We live in a culture which is constantly asking us to self-define. To articulate clearly and concisely what you are and what you are not. To create a brand. To build an image. Those who are unable or unwilling to describe themselves this way are often portrayed as adrift and confused pushovers. I would argue something different.
I believe that with every act of self-definition there is a tradeoff. Every time you stand proud and say “I am this way” you implicitly say “I am not another way”. In doing this, we build our own prison brick by brick. Consider someone who works hard every day. They are able to grind because they understand that they are working towards a better life. They take pride in their work, and will declare to others that they meet “I am a hard worker”. You may know a person like this. I know several. Then comes a time where circumstances conspire to prevent them from working. It may be an illness, or a job loss, or a lazy sunday with nothing to do. They implode. They are unable to take time away from work because to do so threatens their self-concept. I use this as an example because ‘hard worker’ is almost universally agreed upon as a positive trait. I am sure you can think of other examples. The person who says “I am kind” and has difficulty standing up for themselves. The person who says “I am strong” and struggles to temper that strength with compassion. The person who says “I am sad” and feels discomfort in joy.
People generally want to be viewed as consistent. If you declare that you are a certain way, you will likely feel compelled to live up to that definition. To do otherwise is to open yourself to accusations of hypocrisy. The truth is that life is complex, and individual situations call for different actions. If you want to keep the flexibility that will allow you to thrive in life’s many environments, you must be prudent with your self-definition.
So I invite you to make a small change in how you speak to yourself and others. Rather than saying “I am____”, say “I can be ____”. You will be amazed at the difference it can make. Saying “I can be hard working” also implicitly says “I can relax”. Saying “I can be strong” makes a moment of weakness okay. Saying “I can be sad” prevents that sadness from being all you are. Adopting this language keeps your options open, makes it more challenging to attack your identity, and promotes flexible curiosity rather than rigid definition. It is a small change that can have a big impact.
Maybe you feel differently. If so, let me know. I can be flexible.