Tag Archives: identity

Fake it until you make it?

Faking it is a complicated practice. You may find that wearing a fake persona some of the time can be very useful – as a way of dealing with the public, or with colleagues for example. A certain amount of fakeness can be necessary for achieving a professional demeanour. If it works for you and enables you to get things done, then fair enough.

Playing a role, or roles you think other people want you to play, can be exhausting. Presenting as the person you think people want you to be, because you feel that your authentic self wouldn’t be acceptable, is pretty grim. I’ve been there, and I’ve done it. I’ve tried to be nice, and helpful and kind and co-operative with all comers. I’ve also failed utterly at this and found it left me feeling miserable and isolated. I am better off dealing with people who do not need me to be mostly working to please them. I guess a certain amount of this may be inevitable in life, but the question of how much you can stomach is an important one.

If you feel (rightly or wrongly) that you true self isn’t acceptable and that you must fake your nature to get by, it can be soul destroying. It can lead to bitterness, and resenting the people who don’t have to fake it. Behind the pleasant persona, a person can be burning up with rage and frustration. This can become an array of things. It might lead to the cognitive dissonance of narcissism, with the tension between persona, and feared worst version of self becoming the basis of dreadful behaviour. It can be a way in which oppression is piled onto the oppressed, too. If you are not allowed to function as a complete person with your own feelings and needs, this can add weight to other abuses. The pressure on the oppressed to ‘act nice’ is a way of keeping people down, and powerless and silent.

Faking it for the benefit of someone else may well be a very bad idea for your own wellbeing.

I think it all works very differently if you want to be other than you are. Pretending to be a certain way helps build habits and patterns of behaviour, and most of what we do is habit. Wanting to live a certain way by faking the habit until it becomes your normal life is a reasonable way to get things done. Faking attributes and virtues that you want to have, until they truly become part of who you are, can be a good way of making change. There’s an interplay between who we are and what we do. The person who wants to change who they are can get a lot done by changing what they do in-line with what they aspire to be.

I’ve done this around the issue of patience. I was not a naturally patient person. I’ve spent a lot of years faking it. I’m a more patient person than I was. I feel good about this because it’s a change I sought.

Our first responses aren’t always our best ones. We can react from experience, from family stories and cultural norms to think, feel and do things we don’t like. There’s nothing inauthentic about wanting to change. If the change is really about you, then you’ll feel good about making it, even when it gets challenging. If the change is about appeasing other people, it may always chafe, or make you miserable, and it probably needs questioning. Unless your nature inclines you to hurt and harm other people, you shouldn’t need to fake an identity for the sake of those around you.

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Playing a role

We all play roles in our lives in deliberate ways. We have work roles, family roles, social roles, community roles. Where we take these on consciously and deliberately, they can be wholly functional and useful. However, we can also occupy roles that other people have cast us in, and we may unconsciously play out roles we’ve created for ourselves. When this second kind of role playing occurs, it can make a sense of authentic self, and forming genuine relationships very difficult.

One of the things that makes playing a role problematic is that those of us doing it will assume what we are doing is normal and reasonable. We seldom come to this alone. We may be playing the role our family, or our culture has ascribed us. We may be replicating stories handed down from our ancestors – and not even the most recent ones. If we think what we’re doing is the only thing a person could do, we won’t notice it. Recognising that roles have been given and people are expecting each other to play them can be difficult.

Roles become a problem when they have rigid boundaries and do not allow us to grow or change. Roles like victim, aggressor, saviour, martyr, doormat, useless one, the problem, the one who is always wrong… are relentless. You can’t be a complete and happy person when stuck in one of those roles. Often these can come in clusters – a family cluster might give you one saviour parent, one martyr parent, one useless child and one problem child, for example. We can spend our lives playing that kind of dynamic out and passing it on to the next generation.

People who cast themselves in specific roles – the victim, the one who is always right, the one everyone must love – need other players to compliment their role and maintain the story. Victims often need both aggressors and rescuers. The person who is always right will need scapegoats who are always wrong. People often don’t realise that they’re repeatedly playing out the same basic story and just drawing new people into the supporting roles.

