This past week I facilitated a workshop for a group of managers, and tried to change what I usually do in the beginning, when people introduce themselves – I asked them some challenging questions, aimed at making them think and making the “introductions” part more interesting for everyone. There was one question in particular that turned out to be a real challenge – although I hadn’t intended it to. The question was: “Who are you?”.
I had written this question on the introductory slide without really thinking about its deep meaning, and I was surprised at people’s reaction to it. Many identified themselves with their daily roles – manager, father, wife, friend, economist. Others mentioned personal qualities that defined them: goodness, honesty, openness, curiosity. Some said, openly, that they didn’t really know who they were, that they were still searching and discovering themselves every day.
Listening to them got me thinking about myself and this question. Who am I?
I realized I have been striving to answer this question all my life. There have been times when I thought I was getting close to finding the answer, and there were times when I felt like a visitor in my own life – as if I didn’t belong there, as if my home were somewhere else, but I had no clue where.
In time, I became friends with this never-ending dilemma – Who am I? In doing so, I discovered something very important. I realized what I am NOT and that is something I would like to share with you.
YOU are NOT your roles in life!
I learned that I am so much more than my roles. I am not only a daughter, a sister, a friend, a trainer, a coach, a woman… All these are roles I take on every day – roles that I cherish, that are part of me, that make me feel alive and connected. They are part of my identity. But not a single one of them is ME – the whole ME!
I noticed how so many of us tend to identify with one role or another, and get stuck in there, forgetting to explore the deeper US, sometimes even denying parts of ourselves, for fear we might not fulfill our chosen role properly. There are parents who ignore all their needs and wishes, apart from those connected to their parenting role, for fear that any moment they afford themselves is a stolen moment from their child. There are lovers who simply lose their individuality in the relationship, putting aside all they hold dear if their lover doesn’t share that particular passion or desire. Examples might go on and on – roles are so important to us, they seem to give our lives so much order and meaning, but sadly they too often become traps where we settle and lock our spirits.
YOU are not your WORK!
For a long time I identified myself with my work. I am one of the fortunate people who do what they love for a living. My work is so much more to me than a means to earn a living. It’s a vocation, it’s part of my life’s mission, it brings me joy and makes me a better person every day. It’a a huge part of me. But it’s not ME!
It makes me sad to see people all around me who lose themselves in their work, who forget their families, their friends, their precious “alone” time – all to satisfy the ambition to become “something” or “someone” or simply because they enjoy what the do so much that they forget this is just a PART of their lives.
I heard countless excuses to justify people’s identification with the work they do – ranging from “I need to work to support my family, pay the mortgage, ensure we have money to spend that lovely holiday abroad” to “I find meaning in my work, it makes me feel important, it makes me see my contribution and this brings me joy”. All these are valid reasons to make work an important part of us, but they are not enough to enable us to say we ARE our work.
YOU are not your VALUES and BELIEFS!
This is a hard one. Most of us define ourselves by our values and beliefs – “I am an honest person”, “I am a good person”, “I am an open person”, “I am a funny person”… There is absolutely nothing wrong with doing that. Our values make up the inner structure of our selves. They are the map that leads us through life. Our beliefs are the pillars on which we base our decisions and choices.
However, what we forget when we start identifying ourselves with our values and beliefs is that they are not set in stone. We gain new values as we progress in our life’s journey and, quite often, we change old, limiting beliefs that no longer serve us well. What happens then? Do we stop being ourselves?
If we can outlive our changing values and beliefs, and, moreover, if we EVOLVE by changing them, then it is obvious that we are NOT them. They are, like our roles or our work, part of us, helping to shape and define us, but never become the essence of US!
YOU are NOT your FEARS and LIMITATIONS!
I am convinced that every single one of us comes into this world with a wonderful potential, an inner light that is later on covered by layers and layers of fears, bad experiences, frustrations, doubt and all sorts of negative emotions. Sadly, many of us reach a point in our lives when the layers become too thick and too many, so much so that we lose touch with that light within. We might even end up thinking we are not free, that we are bound by our fears and limitations, that there is nothing we can do to build a better, happier life and that we are helpless victims of unfortunate circumstances and bad choices.
“I am a failure!” – is something I heard more often than I’d like to. “I wish I could do things differently, but I can’t because…” is something else I’m hearing way too frequently. “I am incapable of…”, “I am too old to change”, “It’s too late to change my mind”, “I made my bad choices, now I have to live with them” – are also clues to the illusion of being defined by our fears and limitations.
But the good news is that it’s just an illusion! We are NOT our fears! We are NOT our limitations! We are NOT victims, unless we choose to be.
So, if I’m not all these things – roles, work, values and beliefs, fears and limitations – then who AM I?
Neuroscience knows that we have around 100 billion neurons inside our brain (more than the stars in the known universe!), and that each of them connects with 5-10 thousand other neurons!! This is just one piece of information, among many others, that leads me to believe that another whole universe is hidden inside each of us. Each of us so complex, so deep, so wide, that the mind is bound to struggle with the existential question “who am I” for a long time to come.
What I recently started to understand is that, perhaps, the answer is not in the mind. Maybe we should look for it in our hearts. I’d rephrase the question like this: “Who do I FEEL I AM?”. I am struggling with this still, and I am inviting you to join me. Who are YOU? Who do YOU FEEL YOU ARE?
I invite you to comment and share your thoughts and feelings. Perhaps we might help one-another to take one more step towards the answer to this question, which, I believe, is perhaps the hardest question in the world.
Update 1st January 2012
I’ve just discovered a great resource on YouTube – “Tales of mere existence” – cartoons about stuff you think about, but don’t talk about. And here’s the short clip on this very question: “Who am I?”