Is identity something you can put on?

by Kristin on October 27, 2011

in Culture, ideas & paradigms

Photo by Paul Keller

I work with design firms on the voice/tone end of branding projects for clients, and I’ve discovered one of the biggest misconceptions about the process is this: that you can achieve the brand you want simply by putting it on.

It’s true that great design and copy can work magic, fooling some people into believing you are that cool, that environmentally-minded, or that invested in people, but it’s only a matter of time before the costume is ripped off and the bare truth is exposed. That’s why I’ll only ever take on a branding project if the client is willing to work at uncovering their brand, not just putting on one they fancy.

Who they are is already there, it just hasn’t been fully exposed, highlighted and shown off for what it is. That isn’t to say it’s an easy process, though. Sometimes the true character of an organization is just buried like an archeological treasure waiting to be dusted off and brought to the light, but more often the core brand has accumulated a lot of miscellaneous junk over the years that needs to be scrubbed off or chipped away (think of beautiful features in an old house that need to be restored, like oak moulding covered with layers of paint or wood floors hidden by carpeting).

From organizational branding to personal identity

Last week an engaging discussion about identity took place on Jennifer Luitweiler’s blog, following a guest post by KC (who also has his own blog over here). I got sort of worked up because KC concluded his post with a couple of questions that suggest we can each make our identity what we want it to be (“What do you want your identity to be? What are you doing to make it happen?”).

I argued that our true identities can only be uncovered and leveraged, or made the most of, in our particular lives and circumstances. We can’t simply decide what we want our identities to be. That doesn’t mean we don’t have work to do, though. Here’s how I put it, in the comments:

I feel strongly that identity isn’t something you put on or choose, but rather it’s something you uncover. In other words, it’s there and always has been. You were born with it. It’s not about being born with a certain skin color or other external factors, it’s about having been created to be a certain person and to live out a certain story in your certain way. That’s where the choices come in: How do I reconcile that devastating experience or that mistake, or maybe even my gender or skin color with the person I was created to be? How do I uncover my identity in the most honest way, and bare myself to the world? What parts of my identity tend to get me in trouble, and how can I instead harness them for good?

It sounds a lot like my philosophy on branding, doesn’t it? And maybe I’m all wrong—I don’t know. Maybe this whole argument is simply caught up in the confusion of semantics. I’m certainly not an expert on semantics or psychology, let alone what God was up to when he created us.

What it means to be ‘comfortable in your own skin’

I do know, however, that I spent decades trying to live out an identity that I “put on” because I liked the look and sound of it. Eventually, when everything came crashing down and I had nothing to lose, the facade was stripped away and I really felt, for maybe the first time, what it was like to be comfortable in my own skin.

Maybe that’s why, when we finally start to uncover our identity, it feels so comfortable—so form-fitted and well-worn—because we aren’t trying something new on, we’re finally wrapping ourselves in something that was created for us and has been with us all along. That’s how it feels to be freely, completely yourself—not like you’re walking through life wearing some scratchy rented tuxedo or some spikey heels and lots of jewelry, but your wearing something custom-created for you, that feels right in any part of your life that is right.

Have you ever felt that shift from scratchy tuxedo to custom-tailored comfort happen in your life?

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  • http://shawnsmucker.com Shawn Smucker

    This discussion has me wondering about the relationship between identity and purpose. Do we sometimes confuse who we are with what we are tailor-made to do? Is it possible that many of us are trying to find our identity in our purpose?

    As I grow older, I learn more and more that God has created me to tell stories. But if that (my purpose) becomes my identity, there seems to potentially be a serious downside to that. I don’t know. Just thinking.

  • http://jenniferluitwieler.com Jennifer

    I am thrilled that this discussion continues in various venues, in many beautiful hearts. I find identity to be this ethereal “thing” that I know but have difficulty defining. Kristin, you elucidate your point wonderfully, as always. And Shawn throws in another kink when he brings up purpose.

    I suppose, in the end, it’s neither here nor there, but how we live our lives, how we engage with others, the choices we make (which of course reflect both our identity and our purpose). I find this kind of discussion good for my brain and my heart. I have no answers.

  • sarah louise

    The change from the scratchy tuxedo to the comfortable coat made just for me: this journey from public librarian to librarian scholar. When I gave my talk on magazines at the library conference earlier this month, it was like, YES. This is what I’m supposed to be doing. As I prepare for what I hope is my last year before more schooling, I am noticing that many things I used to adore about my job are becoming rote, my interests are changing. And no one that knows me well is surprised. My boss said it this way when I told her of my plans: “That never occurred to me, but it makes so much sense, you are the most well-read librarian of librarian publications that I’ve worked with.”

    Thank you for this post. As I troll twitter for links, I find that your blog is something I can read on screen and internalize. You have a real gift for clarity.

    xo, (and cupcakes)
    SL

  • http://www.leighkramer.com HopefulLeigh

    Wrapping myself in what was created for me…I love how you’ve explained this. Since quitting my job in June, I have felt such freedom and peace. And definitely, definitely more like myself. The real me that had been chipped away after putting on the Social Worker identity. I can’t say what my life will look like a year from now or whether this decision will pay off the way I want it to. However, it feels so good and true to write and care for someone else’s child. Should I ever go back into social work, I’m convinced I’d approach it differently.