Over the next few blog posts I’m going to be exploring ways of looking at the stories we might have written ourselves into, or unwittingly been drawn into, or cast in from birth. Stories are how we make sense of the world, and challenging core stories about who we are and the roles we play can be deeply uncomfortable stuff. We may not like what we find, and dealing with it probably won’t be easy. So, bring cake and blankets and be patient with yourself if this is a relevant journey to take.


Performative female

I’ve spent the last week or so pondering the idea that gender is largely performative and thinking about my own uneasy relationship with gender. I’ve got a body. I have never known how to get that body to perform as feminine. I’ve been shamed for not being able to do this well enough – for not moving, dressing or wearing makeup like a ‘proper’ woman. I’ve seen the performance treated as more important than the biology. More important than my self esteem and sense of self.

In my teens I tried hard to perform as female. But I can’t walk well in heels – my ankles are problematic. I’m innately scruffy, I don’t do elegant or glamorous well. I don’t mostly feel sexy, or cute, or pretty or any of the things that might go with presenting a conventionally female identity. I can do goth or steampunk or Pagan hippy, because these are performances that allow me to be silly, colourful, grotesque or ridiculous, and I am more those things.

One of the things that has come up for me as I’ve explored this recently, is that I’m carrying a lot of resentment. I often resent women who can perform as women more effectively than me, and who are rewarded for that. I can’t compete with women who can do sexy and glamorous and who are willing to use that to get stuff done. I like to think that if I had options on this score, I wouldn’t use that to get stuff done. But, the reality is that I live in a culture that prefers certain kinds of appearances, and I don’t tick the boxes. I want to be judged based on my knowledge, skill and usefulness, not my face or the shape of my body. I do not get to pick the terms on which I am judged.

Looking back over my life so far I see that attempts at performing gender have made me miserable. Spaces where I’ve not felt any pressure to be more conventionally feminine are always better spaces for me. Situations where I’m valued based on what I can do, not how I look, are always happier and more rewarding spaces. I’ve always felt the performative stuff as performative, it’s why the term has been so resonant for me. It can only be an act for me, a pretence. Trying leaves me feeling fake and uncomfortable with myself. I get a keen feeling of trying to be something I am not, and of taking on something I have no right to.

I sometimes respond to this by resenting the women who can perform female. Resenting the women who can do a better job of looking and acting the part. I’ve tried to trivialise and diminish what for some women is no doubt an important part of self. Part of this is because I am jealous of women who are better looking than me – of whom there are a great many. Jealousy is not an emotion I like, but I can’t do envy here because there is no way I can move towards any of this and not feel totally fake.

My plan in the short term is to watch out for situations where I feel under pressure to perform as female, and see what I can do to change my relationships with those spaces. Alongside this I’m watching out for the idea that being non-binary means being more overtly male, because that doesn’t work for me either. I can’t perform male. I need to build a sense of self that is not about my failure to perform gender, and that allows me a bit more room.


Identity, change and consistency

I can tell you a story of my life in terms of change. What I was not able to do as a child that I can do now. What I was able to do in my teens that I can’t do now – all those late night things, and coping without sleep. I can tell you stories of constancy, how things from my childhood are still with me, how things that I consider integral to myself have been with me a long time. All of those stories would be true. It’s like observing light as a wave or a particle.

Every experience I have lived through has influenced me in some way. Every opportunity, every setback, every person I’ve interacted with. I’ve changed, year on year. Some of that change was good, and some of it has taken me years to unpick and recover from. As those experiences shape and shift me, I behave differently, react differently, feel differently and that in turn forms part of how the world seems to me. My own behaviour and responses shape the world I inhabit – for years now I’ve been getting faster at removing myself from drama. If I find someone exhausting to deal with to no good purpose, I step away. I say yes, emphatically, to activities and people that make me happy. As a consequence my life is calmer and richer than ever before. I feel more secure.

