If someone were to ask you the question, ‘Who are you?’ what would you say in reply? It’s a strangely difficult question. Ask me about my family, what I do for a job, my hopes and aspirations, what I like and dislike etc, no problem. But ask me who I am and I struggle to know what to say.
Is it that I don’t know who I am, or I’m not sure how to answer the question without a broader frame of reference? I’m tempted to respond, ‘It all depends on what you mean by the question’ but that still doesn’t answer it. The only satisfactory response I can find is, ‘I’m a child of God.’
Social psychologists often propose that we know who we are, or what we are like as a person, by observing our own behaviour in a variety of situations. We notice how we behave then attribute personal values, attitudes, motivation etc. to it. Over a lifetime of experiences, we discover who we really are.
There’s something about this theory that resonates for me. After all, I’ve sometimes been surprised by how I’ve reacted in situations, as if my reactions and behaviours have been different to how I had imagined myself. Over time, I develop a picture of myself that feels more whole, more reliable.
An example comes to mind of taking part in a disaster relief team effort in Albania during the Kosova crisis. Having watched harrowing images on TV, I had expected to feel an overwhelming sense of sadness. I was surprised, therefore, by my own sense of intrigue and excitement as the trip unfolded.
This theory gets tricky, however, when it comes to making decisions, making conscious choices. I face a dilemma and must choose a course of action. If I take the safe option, it reveals something about the kind of person I am. Conversely, if I take the risky option, that too reveals something about me.
The problem is that this hypothesis feels too deterministic, as if the kind of person I am is already set in stone, as if exposure to different experiences simply reveals what’s already there. But could it be that I have free choice and that my choices actually shape who I am and become?
An example comes to mind from the TV sci-fi series, Space Above and Beyond. The colonel faces an agonising decision over whether to accept a mission that will result in almost certain death. He takes the high risk option, having decided that’s the kind of person he wants and therefore chooses to be.
We experience tension when we fail to live up to the kind of person we believe we are, how we perceive ourselves to be. This tension could be driven by e.g. the demands of conscience, cultural norms, the expectations of significant others, our own aspirations or a need to preserve our self esteem.
So, who am I? I am the unique me, the genetic-physical-spiritual person that only I am, the socially-constructed me, that is, a person shaped by language, culture and interactions with others, and the chosen me, the person I have become as a result of my own free decisions and actions. So...who are you?
Nick is a psychological coach, OD consultant and trainer, specialising in critical reflective practice.