I am not who you think I am; I am not who I think I am; I am who I think you think I am. – Thomas Cooley, Symbolic Interactionist
Do you ever get that strange and dislocating feeling that you’re not sure who you are? It often happens when you are traveling to new places, or find yourself unexpectedly alone. It can also happen after a job loss or a break up.
According to the sociological theory of symbolic interactionism, our identities are made up of our internalized perceptions of how other people see us. While that may in fact be what identity is, I’m not sure “identity” itself isn’t all that useful a concept.
Here’s what I’ve been playing around with:
- We are not our identities
- Identity isn’t as necessary as we think
Identity is an optional tool we use to create order for ourselves and that other people use to create order for themselves. In a best case scenario, we use “owning” an identity to set ourselves free from the effects of (harsh) judgement. One common example is a person who comes out of the closet and “owns” his or her LGBT identity. Yet even in that positive example, we can see the limits. To be identified as LGBT sets a parameter and a definition around whom a given individual is.
Flipping the situation, we find so many examples of identity used to harm. For example, the identity of “woman” earns you an average of $.79 to the dollar. The identity of “black” opens you to racial profiling. And at the end of the day, each person you meet is going to have a different idea of what it is to be a woman or to be black.
Identity, therefore, is inaccurate, unstable, and limiting.
We Are Not Our Identities
I disagree with Thomas Cooley that “we are who we think others think we are.” We do not know who others think we are. We are not in their heads. So, even if we build an identity around it, we are building an identity on the shimmering fruits of our imaginations and therefore identity by nature is actually just a made-up fantasy. We are not shimmering fruits!
I know, it’s alarming to think that our identities are just dreams and fancy. This is the stuff of existential crisis, but hang on: I have a solution.
First, though, a personal anecdote:
When I separated from my ex husband and moved into my own apartment, my identity was shattered. I was no longer the sweet little stay at home mom I thought other people thought I was. Lol. I was nobody. And I wasn’t sure what to do.
I reached out to a wise woman friend of mine, Elizabeth Rutherford, and I asked her advice. She painted a picture of me going through my day, waking up, getting the kids ready, doing laundry, and so on. In other words, I would just put one foot in front of the other and not over think it.
We Don’t Need Identity
I was amazed that it could be so simple. Identity free me would do all the things that I had done back when I had an identity. The take home? We don’t need an identity to take action. We can just do what we need and want to do.
Others will judge us and decide who we are; we cannot control their perceptions. While others are judging us we can be folding the laundry, racing the cars, and singing the songs.
It’s not, do I think they think I am a meditator. It’s: I meditate.
Life is about perception, yes. But it is also, I would say mainly, about action. You are what you do.