At any moment, who we are can seem like a substantial thing. Pressure to change is often threatening. There’s good reason to be wary of anything or anyone that demands you change against your will. Being asked or told to be what you are not is seldom good news. However, the opportunity to grow, stretch and change is usually a blessing. Given room to be more than we were, we can evolve on our own terms. We can flourish. That kind of change often comes slowly and feels more natural.

We are all full of potential and possibility. If life gives us scope to explore those possibilities, we can grow into identities that feel more real than where we started from. We are born into contexts of stories, history, opportunity or lack thereof. We are born into other people’s ideas about who we should be. Given time, space and opportunity we may find we aren’t the person we started out as. That can be a great relief, a shedding of unwanted and restrictive skin. Each choice we make can set us on a new path – and there is always scope to come back and change direction.

It’s when you’re changing that you can most easily see what doesn’t shift. We may label those qualities as virtues and vices, styles of being. “I’m a kind person with a strong work ethic.” “I’m easy come, easy go.” “I’ve got a short temper, I’m wild and passionate” and so forth. These are interesting things, but I think fairly superficial aspects of self. I don’t have a language to talk about my sense of inner self, any more than I have language to talk about the essence of a flame or a river.

I know there are some traditions that identify the core self as absence, emptiness. I don’t experience it that way. For all that I change and flicker, grow taller or smaller, changing shape in response to breezes, the quality of my flame remains flame. Or whatever it actually is. If I explore something new, I soon know what is for me and what is not. I know what fits me and what does not. I know what I respond to. It’s not something I can express in words, although I can dance it, and sometimes I can find tunes that reflect it.


What makes me female?

To the best of my knowledge, I have been identified as female from the moment of my birth. At that point, it was the absence of a penis and balls that defined my gender. What is it that makes me a woman? It’s a question I’ve been asking a lot. I have a body that looks female, (I have breasts, hips and so forth) I have given birth to a child, I have lactated. But the inside of my head has a lot of difficulty with a female gender identity, and certainly doesn’t want a male gender identity either.

Do my breasts make me female? Obviously not, because women can have mastectomies and still be female.

Does my womb make me female? Again, a hysterectomy does not cause a woman to stop being a woman, so clearly that isn’t it.

Does my capacity to have babies make me female? No, because not all women are able to carry a child to term, or even to conceive. The possibility of reproduction cannot therefore be the defining quality.

Does my genitalia make me female? I think not, because many gender-ambiguous babies have been mutilated to give them the appearance of femininity even when the internal body parts don’t support that appearance at all. Genitals cannot therefore be the defining thing either.

It can’t be my chromosomes, because XXY is also a thing. A person may appear XX but also have a Y in there.

It definitely can’t be my brain structure because the inside of my head is undoubtedly the least gender-conforming bit of me.

Equally, a man who loses his penis or balls to accident or illness is still a man. A man who carries enough fat on his body to have something resembling breasts, is still a man.

How do we know? How much of gender is what we agree to present to the world and how we agree to read those presentations? If you give children the same sorts of haircuts and put them in gender-neutral clothes, it can be very hard to identify their genders just by looking at them. As adults, some of us remain able to pass ourselves off as the gender we don’t normally present as, or to confuse anyone looking at us.

Historically, gender has been very much tied up with power and with who can do what. However, if you have equality, do you need easy visual guides to gender? Do you need gender identity? I’m increasingly inclined to think that the answer is no. Which would leave us representing ourselves visually as the kind of people we our – practical, sensual, sporty, outdoorsy, arty, delicate, powerful… whatever you want to be, with no assumption of any ‘natural’ relationship between how you look and what you’ve got in your pants.


Sensual, not sexualised

We all get a barrage of information about how we are supposed to be sexually, and what we are supposed to find attractive. I grew up in a hetra-normative environment, and like many queer people my age and older, I had no words for how I am for too long. I grew up with clear messages about what my apparently female body should look like and do, that my clothes could be my consent, and that my clothes should be sexualised and consenting. And that at the same time it wasn’t ok to be a slut.

