The ‘self’ is described as 'a person’s essential being that distinguishes them from others'. We live in a western world obsessed with categorising, labelling and defining everything we do, say, feel and are. Our very existence simply must be easy to compute (even though we are a bunch of cells made from old bits of stars that exploded billions of years ago in something called the Big Bang- but you know whatever- that’s not complicated). Defining our place in the world has been something that has pursued us since the Ancient Greeks because to have a self is to feel as if you matter and have a purpose. In his book Selfie, Will Storr quotes neuroscientist Professor Chris Frith describing the feeling as though we are ‘the invisible actor at the centre of the world’. And there are intrinsic aspects to this actor who is also the hero of the story i.e. your life. We seek pride, self-worth, dignity and sense of accomplishment. This pondering on the state of being might be necessary and fulfilling; it might lead to connection or sometimes it might be a bit…self-indulgent.
The modern self takes this into a different realm- one not just reserved for philosophical thinking. We have branding, USPs, Twitter Bios and About Me sections. And of course there remains the question about whether what we decide to say is true (or not) and whether people’s inevitable assumptions about us are at all accurate. We all know there are versions of ourselves that we project into the world and that we, so often, can control quite specifically how others perceive us. That is until someone misinterprets and trashes your reputation altogether.
Perhaps it is about authenticity. Authenticity is a trend- it’s about being original and not being a copy. Sounds difficult to be 100% authentic. And when we try, sometimes it isn’t even enough just to be yourself. It seems as though authenticity has a tick box and hierarchy. It’s a minefield. This problem appears to be especially prevalent for the notoriously labelled ‘millennials’ and ‘snowflakes’. I am a mid-twenties millennial; leaving one part of life and entering a new chapter filled with excitement and terrifying uncertainty. I think this decade is a bit ‘make or break’ for a lot of us. We are trying to work out who on earth we are and want to be, almost forgetting the people we were as children and teenagers and projecting ourselves head first into the open arms of 30 (hoping by the time we get there we will have figured it all out). All this is happening at the same time as having increased exposure to social media where we can compare ourselves to million of other millennials competing to live their ‘best lives’.
I’ve been pondering on this and I do think we shed a skin every now and then as we go through life. We grow and adapt and change depending on the obstacles or opportunities that we meet. As for the whole ‘being authentic’ thing- I believe we are all unique and that we absorb and learn from the world constantly which helps shape our identity. We don’t need to prove that. Humans have been around for so long that being totally different is actually quite a challenge. But by very definition of science, our consciousness as an individual in the world is original- you can’t physically and mentally be someone else. I think I am certainly similar to the person I have always been – there are certain personality traits that you just can’t shift- but I do feel I have slowly morphed into a different entity on this planet. Not literally, I’m not a hologram now or a prize-winning squash. I am still human.
But seriously, how can we not morph when there are so many things that make it so easy (and also necessary) to do so? It is not about forgetting who you have been. But it is about appreciating how far you have come- even if my distance is still only 25 years. I see people twice my age going through, what I am calling, their own personal renaissance and I am sure having very similar feelings to me. A tide is turning, the seasons of the mind and the body are shifting and I am learning new things about who I am and who I want to be everyday. It’s the symptoms of being a mid-twenties millennial I am sure or perhaps just the on going symptom of being human.
So do I want to be someone who obsesses too frequently about how I ‘define’ myself? Well, I have thought about this a great deal and I do think there is some merit in being proud of certain labels. I also think being able to talk about yourself and share your view of the world generously with others requires a certain assurance in ‘who you are’. Sometimes we get lost and we feel we are justifying our place, or very existence (please don’t forget about the star dust guys), floundering in deep waters. We presume ourselves, in those lost moments, to be swimming in a sea of people who have their shit together and are acing it 24/7. Our minds are not very kind to us in this respect. The reality is that we are always changing and always growing. You can be sure one day and uncertain the next. Even the most glamorous and ‘successful’ people will feel the same internal struggle. They will feel they, ‘the invisible actor’, are particularly invisible some days.
If we got everyone to write down one word on a sticky label and wear it like badge- as a definition of who they are- what would they write? Most people would struggle, for sure. One word is hard. Some people might choose a noun and others an adjective. Some words may be resolute and fixed and others may bring a sense of transience and flexibility. Some people might write their name.
