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Finding Identity When “Who Am I” is a Moving Target

When I was forming my identity, I looked up to my sister and “crazy aunt Sally” because they always spoke their truth.  I admired strong female protagonists who were free spirits, and later female singer/songwriters who put melodies to my emotions.  I discovered a shared artistic sensibility with directors, actors, and visual artists.

I knew very little about most of these people, but the stories they created for me helped shape who I am today.  Who are the role models shaping our future now?

Harry Potter, Frodo, Morpheus from the Matrix.  Malala, Caitlyn Jenner, Obama.  Beyonce, Lady Gaga, Russell Brand.  The images and ideologies around these figures serve an important role in our society.  They are archetypes.

Their stories make up myths that define our culture.  And myths are how societies dictate their place in history.  They are meant to be a guide to help navigate the social environment. No one understood this better than Carl Jung.  

American mythologist Joseph Campbell popularized Jung’s ideas in "The Hero’s Journey."  He said, “The first function of mythology is showing everything as a metaphor to transcendence.”  Campbell’s protege Phil Cousineau explains:

This suggests that the search for identity is an inner journey that works its way out, in contrast to external forces (e.g. media/corporations/government) that tend to shape individuals from the outside in.  Which would you prefer: finding your own voice or conforming to popular culture?

But what happens if you don’t recognize your inner voice or speak its language? What if you don't know how to define it? Consider "starving" artists.  Some might be battling depression because they are juggling a “day job.”  Some might be scraping by to survive on their art alone.  Some might be addicts or just simply misunderstood (not only by others, but by themselves).

Many of these people grew up being told everything they did was wrong or not important. They discovered on their own that the dominating authority always has the last say, the best deal, and all the control.  That sounds like something to strive for if your whole life has been on the short end of the stick.

Social psychologist Henri Tajfel’s 1979 study proposed that groups are “an important source of pride and self-esteem.  Groups give us a sense of social identity: a sense of belonging to the social world.”

But just as our society is regularly changing and evolving, so too is our identity a moving target.  This is why it is a great tragedy of our culture that we are taught to value finish lines, bottom lines, and end-goals at the expense of all else.  Corporations will look the other way if you exceed expectations that fuel growth.

We’re told to get to the point and get to it fast, or we be voted off the island.  You certainly won’t get any funding on Shark Tank if you don't draw a bottom line.  You only have 2 minutes to impress the judges on America’s Got Talent or they won’t even turn around to look at you.  And in those 2 minutes you have to somehow express your identity...

But if “Who am I” is a life-long search, how can anyone fit themselves into these molds?  It seems fraudulent, or at the very least, inauthentic.  And obliging this dictate of society comes with strings attached.  

Conforming to social pressure compromises our own integrity.  Once assigned a social group, it excludes all else. Tajfel’s study concluded with Social Identity Theory, which explains the slippery slope from “belonging” to “prejudice”:

“We see the group to which we belong (the in-group) as being different from the others (the out-group), and members of the same group as being more similar than they [in fact] are. Social categorization is one explanation for prejudice attitudes (i.e. “them” and “us” mentality).”

Further studies have proven that people become blind to the truth if it contradicts their beliefs.  The Atlantic’s Julie Beck analyzed why people believe “fake news” in This Article Won’t Change Your Mind:

“[I]f the thing you might be wrong about is a belief that’s deeply tied to your identity or worldview—[your] guru is accused of terrible things, the cigarettes you’re addicted to can kill you—well, then people [will do] all the mental gymnastics it takes to remain convinced that they’re right.”

Survivalist Ed Stafford found his identity by tuning everyone else out.  He experienced the ‘enormity’ of social isolation while living alone in the Amazon for 2½ years, including 60 days on a remote island.  In an interview on Russell Brand’s podcast Under the Skin, Stafford said people tend to define their lives by how their behavior, ideas, and actions “bounce off other people.”


While in isolation there were no reactions from which to bounce his thoughts off, no one to judge him or from whom he could measure himself against.  All he could do was bounce definitions off the only person who was present: his authentic self.

That’s an awesome way to find your inner voice.  But disappearing into isolation for 60 days is an extreme route, and certainly not sustainable. A more realistic path to defining “Who am I?” is to surround yourself by authentic, honest, and good people.  The archetypal stories found in art also serve this purpose.

These stories have never been more important than right now when there seems to be a disconnect between our socio-political realities and our personal lives.  The current social discourse around identity is based on dichotomies: gender, race, sexual orientation, #MeToo, #BlackLivesMatter, and even #GunControl.  And yet the messaging behind every movement is asking for unity and freedom for all.

This disconnect makes finding your inner voice confusing.  If the predominant authority, let's say media, is reflecting a warped version of reality, life becomes awkward and uncomfortable.  Sound familiar?

We're currently at the crossroads of a cultural revolution when artistic representations of myths and role models are needed most.  Wesley Morris paints the backdrop nicely in his New York Times 2015 article The Year We Obsessed Over Identity:

"And where are we?  On one hand: in [a melodramatic slapstick movie].  On the other: in the midst of a great cultural identity migration.  Gender roles are merging.  Races are being shed.  In the last six years or so we’ve been made to see how trans and bi and poly-ambi-omni- we are.
This is a country founded on independence and yet comfortable with racial domination, a country that has forever been trying to legislate the lines between whiteness and nonwhiteness, between borrowing and genocidal theft.  We’ve wanted to think we’re better than a history we can’t seem to stop repeating."

And yet, even as we are doomed to repeat the past, life is evolving.  National Geographic’s April 2018 special edition, “The Race Issue,” suggests These Twins, One Black and One White, Will Make You Rethink Race:

“[W]hen the twins are asked about their differences, they mention something else entirely. [They] say ‘People are made how they are.’”

Let our current realities be merely a frame for the world we create.  We are not only defining ourselves, we are defining our place in history; the myths for future generations to define themselves against.  

As new role models are coming forward every day, we must remember the lessons from previous cultural revolutions: the Great Depression, Woman’s Suffrage, Civil Rights Movement, the hippie rebellion, Wikileaks, and even Colin Kaepernick.  The people who fought the social barriers of their times were speaking their truths at that moment.  

Most of us understand that it takes great risk to speak up, especially considering the dangers of Social Identity Theory.  Proceeding in the face of risk is what makes those situations and leaders pivotal to future generations.  Their stories carve #AnotherWay for people to see themselves from an authentic perspective instead of an institutional dictum. 

Not everyone has a “crazy aunt Sally,” or any positive role model in their life at all.  But we can still find transcendence by using the Mirror Effect with personal relationships and archetypes.  “Who Am I” is a journey, not a destination.

Emileena is writing a book on artist development called ANOTHER WAY, the Dao of Artist Development. If you are an artist looking for development, consider Emileena's E-Velop program.

Original Artwork by Dave Law, freelance visual artist and illustrator.



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