All the things I’ve been told to find attractive in men – status symbols, big muscles, dominating personalities – I don’t find sexy in anyone. There’s nothing I find more unattractive than the ‘alpha male’ who takes without asking. The person bold enough to ask for what they want? Now, that’s sexy.

At the personal level, there have been plenty of people in the past – some who were lovers, some were not – who wanted to tell me who I was and what it meant. People who wanted to define my identity for me, describe my sexual identity for me, translate my presence on sexual terms for me – and I think this is normal, because mainstream culture is rife with it and it is what we learn to do to each other.

For a while now I’ve been asking what happens if I reject all notions of the male gaze when considering what to wear. The male gaze of my bloke isn’t an issue on this score, he likes me, and he likes me being happy, all I have to do is show up. I don’t have to dress and act a part for him.

I’ve started asking what happens if I have a sexual identity that begins with how I feel, and not with anything coming at me from outside. A sense of physical self rooted in how my body is and what it enjoys and responds to, not what the culture I live in would have me believe I should enjoy and respond to. What immediately struck me as soon as I began exploring this, is that what comes from me is a far more sensual state of being than a sexual one.

Part of this is practical. With the best will in the world, actual shagging can only take up so much of a person’s time. Issues of chaffing and energy and all that. A sensual state of being is much more available, and much more possible in all kinds of contexts. I realise that I want to form a more tactile relationship with the world around me. I want to touch more – plants, stones and soil especially. I recognise how affected I am by sun and wind on skin, by being in water.

For many reasons, I did not have a very tactile relationship with the world as a child. I expect I’m not alone in that. Adults certainly aren’t supposed to paddle in puddles, stroke trees, put their faces against rocks just for the joy of doing it. We are to dress for how it looks, not for how it feels. We are to touch other humans for sexual purposes or not at all. We are allowed to have sensual, non-sexual relationships with our pets.

I go forth to experiment, to find out who I am if I just put the whole notion of sexual identity down for a while and explore sensual identity instead. I’ll report back if there are any interesting discoveries along the way.


People we pretend to be

We all put on masks, take up fictional identities and dabble with ideas of who we could be. Sometimes it’s a response to the company we’re in – your work persona may not be your Friday night social life persona. Sometimes it is a more deliberate process – role play games, computer games, acting, writing, cosplaying, and other such events can allow us to be people we otherwise are not. It’s a relatively safe way to explore who we might be, or to play out the fantasies of who we wish we were.

I know a number of Druids who started out playing Druids in games. On the other side, I don’t know anyone who has become a ninja or a great military leader by playing computer games.  I know I tested my notions of honour and appropriate behaviour extensively in role play games as a teenager, it helped me figure out who I wanted to be. People use other forms of creative identity to let out the parts of them that can’t otherwise find expression. It may be that many authors of horror and violence are able to be perfectly lovely people because they’ve found a safe space for that part of themselves.

I think it’s worth taking this stuff seriously. Who we pretend to be can all too easily become who we are. So many people get to their middle years and find that their roles – domestic and workish – have become their identities and they don’t much like how that’s working out. Pretending to be someone you aren’t can wear away at your soul over time, and those who hide to fit in can pay a hefty price for doing so.

Who we pretend to be, and the spaces we create by doing so, have massive consequences in our lives and the lives of the people around us. I offer examples – the set of people who are all pretending to be professional and businesslike to operate in the same workspace. The group of people who are living their Pagan identity for a weekend at a camp. The group of people in a pub who are imagining how they’d live if their brand of antisocial politics got into power. All of these things form our lives, and can colour our sense of self even when we tell ourselves we’re only playing at it. The people we pretend to be can take over our lives, and may not take us in the directions we wanted to follow.

I’m wrangling with this a bit on the steampunk side at the moment. Most of the people who get into steampunk want to play with the extravagant period dress. It’s just that this is often about jamming on the fashions of the rich. I don’t want to play at being upper class. I don’t want to be part of that wealth and class system even in an imaginary and often subversive context. I’ve been looking at images of working class women from the Victorian era, the shawls and the bonnets, the absence of bling and glamour. I’m trying to find a way to be that lets me honour my investment in being a working person, and a thinking, creative person.

