me to think that no matter what name you choose you'll feel some remorse at later dates (you're creating a self fulfilling prophecy), so just pick something you like and go with it, too much is made of what is in a name.
posted by zombieApoc at 6:51 AM on February 24, 2011

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