Who are you?

Simple question.

Not so simple to answer.

We each have ideas about who we are and what makes us tick.

We think we “know ourselves.”

We think we’re “self aware.”

But most of us are basing this knowledge on erroneous evidence.

The empirical data from which we construct our identities were supplied to us by parents, teachers, and peers – most of whom offered us only a partial picture of a much greater reality. We became who they told us we were, and many of us continue to play an outdated role, designed for us by others.

In the words of psychiatrist, Harry Stack Sullivan:

“A child lacks the equipment and experience necessary to form an accurate picture of himself, so his only guide is the reactions of others. There is very little cause for him to question these appraisals, and, in any case, he is far too helpless to challenge them or to rebel against them. He passively accepts the judgments. . . thus the self-attitudes learned early in life are carried forever by the individual…”

As our childhood minds absorbed these various appraisals – be them loving, or unloving, caring, or cruel, accepting, or dismissive – we gradually created a conception of ourselves from this collage of reactions. True, we may have prompted some of these reactions. But as children, we were too naive to distinguish between the reasonable and the unreasonable, the rational and the irrational, the reliable and the unreliable. To us, the adult was an all-knowing arbiter of truth. And this included the truth of who we were. Which, in turn, has become the truth of who we presume ourselves to be.

This observation carries a double dose of relevance.

It speaks to our inner-child, and it speaks to our outer-adult.

To our inner-child, it reminds us that we are not necessarily who we think we are. We are not “worthless” just because our second grade teacher deemed us so. We are not “losers” just because our fourth grade classmate claimed we were. We are not “hopeless” just because we failed an eighth grade final. We are not “useless” just because our parents looked at us in a way that made us feel it. We may have internalized these messages, preserving them for future perpetuation. But it’s never too late to begin discovering the truth which underlies these many layers of distortions and misconceptions.

To our outer-adult, this observation reminds us to think twice before reacting to our children and students in a way which could destroy their self images. Their identities are not rock solid. They are highly malleable and super sensitive. Yes, they need guidance. Yes, they need instruction. But this need doesn’t warrant ruthless reactions of criticism and contempt. When we let ourselves run the faucets of our mouths without filtering the contents that flow from them, there are often, if not always, casualties at stake. Young minds take older words to heart – even if we fail to do so, ourselves. Never underestimate the penetrating power of words and body language upon the fertile soil that is the child’s developing identity.

Who I am is not a fixed monument but a dynamic kaleidoscope.

It’s an ever changing, ever evolving, and, hopefully, ever enhancing work of art.

And we each play a role in painting the portraits of one another’s identities.

Paint with caution…