Who are you?
If I met you for the first time and asked you that question, what would be your most likely response? Your name? But who are you beyond your name? At this point you may proceed to tell me your occupation or nationality and start to wonder who the hell I am and why am I asking you all this. But the question still remains … who are you beyond these identities?
The layers of our identity
There are several layers of identity that we carry and they are accumulated over time but none of them is fixed and they can all evolve, change, grow and sway.
The most base level identity we have is a name. Something we recognise and answer to. Most of us have had this since birth and recognise our own selves through this name. However, a name can be changed. If your name changes, then who are you? What do you answer to? Do you need to establish a new internal identity too?
Much like a name, gender is something we have had since birth. We identify with it and enact all the qualities and traits of this gender. But this is not true for everyone. Ask any transgender person who has always had a mismatch of what they feel and what they are expected to be. Much like a name, gender can be changed too — internally and externally. Privately or openly.
Nationality / Ethnicity / Origin
I was a Pakistani. Now I am an Australian. I am both right now. Or am I? But who am I again? What does it mean to be Australian? What does it mean to be Pakistani? What values, morals, cultures and beliefs do I need, to be classified as one or the other? Or both? Even though I was born in Pakistan to ‘Pakistani’ parents, I have never lived there as an adult and every time I visited, I felt like a fish out of water. I could understand the language and the culture, I could understand the problems, history and tradition but not relate them to my personal life. My life and understanding of the world are very different. My problems, issues, struggles are very different. So am I really a Pakistani then? And on the flip side, I have not grown up in Australia, I have an understanding of the culture and I play my part in it but am I really an Australian? What does it actually mean to be an Australian?
Now, this is a tricky one. For many people, this is one of their strongest identities. They feel they are a Jew / Christian / Muslim above and beyond everything else (even a human, unfortunately). For many people, religion is their fixed identity — something that cannot waver or change or so they think. Perhaps not that easily but religion can be changed (or dropped altogether). It is a choice. People choose to be Hindus, Christians, Muslims, Buddhists and they can choose not to be. The faction you leave calls you an apostate and the one you join calls you a revert. Go figure.
By default, most people have the religion of the household in which they are born — being a ‘proud’ Muslim is nothing more than being born in a Muslim family, the same person would be equally proud to be a Christian had he/she been born in a Christian family.
Occupation / Career
Outside of gender, religion, ethnicity and perhaps even a language group, a career or occupation is probably the most important identity people wear. They identify as doctors, engineers, accountants, lawyers and so on. The work people do stops being a verb and becomes a noun. However, based on McCrindle’s research in 2014, an average person changes career 5–7 times and this number is expected to rise in the coming decades. I am already on career number four and I am 35 years old at the time of writing this. So am I again?
In all of these identities and many that I have not detailed (language groups, sports teams, hobbies, interests, chronotype, being a father/mother, personality type, sexual orientation, lifestyle choice and so on), there is nothing fixed. I was a pescetarian for four years which was a strong identity for me and now I choose not to be. Each and every one of our identities can be changed, swapped, evolved or forgotten. So if none of these is fixed then who are we really? Our world views, dreams, goals, aspirations are constantly evolving and with that so is our personality and identity. We are malleable. Ever-changing, ever-evolving. And that’s okay. Who says our identity needs to be fixed?
We grow up watching lots of fixed objects with fixed jobs and purposes. The job of a pen is to write and it doesn’t change. The job of a chair is to offer us a seat and comfort. The job of a cup is to hold our drink and so on. We grow up watching these objects with fixed purposes and (wrongly) assume that as a person we have a fixed job too and will remain the same throughout our lives. If you are born in or before the 90s you have perhaps seen your parents perform the same job for most of their lives. My dad for instance worked in the same company for over 30 years and my mum was a homemaker — all her life. Fixed ‘jobs’.
The truth is…
Our identity is dynamic. Always changing and always in a state of flux. Our core principles and value can be fixed but not identity. Our dreams, hopes, aspirations and goals are changing. Our priorities change, our peer groups change, the culture changes and all these things contribute towards building our identity. We can always start new because we are not fixed like the pen or the chair.
So much of us and our personalities are shaped by culture and peers that in the end, we don’t really know who we are. We emulate to gain acceptance and win social approval but is it truly what we want?
Six years ago I was a completely different person. With a very different worldview, with very different values, morals and principles. What changed? I grew, I evolved and everything changed. I realised going through my process of transformation that I can be whoever I want to be. Nothing in this universe is permanent not even my identity. I don’t need to cling to it so dearly as it will change before I know it and more importantly, I don’t need to pigeonhole myself to any identity. I can choose not to be any of the identities. I have a choice. My past doesn’t define my future. Only what I do in the present moment and in this present moment, I have a choice and I choose to be nothing and everything.
“Shapeshifting requires the ability to transcend your attachments, in particular, your ego attachments to identity and who you are. If you can get over your attachment to labelling yourself and cherishing your identity, you can be virtually anybody. You can slip in and out of different shells.”Zeena Schreck