  • http://takingtheyoke.blogspot.com Ray Hollenbach

    Keeping up a put-on identity becomes awfully tiresome. The report from my outpost in the mid-50′s is that we are perhaps unable to know our identity in the earliest years of our adult life, and yet when we begin to discover that identity we find (to our surprise) that we have played a significant role in crafting it as well.

    I’ve always been a “both-and” kind of guy, so it seems to me that we can direct ourselves in a general direction, but the taste (hunger?) for that direction stems from a place deep with in. Whatever the truth may be, it’s so much more relaxing when you don’t give a flip for what most others think.

  • Kirstin

    This is a really interesting post and question.

    I think people have to be really thoroughly self-consciously miserable in fairly specific ways in order to recognize that the “identity” they’ve taken on is a scratchy ill-fitting suit. It takes a lot of self-awareness to recognize that unpleasant sensation as something that can be changed–and even then, change isn’t always possible. The line between the discomfort of identity and the discomfort of, well…*life*…isn’t always easy to discern.

    I decided to embark on a career change for a number of structural reasons–mostly because the labor-intensive things I’d need to do to stay in it were not appealing to me, and it occurred to me that retraining for a different career would be as much time and effort with a more certain outcome. Discovering that my old career (and the identity that went with it) was in many ways an ill-fitting suit was a revelation that came with starting to make the change and define myself in new ways.

  • http://frizzytalksinhersleep-reduxx.blogspot.com Roxanne

    I do think that identity is intertwined with purpose, something we simply cannot choose, but rather, must uncover. Giving up a career, even though it feels like that scratchy tuxedo, can seem scary, but the payoff for finally discovered what one’s purpose is ~ wow.

  • http://www.tonyjalicea.com Tony J. Alicea

    I’m with you on this, Kristin. In response to Shawn’s comment on the relationship between identity and purpose, that is an absolutely HUGE issue.

    Most people think their identity IS their passion or purpose. But I don’t agree. I believe that your purpose and/or passions come from who you already are underneath everything. Many times people chase identities to “put on” because they think they need to be this or that.

    Once you strip all of those expectations away, you find out who you really are. It has nothing to do with what you “do”. It’s just who you are underneath everything. Once you get that, you find your personality and character. That shapes what you do, what your passions are and what your purpose ultimately is.

    The thing is, since those “things” aren’t your identity, when you fail, you are still you. You don’t have to have an identity crisis because you don’t find your worth or value in what you do, what you’re passionate about or how well you achieve your purpose.

    You are just you. The man or woman God has created you to be. Success or failure. Limelight or background. Influential or unheard of.

  • Dave

    Two things struck me.

    First some folks could interpret what you’re saying is that you can’t change, which could leave some with no hope? But I think you’re really saying you can’t change until you strip down to the foundation that is really you? Once on that solid footing I believe some positive changes are possible.

    Second my heart goes out to some that have buried that core identity so far down that the recovery process can be traumatic. Sadly, a few may not even be able to survive the transformation. Most can though, with help from those that can see them for who they really are.

  • http://www.halfwaytonormal.com Kristin T.

    Shawn, hmm, that’s interesting—the difference between identity and purpose. I’m sure many of us are trying (or have tried) to find our identity in our purpose. That’s a big part of why it can be so difficult for women who put their careers on hold to have babies to figure out “who they are.” I think there are aspects of my identity that make me a writer, but I don’t think of “writer” as part of my identity. Interesting stuff to ponder…

    Jennifer, you’re right about this—it’s about “how we live our lives, how we engage with others, the choices we make.” That’s the fruit, for sure. It’s hard to produce that fruit, though, when you’re not able to live your life as the person you really are.

    sarah louise, thanks for sharing your story, and for your kind words. Your comment made me think of the Love List project—those things that you love that just make you feel most like YOU. It sure feels great when you find them, doesn’t it?

    HopefulLeigh, I love hearing about the changes in your life, and how right they feel now, even if they aren’t right for always. That brings up an important part of identity (or at least my philosophy on it)—that circumstances do change, and the ways you respond and engage and make choices will shift, even as your identity remains solid. I’m so glad you’re setting fear aside and living in this moment!

    Ray, this makes sense to me: “…it seems to me that we can direct ourselves in a general direction, but the taste (hunger?) for that direction stems from a place deep with in.” Maybe this edges up to what Shawn was saying and I was suggesting—that our identity fuels our purpose but doesn’t define our purpose?

  • http://www.left2devices.blogspot.com Matt

    Interesting post/thoughts.

    I’m going to have to respectfully disagree with a lot of it. Much of it is rooted in a perceived difference in origins. I do not believe in a god, so I do not believe that we are created with specifications in mind (other than what we receive genetically). Granted, I may be wrong. I’m not one of those atheists who thinks that I’m right and that’s final and there’s no debating it.

