Is the question “Who am I?” a trap, or a
necessary step in growing up?
By Lila Cohen, Deputy Editor, Lucy Wing, Content Editor, and Savannah
Butcher, Managing Editor
Unlike our previous Features, this piece is not merely objective, and the more personal and creative style is meant to reflect the endless hours of conversation our team had in the process of writing and publishing this piece. More than anything this story is an exploration of self. Through connecting with each other and our interviewees we were able to uncover new ways of thinking about not just identity, but ourselves.
Thank you for taking this journey with us, The Riptide Feature Team
“Who am I?”
A question that is easy to ask, but hard to answer. Many of us ask ourselves this question at some point in our lives, maybe more than once, maybe every single day. In a society that emphasizes first impressions, and with everything around us telling us who we should be, what we should look like, and how we should act, the pressure to present oneself in a consumable way is overwhelming. But since answering is often unavoidable, how do we package ourselves into a sentence? Can we?
“It’s impossible to label myself. I can label myself a certain way, but in reality I’m different. I find it easy to define myself because I can fall back on ‘I’m a soccer player’ but that’s not truly who I am. It’s an easy way out; it’s not my identity. [I’m more than that.] I’m a person with feelings, but since I really do enjoy soccer, I can just say ‘This is how I identify, and this is the front I’m going to put up’,” VHS senior Levi Stahl said.
Identity is who we are in all of our complexity, but we often use labels to define ourselves in simpler terms. Tabitha Kirkland P.h.D., a social psychologist and associate teaching professor at the University of Washington, maintains that although labeling is a social construct, it has evolved from a primitive instinct to protect ourselves.
“I think you can take it back to this idea of different groups competing for resources. We evolved to have groups of people we could trust, and then everyone else. Social psychologists call these ‘ingroups’ and ‘outgroups’,” Kirkland said. “Ingroups are people that we know and trust. [They are the people] that we have more [personal] information about, they are the people that share common identities with us, and they’re the people we share resources with because we can’t do everything by ourselves. We had to protect scarce resources from people who don’t belong to our tribe or we wouldn’t have enough [resources] for people who are like us.”
In the modern world, labels serve as a shorthand answer to the question, “Who are you?”. However, they often can’t relay the depth of who someone truly is, which limits not only how others perceive us, but how we view ourselves.
“Identity is multifaceted. Identity is a person’s sense of who they are and there are a lot of things that contribute to that,” Kirkland said.
These identities include personal identities including our traits and social identities such as race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, and more. Our identities and labels overlap to create the intricacies of who we are as an individual, and they greatly affect how we present ourselves and perceive the world.
“Almost all identities can be developed throughout life. Your experiences are a huge part of what builds your brain. I wouldn’t have identified as disabled when I was born, because I didn’t become disabled until later on, but it’s still a huge part of me…”
“The [different identities] that we carry… wrap into a sense of who [we are], and all of us have multiple identities that we carry around with us. We also change identities over time. Like right now, your identity is as a high school student, and that’s going to change,” Kirkland said.
There is a balance within us of who we have been and who we will be. Some facets of our identities are fixed, but our experiences will continue to influence who we are.
“Almost all identities can be developed throughout life. Your experiences are a huge part of what builds your brain. I wouldn’t have identified as disabled when I was born, because I didn’t become disabled until later on, but it’s still a huge part of me,” VHS senior Skye Mandago-Stoba said. “Any identity journey takes time. Identity is a really complex issue; no one just knows off the bat who they are. Especially in adolescence, you’re learning who you are and what you’re going to identify as.”
As teens begin to enter society they are still seen by the world as children, but are expected to perform as adults. Because of this phenomenon, teens have no choice but to exist in both worlds while having no true place in either.
“[Defining myself] certainly depends on who asks; if it’s someone I’m not close with I’ll say I do this and I do this and then I’m done. But if it’s someone I really trust and know, then I’ll try to be more specific. But psychoanalyzing one’s self is not an easy thing to do, especially as a seventeen–year-old who’s still trying to find my place and own identity,” Stahl said.
Deciding what parts of yourself to show and what parts to hide traces back to the fact that we, as humans, are still primitive beings. We feel the need to protect ourselves from perceived threats, and as we’ve developed our emotional side, these perceived social threats have become more mental than physical.