It’s good to pretend and play, adults need it as much as children do. I think we all play dress up and pretend to be certain kinds of grownups in situations, and sometimes it feels to me more like a child pretending to be a grownup. And often it feels good to take off the grownup uniforms and get back into my mud and tree seeking attire. It’s important to know when we’re pretending, and to know who we’d really be, and when we’re putting on a costume, and when we’re putting on our real clothes. I suspect there are many people for whom the work attire is a costume, and the velvet cloak, the pith helmet, the goth dress or the elf ears are much more the real self.


Playing with my labels

Back when I was at university, many moons ago, I minored in psychology. This meant numerous chances to play with psychological tests. Introvert-extrovert, thinking-emotional, masculine-feminine, and so forth. I noticed a thing – that the tests did not quite work for me. A large percentage of the questions I wanted to answer ‘both’. Go to a party or read a book? I could place myself in the middle of any scale, or simultaneously out towards both ends. My second discovery following on from this was that for most measures, nothing existed to name me. Just for gender, where I found and relished the term ‘psychologically androgynous’.

Part of what this indicates is that sliding scales assuming personality traits can be lined up in certain ways are reductive and flawed. I wonder how many people conform to ideas like you can be either a thinking person or a feeling person just because those ready-made identities are there to be conformed to.

One of the things I never got to study in psychology is the question of why we are so keen to label and identify ourselves. Why do we want our thoughts and behaviour defined along an axis? What do we get out of comparing our scores with other people’s? There’s no real application for this stuff, although it clearly forms the basis for all the dodgy ‘what kind of X are you?’ questionnaires in magazines. There’s plenty of research out there to show that who we are and what we do is situation specific anyway. The person we are at work is not the person we are when hanging out with friends.

Who is the real me? Is the persona I choose to adopt any less a manifestation of me than an off the cuff reaction? Surely, any choice I make is who I am. My artifice is as much part of my lived truth as my moments of raw emotional authenticity. I want to go to the party and read the book. When it comes to gender stereotypes, I pack like a man, shop like a man, take a problem solving approach like a man. I look like a woman, in line with current gender fashions. I’ve no inclination to emulate the social models for male appearance, or feminine behaviour patterns. I think about how I feel, I use reason and gut feelings together for problem solving and decision making. I’m not an either/or sort of person, I want to explore all the things available to me.


Reputation

Who we are in the eyes of the world is something most of us care about. How we are seen, valued, judged and whether we are accepted. In theory, a reputation should be the consequence of who we are and what we do, and thus something we have control over, but in practice it is seldom that simple.

The easiest place to point for examples is the arts. Look at any breakthrough creator who changed things radically – Beethoven, Van Gogh – they were criticised far more than they were loved in their lifetimes. Even The Beatles were considered rowdy bad boys when they first appeared, and it’s only after decades that they’ve become something more ‘establishment’. The first impressionists were mocked. The reputations of many creative people aren’t defined until after their death, and there many ‘greats’ who, during their own lives, were never recognised.

On the flip side history is also full of people who were massively popular at the time, and have faded into obscurity since. Name a composer of Music Hall songs, or the kind of gothic romance author Jane Austin was mocking in Northanger Abbey, or any of the chivalric novels Cervantes took the piss out of with Don Quixote. Ten years hence, most of the ‘pop idol’ reality TV show folk will have been forgotten. Some reputations are vastly inflated for short periods – undeserved (to my mind) attention went to Twilight and 50 Shades of Gray recently, but they’re already slipping into the shadows, and I doubt in a hundred years time, anyone will have heard of them.

Reputation, therefore, is not always deserved. It’s also not something we can control, no matter how good our PR. Most of us of course will never have PR, never have to worry about posterity, or how history will judge us, and that too is a sort of judgement. Most of our ancestors are not in the history books.

