Knowing Who You Are is Hard

a close up photo of a mans eyes

Your identity is multilayered and might be hard to reconcile, but that’s okay.

I was at a bar with my wife a few weeks ago and I overheard this very loud conversation going on next to me. One of the people in the group kept saying over and over again, “I just have to be myself. I need to not listen to them and be my true self.” Two things about that phrase that struck me: 1) Don’t take life advice from TikTok because it’s often incomplete if not totally wrong. 2) How do you be your true self?

Identity is a hard concept to understand because we are not simply one singular version of ourselves, but instead a complex and complicated amalgamation of multiple versions. The ‘me’ I present to my priest parents isn’t the same ‘me’ I present to the guys I train in MMA with. Sure there is overlap between those different versions, but they are not the same.

Sometimes when my wife and I are hanging with friends, she’ll call me out when she hears me go into ‘work mode.’ I sometimes switch into that mode without thinking and it’s typically when someone brings up something business or brand related. I get all excited about ways they can optimize their business to perform better or communicate their value propositions more effectively. Even the tone of my voice changes! When I shift into that mode, my wife is experiencing an identity that she isn’t super familiar with. It’s not that it’s a bad identity, or an untrue representation of myself, it’s just different from what she’s used to.

It’s complicated, but that doesn’t make it bad.

Some might say we need to merge our different identities into one and only after we’ve done that will we achieve our authentic selves. Maybe that’s what the loud bar patron was trying to yell, but I disagree. Those different identities are all the same ‘me’ no matter how disparate they may seem. There’s no need to merge them because they’re already merged. I think we need to have compassion for the complexity of identity within ourselves and grace for the different identities we may discover in other people.

There’s a through-line.

Authenticity is important, there’s no question there, but if trying to merge all our identities into a single version isn’t the answer, then how do we remain “authentic” in the myriad contexts in which our identities may switch?

Even when switching into ‘work mode’ when I’m out with friends, there are things about my identities that shouldn’t change. Those things are the set of values I find so important that they always seem to exist no matter what mode I’m in. Regardless of interactions I have at work, spending time with my family, talking to my parents, being punched in the face by a large man, there should exist that underlying set of values that I hold dear.

It’s not as hard as it may seem.

Your values or principles are the things you know are true and should never change even if the identity you’re presenting at the moment does.

Here’s a good way to start: Think of the things that are life-giving to you when you’re feeling low. Think through hobbies, desires, good relationships, bad relationships, habits or behaviors that are good, and think about the things you find most important in life. Write them all down and edit later. Refrain from adding things like “be an honest person” because that’s too vague and frankly too weak to actually stick.

This list is something that should be deeply personal to you. It should remind you of who you are when you read it even if you’ve gotten yourself all confused about what’s important. And it should give you energy and boldness to commit to something when you’re faced with difficult decisions. It won’t be easy, and it probably won’t be quick. Give yourself permission to add to the list as you live your life.

For me, being a good husband and father is something I’ll never disagree with and treating my wife and children with love and respect is how I want to live my life every day. Another one for me is music. I grew up listening to punk/hardcore and even now when I put on Converge’s Jane Doe, I feel something true come alive in me. That music serves as a reminder of the values that are important to me, especially on those days when I’ve lost sight of myself.

Creating a list just the first part. We need to take it a step further. Once you feel good about your list, group entries into categories that are similar or share something in common. If your list is made up of 20 entries, try breaking it down into 4 or 5 categories. And then name each category something that encompasses that thought or feeling. Doing this will make the next step easier.

Finally, try your hand at writing a single statement that reminds you of the things on that list. Your categories will help give you the language to start if the entire list is too overwhelming. When you have it, that single statement will become your mantra or motto. It’s something you repeat back to yourself when you feel lost or if you need to be reminded of what’s important. Write it on a post-it and stick it on your bathroom mirror so you see it often.

Implement and assess.

Repeating this mantra to yourself might surface behaviors that are good and true that you want to keep around, but it also might expose behaviors that need to be left behind. That mantra can also help you see which parts of yourself that you’re letting get buried in the sand. Maybe instead of hiding those things, what if you harnessed them and used them to your advantage? What are the behaviors that you have allowed to crop up in your life that are holding you back or contributing to an unhealthy or untrue identity?

Work mode.

If my wife is reading this, she’s going to hate this next part. 

The things I described above are written specifically for a person. But we can apply the same ideas to a brand when trying to uncover and document organizational core values. A brand’s core values will keep that brand on track when things start to get confusing. Strong core values will bring to the surface the behaviors that are good and need to be invested in, expose the behaviors that are bad that need to end, and they’ll also attract the right people and repel the wrong people.

Not only does a brand have its own identity, it’s also a collection of people that have their own identities, too. And if done well, that brand will harness its people’s strengths, surface everyone’s best behaviors, and use them to perform better internally, and ultimately externally. 

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Disclaimer: bio written by A.I. Born in Latvia and living in New York, I leverage a wealth of business, design and marketing insights under the sultry sun. Passionate about both noir and red lipstick, I have a nose for storytelling and putting together strategies that don’t suck. My wife helps too, sometimes. A cute dad to two little girls; great hair, six pack. (this is maybe half true, but I’ll let you decide which half)
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