I’ll be more generous. What if you had 10 words? I invite you give it a go. To explore the spectrum of who you are. Not who you wish you were. But who you genuinely believe you are; unashamedly, authentically and without judgement.
These are labels I would give myself (for now, in June 2019):
To me, friendship is an ever-changing thing. It is a process and a transaction between two people or a group. It is a forgiving thing. And often, friendship is the thing that saves people’s lives. I always want to be someone that others can rely on- that they can look to me for space to feel light and childish- to see the funny side of life- but also to connect on a deeper level and feel they are safe in confiding. I think there is a reason why I have put this one first- because it transcends all barriers and sews its seeds into all our relationships. Being a good friend is one of my top priorities in life.
The tricky label. But a true one. I have had a changing relationship with this word all my life. When I was 16 I would cringe at the thought of it- the connotations of soppy romance. But now I mean this label in two ways; one is that of giving out love to the world and the other giving that love to a specific person. One thing I am always to be grateful for, now (having grown up a bit) is the ability to love another openly and honestly and to not shy away from the highs and lows. I have learnt boundless amounts about myself through love and for that I am immensely grateful. I think the most important thing I have learnt is acceptance. Accepting others, leads to a space to better accept and understand yourself no matter path life takes you on. We should all be a little more accepting and kind. Relationships can be intense and all consuming – but I do think being a lover is about seeing your place in the world and always being grateful for the connections you make with others in this life- even when those connections end…or perhaps a better word is when they change.
I have an image in my mind of myself as ancient warrior. If I had been born at a time when it was only men who went out to fight with sword and shield, I reckon I would have shaved my head and wrapped my boobs up to flatten them down and joined the ranks. I love the film Mulan (I mean, who doesn’t). Being a fighter is resisting and defending as well as attacking. It is about choosing your moments and your cause. I like to think when life sends big challenges my way (the greater of these I am sure are yet to come) that I will be someone who fights for what is good and what is right. I have always seen my more defiant side as a good thing, even if that manifested as screaming tantrums as a child, and I hope now I always use this part of me for the good- not only for myself but also others. I also walk down the street with intense music in my ears sometimes and imagine myself in an action movie, as though I were a powerful female assassin on a mission. You know, just to fill the time between the station and home.
I am proudly female. I always have been. Mostly because when I was growing up I carved out what that meant for myself- I do not see it as a fixed state at all. Being a woman is about meeting the world with grace and fire all at once. Being a woman is a complex thing. I do not mind the complexity. Sometimes, I struggle because I see how women must morph to be more appealing and easy- and this has made me want to punch something on many occasions. But mostly being a woman has brought me joy and connection and solidarity and the ability to surprise the world. Being a woman is clenched jaw. A dance. It is a shoulder to cry on. It is a quiet pain. It is a celebration of life.
Humour is a huge part of my lense on the world. I know I have always had the streak of the entertainer in my character and I think I would mostly want to me remembered for laughter rather than tears. Even though my more serious and emotional side certainly comes through. It is nice to see these two halves of me as intrinsically linked and often the clown in me is a downbeat commentator with the odd glittery surprise and a weird comment thrown in. I’m not afraid to be stupid. It actually serves me really well in my job. It doesn’t worry me if people think I’m a bit odd or a bit mad. I say it is best to never come across as too obvious or predictable. Of course it makes sense that the clown is a big part of my identity with being a performer and a creator- but it serves me in an everyday situation too- it’s the glint in the eye and the skip in the step. It is the part of me that is curious and sees opportunity in the world- to counteract any fear of uncertainty.
This is a recent label for me. It links to my work in exploring Inclusion and Diversity. I have owned this label because I truly feel I am a part of helping make change happen. Even if currently this is on a smaller scale the fact that I am excited by the notion of a more progressive connected world that celebrates difference, and actually attempting to act on this thought- makes me feel like I can say I am a champion of this cause. I know I don’t always get it right, that I am not an obvious representative and that sometimes in my everyday life I could do even more to practice what I preach. It has become an important goal for me to live as inclusively as I can with others- the experience is empowering for everyone. So yes, this is a label I feel confident to give myself and it is important to be clear, to own the work you do and to be proud of being part of a movement.
