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Identity: So Who Are You Really?

“Who are you?”

Very few questions boggle my mind quite like this one. Who am I? How do I even begin to put my entire being into 5 smooth sentences that make sense? I struggle with this question because the truth is, I actually don’t know. Plain and simple. I know what I do, what I like, who I love and what I think- for now- but as life has taught me, these are not only outward-based but also changeable. Careful for my answer to not be met with a “Oh- I-guess- you- don’t- know- yourself” (which society has made synonymous with, “you actually don’t have it all together, hunny”), I have always unconsciously used a demographic profile, job title and what they suggest about who I am as a means to define myself.

These are the very things that have dictated how I behave, how I think and what I have centred my life on after all, so surely this is who I am? I wonder if that is a reflection of my true self. The self that I have created or am supposed to find? Is who I am based on what external factors i.e. society has told me that I am or should be?
On a quest to delve deeper into the topic of self-identification for other people, I asked the women around me the same question. “Who are you?” Judging from the reactions, this was clearly a baffling question to ask. “Who am I? Uhm, what do you mean?”, they replied. “Uhm, it depends on the context”.

Context, according to the Macmillan dictionary, suggests that the answer is conditional. But does that really matter? Is there no all-encompassing answer regardless of who is asking the question, why and where they are asking it? Is there no unified or consistent self that could be made reference to? When probed even further: mom, daughter, friend, black, wife, strategist, South African were some of the answers I heard.

Most answers noticeably related to the multiple titles, groups or environments that had been pre-determined or adopted throughout their lives- all of which carry assumed roles. Roles are the behaviour and qualities that are expected of us on the basis of our titles which subsequently inform or feed into who we are. For instance, because I am a woman, I am expected to act in certain ways that are considered acceptable or appropriate to society and therefore have learned to use that as a means to define myself.

In the same breath my race, my job title as well as all the social groups I belong to – along with all their unwritten rules of behaviour and qualities - have heavily influenced the way in which I act, think and relate to society and myself. Could it be that we take on the cues to be who we are from different surroundings? Does each environment call for us to be a different self? Does this mean that who we are is a mere product of external societal norms? Is who we are something that has been dictated to us?
A trip I took to Bali revealed that perhaps I have always used my titles and conditioning as the basis of my self-identity. All of the things that I had always used to define myself had zero context and fell away once I was 14h 50 minutes away from home. It didn’t matter what my job title was or who I knew or who knew me. It didn’t matter who my friends were or what ‘social group’ I belonged to. It didn’t matter that I was black or that I grew up in Soweto - and what connotations that had.

If anything, the connotations of being a black woman and how I identified with myself as a result were completely different in Bali. In Bali, being a black woman meant that I was perceived as this exotic person of interest; locals were captivated by my braids and my skin colour - things that I had been programmed to perceive as ‘normal’ .

Essentially, being black and what that meant to me completely shifted because I was in a different environment. All in all the boxes I had been so programmed to fit myself into and use as the basis of my identity dissolved. I then wondered, if who I am is based on my titles, my activities, my environment and all their connotations then who am I when they change, lose context or fall away? Do you know who you are outside what your titles, geography suggest you should be?

Outside whom you are trying to impress or make proud of you? Can you honestly say that it is an independent decision? Or is it a result of conditioning? Are you inadvertently perpetuating a cycle? Is who you are true and natural or acquired and adapted?

Maybe our ‘true selves” are who we are when we are born and perhaps in the early stages of our childhood. ‘The true self’ could be what is left when we are stripped of the conditioning, titles and expectations that we have been taught to subscribe to. If so, I imagine the true self that we are born as to be goo-like: fluid, not bound by rules or expectations and independent of external forces. It seems as we grow up, society begins to define us by dictating to us who to be, what we are allowed to do, and how to act which we begin to adopt as our own identity and behaviour. This is the process of shaping, boxing and moulding the ‘true self’.