“There are many people who want to dissect and find something wrong with you even when you first meet them, and I know there will always be people who will see me through a critical lens,” VHS senior Stella Gill said.
It can be scary to realize we don’t have control over how others perceive us and that judgment is inevitable, especially when so many of us subconsciously depend on others’ validation.
“[The fear of] not being accepted is a universal human experience. Furthermore, fearing that people will fail to see the value in parts of yourself and your identity that you are proud of is almost a greater fear,” Gill said.
This fear of being judged leads to marketing yourself to others in a consumable way. The pressure to present what we believe as “desirable” contributes to a culture where perfection is not only the expectation, but the unattainable standard.
“There’s a real desire for self expression on social media to be known authentically, and not just have people [see] one side of you. There’s these competing impulses of the desire to be known, the desire to be liked, to have other people be jealous of us, and to have other people bestow accolades and likes on us,” Kirkland said.
As interactions on social media increasingly dominate most lives in this generation, the intricacies of communicating online have begun to bleed into real life.
“There’s a need to always be reinventing yourself, and this is just my perception, [but] I think that you are developing your identity as you’re developing your brand,” VHS graduate and substitute teacher Callan Foster said.
“[The fear of] not being accepted is a universal human experience. Furthermore, fearing that people will fail to see the value in parts of yourself and your identity that you are proud of is almost a greater fear,”
In this new era of influencers and commercialism on social media, society has begun to demand a “brand” from everyone. It’s expected that your “brand” reflects a perfect image. Through curated Instagram pages and meticulously chosen profile pictures, many of our first impressions of people are online.
“I think not having social media is a brave thing because it makes people’s first impressions [of you not on] social media, [but] in real life. [When] you talk to someone in real life, you’re getting their genuine outtake, and you’re really getting to know them. You don’t have these pre-existing ideas of who they are based on their hobbies and people they hang out with online,” VHS senior Caleb Hecht said.
And these online personas are dangerous. When we glamorize the hard and messy parts of life through social media to create a version that appears perfect, we not only isolate ourselves, but we begin to strip away our own humanity. We know our own lives are far from perfect— and while it’s easy to forget— we’re aware that others’ lives are imperfect as well. Even so, it is tempting to fall into the trap of curating the image of a perfect life, for others, but more importantly, for ourselves.
“People are trapped in their own image. Some people are all about Instagram. [They] go on a hike just to get Instagram pictures. That’s a pretty scary thing because eventually the real world will change, and there will be more important things,” Stahl said.
While social media can feel like the problem, could it just be the actualization of an innate human desire to be known? This concept of mass performatism feels new, but has it been here all along?
“Social media— it’s just the market’s answer to a generation that demanded to perform, so the market said, here— perform. Perform everything to each other, all the time, for no reason. It’s prison— it’s horrific. It’s performer and audience melded together,” comedian Bo Burnam said in his 2016 Netflix special Make Happy.
Insecurity often prevents us from admitting that we’re performing for ourselves. We pretend that we already are who we want to be, and in that we become someone we’re not. So who are we when the lights go out, and we are forced to step off the stage?
“I’ve always thought the question ‘Who are you?’ is extremely daunting, especially at a young age. I’ve been asked this question since I was capable of complex thought and every time it feels a bit too big of a question to answer,” Gill said. “I don’t think anyone knows who they are until they’ve experienced many years on this planet and have had a chance to grasp the meaning of personal values and personal purpose in life. From a values standpoint, I could say that who I am is defined by my values, but I think ‘Who are you?’ begs for information that not everyone has at this age.”
But no matter what stage of life we are in, our experiences will continue to yield new versions of ourselves, and even then we will always be striving to be someone else. The facets of who we are that remain through it all are our morals and values which are built by those closest to us.
“When you connect with people you learn about yourself and you learn about them. [It’s] the people who I love who have the most influence [on who I am],” Stahl said.
It is through this connection with others that we are able to find ourselves. And maybe, it’s not about losing ourselves in others’ perceptions, but taking the time to find ourselves within them.
We go through life trying to answer the question “Who am I?”, equating ourselves and others around us to finished products. But we are all in progress, working to be the version of ourselves we want to be, so instead of asking “Who am I?”, shouldn’t we be asking “Who am I becoming?”
“[Finding yourself is] a hard arduous process, but you are worth that process,” Foster said.