This is a complex noun. Many people live creative lifestyles and yet many people creating and caring about the Arts struggle to say, with conviction, that they are an actually artist. It is as though there is a test you must pass to prove your creative worth. I believe it is about dedication to your creativity and not how you measure the successes of that journey. Being an artist encompasses all things- creating work from the material life gives you; weaving stories into literature, performance, images, film and music. Perhaps it is because these things are so woven into all our lives that it is hard for those in the Arts to claim it is what their life depends on. But I feel more confident now to say I am artist. Ask me a couple of years ago and that might have been a struggle, as though it was something I had to prove or justify. But it is freeing to be who wish to be, without caring too much about how others would measure your worth. What matters is your power within and how you share that with the world.
Admittedly this word still feels weird coming out of my mouth to describe myself. But what am I at this point if I can’t say I am a professional in my area of expertise? Going through your twenties, after leaving education- whether that was school, college or university- is a strange time for breaking into the working world. I think a lot of young people now have a huge amount to offer and are still sometimes undermined by their age. It is the quality of the experience and not the quantity (in years) that should be more relevant in work. I’ve been made to feel like I am intern and amateur at times when I know I had more substance in my viewpoint and my practice than those addressing me in this way. It is really about having the tenacity to say ‘Yes I am’ and ‘Yes I can’ because most adults winged their way into work and stuck around because they had the skills. Sometimes it is luck. Sometimes it is merit. But ‘professional’ shouldn’t have such a stigma attached to it in my opinion because it can bar very valuable and interesting people from influencing working environments.
Perhaps I don’t mean ‘dreamer’ like some great visionaries of our time, but I would call myself a dreamer all the same. I can imagine myself into worlds that help me find clarity in the feelings I have about the real one. Sometimes I imagine myself through situations – dreams or even nightmares. My mind is always ticking over. And sometimes it will take me to places I did not expect. This part of me can be tiring but most of the time it is what inspires my creativity and often what helps me exist in the modern world. I feel I can be a dreamer and a pragmatist all at once- hoping one will never overpower the other. It is important to dream and to lose yourself in fantasy but also see that dreaming is an important part of making this world a better place. The space to reflect on the very state of simple being alive, I believe, is crucial.
Recently a friend of mine invited a group of us to write about our names, in a creative session. I thought it was quite fascinating. We don’t often think about our name as a key part of our identity, I suppose, until it is not often said or perhaps even forgotten- it might become apparent just how important a name is. As my final part of self-definition I’d like to share what I wrote:
My name is Milly but it is also Melissa, which confuses some people because I put it on forms and passports. Milly is my ‘preferred name’. It is not a nickname, let’s be clear. My parents essentially gave me two names. I was something to do with choice I think. There was a suggestion of Camilla but they settled on Melissa. I don’t think, now, with hindsight I would ever have wanted to choose to call myself anything other than Milly because that is what people have called me all my life. I like the name Milly- it feel like a kind name. Melissa sounds more stern. Like a china doll. I was sometimes called ‘Melissa’ when I had done something wrong and sometimes addressed by the name in cards from people who I wasn’t as close to in my extended family- so I suppose the name Melissa became a associated with less comfortable and unfamiliar things. Too formal. There is a tiny hamlet in France called ‘Milly’. There is a picture of me, age 9ish, sat in front of the sign. Melissa means ‘honey’ and ‘bee’ in Greek. Which is actually quite nice.
Rolle is my surname and is always mispronounced. I think there was once an accent on the ‘e’ but can’t be totally sure. Perhaps it got lost. I think it is Swiss and Italian. Because there is a place in Switzerland called Rolle but that side of my family was from Northern Italy. Once at a gymnastics competition I was called ‘Molly Roll’ through the speaker and I had to present myself in response to that name. I thought- ‘why should I? THAT IS NOT MY NAME’. It sounded like a command for a dog. My coach said I sounded like a cake.
So there you have it. Give it a go. Write about your name. Reflect on the words that you define yourself with. Take some time to connect in a way that isn’t to prove or justify your existence, but instead is to better understand yourself, just for you.