Our mothers teach us to behave a certain way, work demands that we be another way, relationships expect certain things from us, and our children need us to be another way. Because there was no father figure around, we act a certain way. Friends and social groups expect us to comply with certain standards. Social status and even reputation call us to act another way. We are so many things to so many people in so many different environments, with every element calling for us to be a different self. Books play a huge part too, particularly the multiple best-selling books that tell us who to be and how to act in order to get this life thing right. “Think Like a Man, Act like a Lady”, “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People” and not forgetting “Why Men Love Bitches”. Such societal standards are constantly pulling at, pinching, compressing and diluting what may be the ‘true self’.

Maybe who we are is a reaction to other people’s perceptions and is not something that we actually create? Perhaps it is something that is a total external process and not something that we actually independently decide upon internally? Perhaps it is a myriad of the titles handed over to us by society?

I don’t know. I am still figuring it out myself. With all the numerous societal elements at play in our self-identification, is it not ironic that the very same society that moulds us into an acquired self has the audacity to tell us ‘be yourself’?

By @LeratoTsotetsii

35 comments on “Identity: So Who Are You Really?”

  1. "Our mothers teach us to behave a certain way, work demands that we be another way, relationships expect certain things from us, and our children need us to be another way. Because there was no father figure around, we act a certain way. Friends and social groups expect us to comply with certain standards. Social status and even reputation call us to act another way. We are so many things to so many people in so many different environments, with every element calling for us to be a different self. "

    I think what you said here is exactly why this question is a hard one for me. With all the roles I'm expected to play, all the things I have to be, which one of them is really me? And when all these roles and titles are stripped off, what remains?
    O re botsa di question tse deep

    "Be Yourself" - which self?

    1. Lol @ "di question tse deep". Exactly Lelo! I have always struggled to answer this question. Who am I vele? Who knows! One thing at work, one thing at home because of the differing environments and expectations. It is a tough one to answer. Who knows, perhaps this seemingly unanswerable question is what life is all about? Maybe it gets revealed to us, as life goes on? Or maybe we will never know. Asazi.

  2. I still struggle to answer this question too...You are right! I know when you're in a job interview and are asked to define your yourself, you do so in relation to the job you have applied for. However, when you are a makoti and your inlaws are giving you a new name which has a new definition...meaning whenever you are at your new home ( inlaws) you act and behave as per the definition of the name given to you.

    The question still remains, who are you? My simple response has always been, Ï am as God created me" I am a child of God, meaning I am human and I navigate through life. I think that's who am I.

    1. Ah yes!! Job interviews are actually what peaked my interest in writing this article Theo. "So who is Lerato??" or "Tell us about yourself". Uhmmmm where do I start?

      " Ï am as God created me” I am a child of God, meaning I am human and I navigate through life. I think that’s who am I.". Nicely put. I couldn't agree more. Throughout my life I have learned that it is more fulfilling to center my identity of God because only He knows who I truly am and holistically.

  3. This article left me thinking that I too don't really know who I really am. Great article by the way ☺

    1. Thank you Thabie. I am glad you liked it. I guess we are all on a journey to really delving deeper into who we are. Goodluck on your journey gurrrl

  4. The pressure lies within the question..
    I'm my opinion I am EVERYTHING, all the little things that make me, all the roles I play

    We can't expect to answer a question that could take weeks or months to answer in a single paragraph. There is a reason why it takes time to get to know someone - because like cabbages we are layered. Some things you can tell from the surface others fall away as we grow and the rest are hidden for those interested enough to find out.

    So I am EVERYTHING what you see and what you dont and lest we forget I am growing so who I am is not definite it's ever changing and sometimes paradoxical ... it's complicated to be EVERHTHING

    @Leratotsotetsii amazing article ❤

    1. Ah Nokubonga, imagine how long it would take to dissect and describe every single part of what "makes' us. We are such complicated, complex beings and are certainly not one-dimensional.
      Absolutely, we are all those little things that make us but in the same breath, what would happen if they all fall away. Eish.
      "...lest we forget I am growing so who I am is not definite it’s ever changing and sometimes paradoxical … ". Love this! Yaaas.
      Thanks for your kind words xxx

  5. That's a very difficult question to answer. I know @Leratotsotetsi you have asked me before. Again I say it depends on the context. I am a mother, a wife, a student, an employee, a church member, a counselor, a chauffeur,a nurse, a nunny, a referee, a baker. It all depends on the environment where you ask the question.