Regardless of how many people we’re dealing with, reputation is a key part of how we interact with others, and reputations can be nothing more than a web of lies with a sugar coating of sparkly misdirection. We all make up stories and myths about ourselves, and other people make their own stories about us, too. Reputation is the unnatural child of these stories.

Those in the public eye can spend a fortune trying to manage their reputations and appearance. The rest of us may be no less obsessed, but less well funded, and with a smaller audience to play to, we have to make our own fun…  Social media may have made us far more conscious of how we construct our public personas, but it doesn’t put us in charge.

There is a part of ourselves we may never truly know, and certainly can’t do much to control, but which will influence our lives and options in countless ways. That aspect is who other people think we are, what of us they latch onto, what of other people’s stories they choose to believe, what they forgive, and don’t forgive, what they think was deliberate, and what they think we did by accident, or by mistake.

Or we can do our best to meet each other without assumption, to take each other at face value, to deal with the reality of what’s going on, not second guessing based on what we think we know


Retraining your emotions

Emotions turn up quickly, with a force and direction of their own that makes them feel like unassaible features of who we are. In many ways this is so – invalidating a person’s feelings is a sure-fire way of trashing their sense of self and causing them great discomfort. How we feel is a big part of who we are, but what happens if how we feel isn’t how we want to feel?

Emotions can be changed, responses can be altered over time. I know, because I’ve done it. While it’s possible to change how you think in a relatively short time frame – weeks are generally enough, the emotions can take months, or years to retrain. Panic triggers are a good example here. (Nothing triggery is coming up). Panic triggers happen when we experience something that brings a memory of trauma too close to the surface. If we aren’t in danger, we can still panic because the body responds with fear. That fear can be unlearned.

My main method (and there may be others, I don’t know) is to get myself somewhere I feel safe, and to think about the emotion I want to change. This can involve visualising the situation I react to, and working on telling myself how I want to feel about it. For example, go back a few years and a kiss from a friend would panic me. It took me months of deliberate work to change this, and while I’m never going to want random people kissing me without permission, I can now comfortably kiss and be kissed by close friends.

Where the thinking mind leads, the feeling part of a person will eventually follow. What works best for me is to think my way into imaginary situations that would provoke a response I don’t want, and to use a mix of thinking and feeling my way through, over and over again so that I can change how I feel. This can also be done by working in actual ways with other people – having very safe and supportive spaces has allowed me to feel easier about other people telling me what to do with my body (thank you Vishwam!). Working alone in my head can be quicker than waiting for people who can help, but there comes a point when you have to dive back in to actual situations and see what happens. Having supportive people to help that happen safely is invaluable.

Changing emotional responses brings up questions about sense of self. There are a number of emotional responses I can generate that cause other people problems – I get upset easily, I feel things keenly. There have been times when I’ve felt under a lot of pressure to tidy up my emotions so as to be more convenient for other people. I don’t recommend it. The time to try and change emotional responses, is when you don’t feel that how your body reacts is in line with your authentic self. This is a call only an individual can make, no one can or should try to make it for you. If your grief, or your anger, your distress or your fear are not manifesting in ways that sit well with who you think you are, then work to change it. These are probably maladaptive survival strategies that worked in some context, but mostly don’t work and are not, in fact, you.

It’s important to remember that our emotional reactions are not a manifestation of pristine nature. They are not a wilderness we have to protect. Our emotions seem very natural, but we have all been conditioned to react in certain ways – what we’re punished for, or rewarded for, what’s ignored, what’s taken seriously – the families and communities we grew up in have taught us patterns of acceptable feeling, and those feelings may not sit well with who we really are. Consider the many men who have been taught not to cry, but who have been allowed to shout. Consider the religious communities that bring up their LGBT people to hate who they are and feel guilty and worse… we do not learn to feel in isolation, and sometimes what we have learned needs to be unlearned.

I decided a long time ago that I would believe that my most authentic self is the person I choose to be, the person I work towards being. It may not be the answer for everyone, but when approaching dysfunctional emotions, I’ve found it a useful place to start.