    Still, once you take away the singular purpose origin, then you’re left with a random life, that is shaped and molded by our genes, nature and our environment. We all do have an identity, I think, but are fooling ourselves if we think we can ever fully know what it is. We are able to grasp bits and pieces of it, but never the full picture.

    I also think it’s important first define what we’re talking about when we refer to ‘identity.’ I may have missed it, but I don’t think it was defined in this post, so it’s rather difficult to have a cogent discussion about it. I mean, is it who we are at our core, or is it how we are when we’re around various people? For example: I am not the same with my mom as I am with my friend Terry, as I am with my partney Ashley, as I am with my co-workers, as I am with my friend Sean, etc. etc. Is that identity?

    Also, the bit about being “created to be a certain person and to live out a certain story in your certain way” is, of course, only believable if someone thinks there is a master god somewhere, working on creating different things in his human/soul workshop. I also think that we need to be careful not to conflate “purpose” with “destiny.” So often I see folks mis-using those words. Purpose can be found from an originally random life. Destiny is saying, ‘I was born to do [x].’

    Just my two cents.

  • http://shawnsmucker.com Shawn Smucker

    @Matt – I don’t think one has to have a belief in God to engage in a discussion about identity/purpose. I’m not sure that a life molded by “only” genetics, nature and our environment need be seen as random, even if there is no higher power.

    I appreciate your question, “What’s the definition of identity?” And even as someone who finds my identity in trying to unpack and examine the life of Christ, I probably agree when you say “we can never fully know what it is.” Actually, I would probably say that we can never fully “understand” what it is.

    Finally, I’m not sure that believing we are “created to be a certain person and to live out a certain story in your certain way” requires a belief in god. I think the metaphor can stand whether you believe a Creator made you, or a combination of genetics/environment created you to be who you are. Now, whether or not you believe in that way of looking at things, that we all have that specific a story to live, can be just as much a philosophical question as a religious one.

    Interesting stuff.

  • http://www.halfwaytonormal.com Kristin T.

    Matt, I’m really glad you took the time to share your perspective and thoughts. Because I was raised in a Christian family and church, it can be hard to hit mute on that “God made you” message, and imagine life from a different paradigm. Shawn ended up saying some of what I was thinking as I read your comment, but here are a few more thoughts that crossed my mind.
    - “We all do have an identity, I think, but are fooling ourselves if we think we can ever fully know what it is.” Absolutely! I think that’s why the “uncovering” metaphor works well for me. It’s a process that takes time and effort, and must be approached from many angles. I wouldn’t be surprised if we never finish the task, in a lifetime!
    - “I also think it’s important first define what we’re talking about when we refer to ‘identity.’” Yeah, that’s what I was trying to do, but I never came out with a succinct “definition,” did I? :) I think of it as the heart/core of your true character. Sure, it plays itself out in different ways, depending on who you’re with and what you’re doing, and sometimes it’s eclipsed by a covering of “false character,” but I think we all know when we’re being true to ourselves and when we aren’t, don’t you? (Or, more likely, when we’re being some combination of true and false to who we are…)
    - “I also think that we need to be careful not to conflate ‘purpose’ with ‘destiny.’” I agree. And to be honest, I’m not a big believer in “destiny” as a part of my faith. I believe too much in free will, and the ability to shift and alter our lives as we go, for better or worse. I also believe there are many paths we can take (in terms of who we partner with, what we do for a living, etc.) that can be in line with our true identity and God’s “will for our lives.” In other words, the identity is agile and God’s will is more about the big picture than the specific details. (That’s just my take!)

  • http://www.halfwaytonormal.com Kristin T.

    Kirstin, I love this: “It takes a lot of self-awareness to recognize that unpleasant sensation as something that can be changed–and even then, change isn’t always possible. The line between the discomfort of identity and the discomfort of, well…*life*…isn’t always easy to discern.” SO true. Here’s to your career change, and your ability to recognize the why and how behind it!

    Roxanne, yes, there’s that whole “purpose” angle again! I’m still thinking on this—it might inspire another post!

    Tony, thanks for jumping into the conversation. I can really relate to this: “Once you strip all of those expectations away, you find out who you really are.” Unfortunately, it often takes a crisis or difficult time of some sort to get to that place! I also like this really important point: “The thing is, since those ‘things’ aren’t your identity, when you fail, you are still you.”

    Dave, I guess I’m saying that your core identity can’t change, but no one would *want* it to change, because it’s so perfectly right. So yes, we all have lots of changing to do, but I suspect those changes are a part of the process of “uncovering” your true identity. Does that make sense? And your second point…yes. It is so difficult and can be so painful. It makes me think of C.S. Lewis’ scene in The Voyage of the Dawntreader, of the dragon shedding its skin. When we’re willing to see and love people for who they are, as you point out, it makes such a difference.

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  • http://www.left2devices.blogspot.com Matt

    Shawn & Kristin: Thank you for responses! I’m pondering what you’ve written. :-)