    1. Ella, I hear you but who are you in the absence of all these things...put them aside for a while and think how you would answer this question if all these things are frozen for one day...i say this as i also define myself like you do and am agreeing with you...but this then means I am neglecting to think about who I really am if I had to to wake up one day and they are all gone...who am I? really...

      Nice one Lerato 🙂

    2. @EllahNdlovu @Nthabs. Ah yes, but it is so hard to actually seperate ourselves from everything that we have been taught to base our identities around. What happens if we wake up tomorrow and have different jobs? Or no friends? Have a different relationship status? It will certainly somewhat impact on how we relate to ourselves and our different environments. It is something that we will continue to uncover as we navigate through this life thing. Or maybe not? Who knows. Thanks for your kind words Nthabs

  6. I struggle to answer this question. Do the roles I play in life determine who I am? What about my upbringing? Individually these questions are simple enough to answer it's putting it all together and defining who I am... That is what I struggle with. As you say Lerato, Society will make us think and believe that you MUST know who you are to have your life together...
    Also for me I find that who I am changes, like who I was 10 years ago is definitely different to the person I am now, I guess it's all part of a journey of self-discovery.

    1. Absolutely Busi! Looking back, I was a completely different person with different priorities and values 10 years ago compared to now. Identity is a changeable thing. I find that my upbringing has affected my sense of identity, but my self-discovery journey has been all about being presented with new information and unlearning, relearning and re-learning :).
      And yes, we are so boxed in these ideas of how we are supposed to be. It's so annoying honestly. I wonder how different the world would term out if we were to actually be free and not worry about rules, roles and expectation. I think the true self would somehow rise from there? Or maybe not? Who knows hey.

  7. I struggle with this Q a lot, too. I always feel naked if I must answer it. I like to think that I am self-aware, but this question always catches me off guard. Do I describe myself by my passions, what I do, or where I'm from? Is it where I am going? Such a loaded question.

    1. Eish, trust me you and I are in the same boat hun. I guess it is a never-ending process that requires a lot of self-awareness.

  8. I AM...what follows these words shapes your reality. Great article. I find a new me everyday. I personally feel like I would get bored if I knew who I was right to the tee. No room for discovery. Feels rather monotonous and normal and that bores we. I love adventure

    1. Love that!! Maybe it's not our business to know who we are all-in-all at the same time. You are right. Life is about self-discovery. We would probably be bored know-it-alls if we had all the answers hey. Hhaha

  9. It's such a difficult one for most of us, I think it's mainly because when someone asks us who we are, what we hear is who we're supposed to be?

    It's tricky.
    Loved the read Lerato, thank you!

    1. Exactly. Our answers are also so heavily influenced by external factors which proves that maybe we hold onto an acquired self . It is SO tricky!!! Thank you Nozi 🙂

  10. I think these types of questions should not be asked in job interviews lol. Because then the answer will have to depend on the content.
    I think to try answer this question one needs to take away all the expectations from society, work, family, spouse, children; if we took all that away, who is going to be remaining? I think it is only then that we can truly answer this question.
    In April last year I received salvation in ways I never thought were possible. From then til today it's like I have stepped outside of my body and watching in awe the reconstruction that God has been doing. I also find my body rejecting stuff I used to do because they were not in line with my "true self". My thoughts are also very different. ANGISAFANI! Some may argue that this is because of change of perspective, constant reading of the Word and prayer, but the thing is no one told me to start doing those things, I find myself longing to do them.
    I believe life is about becoming but you cant "become" without a source, cause or root (I do not know what to call it) and that source will determine your becoming (the type of job you choose, your friends, your partner who will then determine your children). THAT source is who you are.
    My GAAAD, I'm not sure if I make sense but this is how I see it.

  11. Hahah eish and it always seems to be the 1st question that pops up in interviews hey ;/. Exactly, how do you actually separate yourself from everything. Wow. That's amazing. Good for you sisi. I remember a book I read a while ago. It spoke about our 'centres' and how that informs who we are, how we behave, what we think etc. You make absolute sense. I am so proud of you. You sound like you have really gone through a transformative process that has changed you for the better. Yaaaas girl!!

