Monday, January 28, 2013

Identity Messages

I recently watched this video which was referenced in a sermon at New Leaf Church. I recommend watching it if you have time. In the first few minutes, Bryan Stevenson tells a story about growing up in a home dominated by his demanding and loving grandmother. When he was 9 years old, she pulled him aside and said, "I want to tell you something but you have to promise me you won't tell anyone about this conversation." She went on to tell him she had been watching him for a while and that she could tell he was really special, and he had a great life ahead of him. She then asked him to promise her 3 things: that he would always love his mother, that he would always do the right thing even when it was hard, and that he would never drink alcohol. His grandmother meant the world to him, and the 9-year-old Bryan eagerly promised to fulfill these requests. There's a funny end to the story (watch the video) but Stevenson shares that as a 52-year-old man now, he still has never had a drop of alcohol. "There is power in identity," he says, "and when we create the right identity we can say things to the world around us that they don't actually believe make sense; we can get them to do things that they don't think they can do."

Stevenson goes on to talk about this concept in reference to the tragedy of our system of mass incarceration and the effect of telling a whole generation (1/3 of all African American men age 18-30) they are criminals. There's a lot more to say about this in reference to criminal justice, but I started applying the concept to my own unrelated thoughts.

Identity messages have been powerful in shaping me--mostly in good ways. As a child I was told I was smart, capable, and loved, and I believed those things.

But negative identity messages play a role in everyone's life, too. About 3 years ago, when John and I first really began to face the conflicts in our relationship that every long-term relationship must face, a narrative began to surface that I was controlling. Now I don't blame John for this at all--it may have been something he voiced about how he felt when we argued; it may have been a worry that one of his friends had about me; it may have been something I myself began to interpret from the conversations we were having and the failures I saw in myself. And over the last few years, in different situations I have come back to that adjective--controlling.  It's been hard for me to dissociate from that identity.

When given a message about our identity, it seems to me we have 3 options: we can ignore it, we can accept it, or we can try to prove it wrong.

Some are easy to ignore. For example, someone might tell me I'm unintelligent, but after some initial indignation it doesn't stick with me because I have enough contrary evidence to disregard it. Or, someone might tell me I'm unfashionable, but it doesn't bother me because I've never much valued fashion.

When I can't ignore a negative identity message, though, I find myself in a cycle between trying to prove it wrong, and then when I fail, stubbornly living into it on purpose. For example, I decide I'm NOT going to be controlling any more, so I try to completely stop giving other people advice. I don't ask John to put the toilet seat down; I don't say I'd rather he stayed in tonight and hung out with me; I don't give suggestions for a better system at work. But since it is in my character to seek improvement in others as well as in myself, (and I'm not entirely convinced it's always a bad thing), eventually I become exhausted or frustrated and snap. And then I take the opposite extreme and start angrily telling everyone what to do, bitterly thinking if I can't avoid my fate I should at least get what I want from it! Now, this is only one minor example from my life. But I think when we're given an identity we can resort to unhealthy ways of trying to prove it wrong, and/or unhealthy ways of living into it, as a kind of rebellion against the label, or as a kind of resignation.

The main thing I've noticed is that even in small ways like this for me, though I have largely positive ways of viewing myself and my potential, a negative identity once  internalized can be hard to get rid of. What if you were told you were fat? dumb? ugly? boring? a criminal? I am thankful that in my life the character messages have been largely positive. I am thankful I have friends who tell me that I'm good and kind and funny. Those are the people who inspire me to be even better.

Let's think about our power to give other people identity messages. Where in your life do you have that opportunity? I'm currently working with some GED students in Cherokee who lack self-confidence in academics. I'm going to make it my goal for the next few weeks to look for ways to send positive identity messages to them, and to others in my life.

And to anyone who reads thisremember: 


  1. ahh this reminds me of something i've thought of at work. it seemed that each time i was given a compliment on a strength, i tried to live into it more and more. i.e. ''you're a hard worker'' yeah i am and i'm gonna make sure all my clients are seen today.. etc. so i came up w this theory that if you want someone to be good at something, just tell them that they are. i.e. katie i am glad you're NOT controlling of me and you're understanding of reasons why i do things... :-)

  2. As a boss I often didn't delegate because I thought my employees wouldn't do as good a job as I. I think many of them read that "negative identity message" clearly. Maybe it's not too late to change ....