We’re still very young when we start making our first decisions about who we are…and who we aren’t.
In middle school bad asthma meant that I always had a doctor’s note to walk what was supposed to be a nine minute run…and I therefore determined that I wasn’t a runner.
In high school my first ever C+ came in pre-calculus where the teacher concentrated his teaching only on the kids who got it instantly…and I therefore determined that I wasn’t really a math person (or a science person or a computer science person for that matter).
In college and in my early twenties when the only thing I could cook was spaghetti, I determined that I wasn’t a cook.
These definitions – just like saying we are a person who doesn’t like tomatoes, or who likes milk chocolate better than dark chocolate, or who likes jazz better than classical – give us short cuts for how to navigate the world. They mean we don’t have to make decisions from scratch all of the time because we’ve made that choice before and we know what our usual answer is.
But I think we sometimes make the mistake of believing that each of those choices add up to “who we are” at our core. That we are the sum of our preference for jazz over classical and dogs over cats.
The challenge with that is that it doesn’t leave much room for change, or take into account the fact that we are someone from the moment we are born. We have a “who we are” in place from our first seconds here on earth. The “who” does not rely on the definitions we later add of ourselves to exist.
As we grow up we find definitions comforting because they help explain us to ourselves and to the world, and they connect us to a tribe. If you’re introvert wondering why you are experiencing the world in such a seemingly different way, finding the definition of introversion and connecting with others who experience the world in a similar way provides a tremendous sense of relief.
But we can very quickly move to a place where those definitions start pre-defining our future selves and determining how we move through the world.
If introverts aren’t supposed to like or be able to “handle” big, schmoozy parties with strangers for instance, they may find themselves preemptively turning down party invitations, even if they actually feel like hanging out, because going does not fit the definition of themselves they feel compelled to fulfill.
If you decided 15 or 20 years ago that you are not a cook, or not a math person, or not a runner, it impacts how you approach the world now.
And it has been fascinating to discover that I am still carrying around those definitions of myself, even with my asthma long gone, years of organizational financial management on my resume, and consistently satisfied people sitting around our dinner table.
So I’ve decided to start challenging and updating those definitions even further. I’ve asked someone to help me learn to run, someone else to help me learn to code, and I’ve signed up to with a program to help me become a better cook.
My middle school, high school, and college self won’t recognize these new definitions. And that’s a good thing.