  12. I have always found it so hard to answer this question. Sometimes I even program and practice answers for job interviews even.

    And funny thing is right now I still feel like I have no clue who I am

    1. Dude, me too. I used to use a practiced introduction too. In a previous interview, I literally told ask what exactly they would like to know because the question they had asked was so broad for me. They gave me free reign there I was using all my titles and roles again. Eish.

  13. Great read and life provoking question which most of us thought we knew only to realize that we are on a journey of discovery.
    The way I respond to the question “who am I?” is, I look at all the things that describe me, the roles I play in society, my personality and behaviour and I ask myself “who am I without all these things”. This leaves me with my authentic self. This authentic self should be proven under any circumstances or context. It should serve your best interests, make you happy, calm, peaceful, content and fulfilled. So, who am I? I am God-like. God's spirit is in me. I am a perfect being.

    1. hmm God-spirit. I like that. I think that is probably the best way to describe our authentic selves. I struggle to answer the question when I take away all my titles hey. Eish. Hw do I describe that? Glad you have found a way to identify yourself outside of worldly things. 🙂

  14. I am in my late thirties and I have difficulty answering this question. I have always lived for someone else, was pregnant when I was 15 and had my daughter at 16. I was still a child then and she became my world, I forgot about me and everything was about her. Years later got married, had 2 more kids and things got worse. I am still trying to figure out who am I and what am I good at. I write this with tears in my eyes because I don't even remember how my life was before I had kids. I am on a journey of self recovery and enjoying my life. my kids are everything to me but I need to be able to be me and know what interests me and make me tick.
    I am not sure if the personality I have now is due to what happened to me years ago or would I be the same if I did not have a child in my teenage years. I am slowly getting my confidence back and socializing a little bit, one day at a time.

    Thank you Lerato for the lovely read. And thank you to Lelo and team, it does get lonely and we need platforms like Chica to help us meet people who will inspire us and remind us to be the best we can be.

    1. Wow. Thank you for your heartfelt response lady. The truth is, we all grow up latching onto things or people and make them our center. Be it a boyfriend, children, friends, school, career, parents etc. I think at some point it happens to all of us. I was in a similar predicament a few years ago and after some time decided that I wanted to get to know myself and be about myself. It started with making a committed decision to 'do me". I am no expert on the matter, but what worked for me was just making time for myself continuously, journaling, trying new activities/ meeting people, reading self-awareness books and moments where i would just let myself be, by myself etc. These made such an impact on my relationship with myself and certainly improved the way that i related to other people. It is a continuous journey and it sounds like you are getting on the right track, girl. All the best Sisi.

  15. Wow! Such a thought provoking article. Turning 30 in July, I have no idea who I am... Feels kinda comforting to know I am not alone.

    1. Woop woop. Dirty thirties!! Awesome. Yes, trust me lady, you are not alone. We are all in the same boat hey.

  16. This is one question I ask myself as often as I can and all the time the answer would be different but there would be the same one's here and there. I would like to get to a point in my life where I have the same answer three times in a row. Who am I and What my name means to me are questions that are doing their rounds in my mind and questions I dare myself to answer. I love them because there is no wrong or right answer- YOU are the only one that truly knows.
    I thank you for this article, now I know am not being weird when I think of such questions. I guess starting with being 'you' will help. To do what 'you' comfortable at and say what makes 'you' comfortable. That way one will slowly develop answers to who 'you' are not based on what the society expects you to be but base on who 'you' are.
    There's the advert of the lady who goes for a job interview and asked who she is and she starts mentioning her achievements, where she studied until she is offered a cup of tea or an advert plays on the radio (not sure) than she mentions her clan name. That is sooo interesting to me is your clan name who you are or just an 'address' of where you come from? if you mention your clan name than people will know oooh you coming from such and such a home or area.
    I enjoyed the article Lerato- It's one of my favourite topic 🙂

    1. Thank you so much Zan :). Yes, what makes you comfortable can form as a guide to finding out who we are. But also, still such complexities eish. Hmm clan name is an interesting take.
      Thanks for reading.

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