When I was a girl, my mother would sometimes reprimand me by saying “Who do you think you are?”
As I reflect back on this question, I’m pretty sure she wasn’t asking me a philosophical question.
I see that my mother was trying to teach me humility and essentially saying, “don’t get too big for your britches”.
Now I see that question from a different perspective. I see that truly, deeply answering that question can be very helpful in shedding our identification with labels.
If I ask you “Who do you think you are?”, how would you answer?
You may say things like “I’m a woman, a wife, a mother, an American, a writer, a student, an environmentalist, etc. etc. etc.”
You may feel very attached to these labels but that is not who you really are.
The limitations of identity for true self
We form an identity based on labels and roles we play in our lives. We rely on role-models, stereotypes, societal expectations, and our experience to form our ideas of what attributes accompany each of these labels. As we take on a new role/label in our life, we get busy creating ourselves in the image of who we think we should be given that role. We start acting.
We lose track of who we really are when we believe our ideas about ourselves.
For example, if I have a child, I will likely take on the role of “mother”. Unconsciously and consciously, over my lifetime I have created an image of what I think a mother SHOULD be. As if there is one all-encompassing right way to be a mother!
(By the way, “should” is what I call captivity language. Language influences our thoughts and attitudes, and it can contribute to us feeling trapped. Be sure to download my free language guide to learn to trade captivity language for conscious language.)
If I think mothers are supposed to be all-loving, ever-patient, asexual, and proper, I’ll try to fit into that box. I’ll leave my true self behind and try to conform to my idea of how I am supposed to be, given my ideas about this new role.
When I can’t live up to these ideals, I’ll likely feel self-critical and like I’m failing as a mother. Clearly these self-imposed expectations are unrealistic and unattainable.
Meanwhile, I’m engaging with my child, others, and myself inauthentically. I’m an actress in my own life.
Acting is for the theater
When we use labels to guide our thoughts, behaviors, and feelings we are being inauthentic. “Fake it until you make it” is common advice given to people in new roles. If we take that advice, we try to figure out what others want us to be in that new role. We spend energy trying to fit in, get approval, to do it “right”.
The problem with this strategy is that it separates us from our inner knowing, and from expressing our most true self. In addition, whatever we think others want from us is just a projection anyway.
We don’t truly know what others think and no two people think the same.
One person’s opinion of what a man, woman, nurse, artist, or whatever should be will be different from someone else’s opinion. If we try to live up to a label, we will always fail because it’s impossible to fulfill everyone’s expectations of what a fill-in-the-blank should be.
Losing ourselves in our identity
Over time, we may actually believe those labels define our true selves.
Awareness of the gap between who we think we are and who we truly are is fundamental to our spiritual growth. As our understanding that our identity is different from our true self grows, we begin to let go of our attachments to labels, roles, and acting
We may believe that conforming to labels serves others (even if we know that it doesn’t serve us) but this is not true.
For example, if you label yourself as a Christian, you might think that a “good Christian” goes to church every week. So you go to church every week but your heart isn’t in it. You daydream and count the minutes until you can go and do what you really want to do. You may feel that you are now seen as a good Christian by sitting in a pew for an hour or two every Sunday.
But how does it serve anyone if you were just acting?
Wouldn’t you and everyone around you be much better served if you spent that time doing something where you truly connected with your spiritual self?
Who are you without your labels?
I think of John Lennon’s song “Imagine” and think “Imagine there are no labels”. Wouldn’t that be amazing?
Until we become conscious of our attachment to our identity and labels and begin to loosen our grip on being an x, y, or z, we will be disconnected to our true self.
Here’s an exercise you might like to do:
List everything you think you are. Then, form a list of what you think each of those labels means.
- I am a teacher and a teacher is…
- I am a husband and a husband is…
- I am a Republican and a Republican is…
- I am an athlete and an athlete is…
- I am strong-willed and a strong-willed person is…
- I am intelligent and an intelligent person is…
Now review what you have written down. See how many labels you carry around with you every day and how many expectations you attach to these labels.
How do you feel when you read the list?
As with all change, the first step is to notice. Notice when you are conforming or doing something because you think you “should”.
The thought of dropping labels may feel odd, but think about it: if you stop using the label “mother” to define yourself, you won’t forget you have children or to parent your children. If you stop thinking of yourself as a husband, you won’t suddenly forget you have a spouse. It just means you’ll be truly yourself with your children and in your marriage.
You’ll be more in flow and connecting with them authentically instead of acting.
Be your true self.
Focus on progress, not perfection. It is unrealistic to think that you will be able to drop all identification with labels, and the expectations you attach to them. But little by little, you will feel lighter and more free within yourself when you let go.
Identity and labels are one of the many topics that we discuss in Consciousness Circles. If you would like to go deeper into your conscious living practice, receive coaching from me, and discuss these topics with a community of others on the same journey, I invite you to join us!