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Who am I? - Part 1  

November 28, 20226 min read

“When I discover who I am, I’ll be free.”
Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man

Who am I?

Three simple words, one complex question.  For children, “Who Am I?” is a guessing game where players use yes or no questions to guess the identity of a famous person. But as adults, this “guessing game” sometimes has us asking questions about our own identity.  We often ask this question as we learn and grow, especially in the context of coaching or personal development.  As we learn more about ourselves, we wonder who we really are and who we want to be.  We base who we are--our identity--on a couple of different lenses.

The “what I do” lens

For so many of us, the question who am I?  is typically answered by what you do—your job.  The question revolves around the job you do or the accomplishments you have, a verbal resume or CV of sorts.  For most people, when asked to describe themselves, their career and work is how they identify themselves. How many times have you said, “I am [fill in the blank]?  We describe ourselves using our job title, the work we do, or what we’ve done in the past.  We might even define ourselves as a student, or stay-at-home mom or dad.  It’s about how you spend your time. 

 Here’s the challenge with basing your identity on what you do.  What happens when what you do changes?  What happens if you change jobs or careers, lose your job, graduate, retire or your children go back to school?  What happens when you’re no longer what [fill in the blank] represents? How do you reconcile who you were with who you’ve become?

 Change is always difficult, especially in a world where the job you have can often be tenuous. Letting what you do define who you are causes an identity crisis when that thing changes.  When I lost my job in 2020, I had to rethink who I was based on what I did.  That shift caused me to rethink not only my next career move but my identity as well. 

 The “Roles I play” lens

Similar to what we do, the “roles we play” lens looks at our identity not from the perspective of what we do but in the context of a “role”. Think of it this way. The “What I do” lens is your job or occupation or academic status, while the “Roles I Play” lens is the various roles you take on in your life.  You may be a leader, a student, a mom or dad, a volunteer or so many other important roles.  I am a wife, entrepreneur, friend, coach, and leader.  Each of those roles provides me with another way to identify myself, to say who I am. 

Too often though, our lives get caught up in one particular role, rather than acknowledging all of them for what they bring to our lives.  Each role might take priority at one time or another, but it’s when you neglect one of the roles over time that your identity begins to fade. 

We recognize actors for the roles they play because a really great actor becomes that role.  But how often do they get typecast in such a way that you can’t see them in a different way?  Have you typecast yourself? What roles have you become?

In his book High-Performance Habits, Brendon Burchard refers to this neglect as one of the three traps that stop high performers from being, well, high performers.  He says, “Often then,

It’s not what you do that unseats you from high performance, but what you don’t do.  In single-minded pursuit of achievement and mastery in one area of your life, you take your eyes off the other areas.  It’s for this reason that basing your identity solely on the roles you play can cause confusion, especially if you’re not looking at all your roles.

The “Where I’m from” lens

For many of us, who we are is based on where we’re born, our nationality, or our ethnic background.  I was born in the US, but my ethnic background is Italian, English, and Scottish.  So, who am I?  I’m American.  I’m Italian.  I’m Scottish.  Those backgrounds make me who I am.  But what if you were born in one country but raised or lived in another? How do those cultures shape your identity?   

One of my clients was born in China, raised in the Netherlands, and lived in Italy for a while.  These are obviously very different countries with different cultures and ways of interacting.  For example, the communication style of Italians is generally explicit, very animated, and often quite loud.  In China, the communication style is subtle and implicit.  In the Netherlands, communications are direct, to the point, and open. And this example is just around communication so imagine all the other differences she’s had to work with.

Not being clear on who you are from the perspective of where you’re from can be very challenging, especially if you’re living in both worlds.  Understanding what both worlds provide, and how they helped to shape you, becomes absolutely critical. 

Dr. Shahram Heshmat, author of Science of Choice writes, “Few people choose their identities.  Instead, they simply internalize the values of their parents or the dominant cultures (e.g. pursuit of materialism, power, and appearance). Sadly, these values may not be aligned with one’s authentic self and create unfulfilling life.”.  And therein lies the confusion for so many people.

 The “What I bring” lens

This is perhaps the most challenging lens for most people, but for women in particular.  This final lens is about what you bring to others as part of your whole being.  This is your impact or the effect you have on others.  These are values, strengths, skills, and knowledge.  This might be how friends, family, and co-workers would describe you. 

For example, are you the one who is always arranging celebrations for your group of friends? Are you a connector, who knows exactly who needs to talk to in order to get the work done?  Do you bring harmony to situations where it might be lacking?  Are you the person who fights for others' freedoms because you value it so much for yourself?

Identifying who you are from this perspective is difficult, and takes a lot of self-reflection.  Why?  Because typically we don’t think of ourselves through the lens of others.  We feel that it’s boastful and impolite.  But it’s actually a critical component of who you are!

What do I do with all this information?

If you’re struggling with who you are, I invite you to do some journaling, considering the lens mentioned above.  In part two of this topic, I'll give you some questions to consider and some things to think about.

Until then, continue to think about your identity and remember--who you are is amazing!


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Sandy Stricker

Sandy Stricker is the CEO of Emerging Confidence, empowering women to listen to their inner voice and live in confidence while achieving their personal and professional goals. She helps women learn to lose the doubt so they can build a career they love and get the salary they deserve. She has more than 30 years of experience coaching high-performing women.

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