Written by therapist Clair Miller
I’ve been thinking about that quote a lot lately, discussing it with clients, coworkers, and friends. I can’t get a clear answer on who initially said it, and I can’t even remember the first time I heard it. But in recent weeks, it has been on my mind.I think it gives great perspective in discussions of identity.
Identity is something that comes up often in counseling. In fact, in my own experience, I think it has been a part of every client’s work in the therapy room, whether we are talking about it directly or tangentially. By its very definition, identity is fundamental. It’s defined as, “the fact of being who or what a person is.” Simply put, it’s who we are. There are lots of different theories out there as to how and why identity develops over one’s lifetime. However, it certainly does develop even from infancy, as we start expressing ourselves and showing some personality.
How one chooses to define themselves and their identity is up to them and likely based on a myriad of factors. One of the factors, though, that many people take into consideration consciously or otherwise, is illustrated by the quote above.
“I am who I think you think I am”.
Hopefully, we have some sense of who we are for ourselves, but often we end up looking to others to define us as well. We use their perceptions of us as a gauge with which to distinguish ourselves. This tends to happen during adolescence as peer relationships become more important, but the tendency to look to others to define us is something that often lingers.
But – there’s an inherent problem with this means of defining ourselves. Not only is it giving others’ more power over us than we need to, but it is also based on little more than guesswork. We don’t actually know what other people are thinking. We can’t know. Even if they tell us, we don’t know for sure that they aren’t just being nice (or mean, for that matter). That’s why I love that the quote is clear- it isn’t “I am who you think I am”. It’s more layered and more convoluted than that. It’s, “I am who I think you think I am”.
If we are looking for others’ perceptions to determine our identity, we are basing it on our guess at what others might think. We are all biased in so many ways, so what are the chances that our guess is actually accurate? Seems pretty slim to me.
A Healthy Identity
Now, even if we did know what others thought of us, would that be a healthy way to form our identity? Probably not, though I do think our intuition as well as others’ feedback can be helpful information for us to take into consideration if we want to better ourselves or emanate certain characteristics.
So if we don’t base it on what others think of us, and we don’t base it on what we think others think of us, what should we base our identity on? This is such an important question, and there’s no one-size-fits-all answer. But here are a couple of things to think about that could start you off on a helpful route to better understand yourself.
- Look at your values. A quick google search will likely provide you with several short inventories that can be helpful in exploring and identifying where your values lie. Knowing what qualities, experiences, or things you value is helpful not only to heighten your self-awareness but to allow you to make more congruent and fulfilling choices.
- Take an assessment. There are tons of personality assessments out there! My favorites are the Myers-Briggs and the Enneagram, and you can find free versions pretty easily. The purpose of these assessments isn’t to box you into a predetermined category, but I think it can be thought provoking at the very least in offering insight into common characteristics, communication styles, conflict styles, etc.
- See a counselor!
If you are interested in learning more about yourself and your identity development, reach out to a therapist. We’d love to work with you through the process!