“Don’t let anyone else define you – define yourself.”
I came across this quote today, and bumped up against it. On the surface it sounds great, right? Our individualistic culture conditions us to believe that we have complete control over our lives, and deciding our “identity” is completely within our hands.
Except it doesn’t work that way.
Communication scholars (and other social scientists) will tell you that our sense of identity is formed in relationship with others. We live in community, and our sense of self is partly (some would say, largely) dependent on how others react to us. I may define myself as friendly, but if others find me cold and aloof, they’re not going to be drawn into friendship with me. If I am self-aware, I will notice the reactions of others, and I can make appropriate adjustments.
We all know people who have a distorted sense of how they are seen by others. Your friend might believe he’s charming to women, but others laugh at his awkwardness. Your sister might think she’s a great singer, but her vocals cause others to cringe.
Don’t get me wrong – confidence is a great thing, and “fake it till you make it” often works. We can decide how we want to enter the world, but we can’t control how others react to us. So that quote about not letting others define you, but defining yourself, is too simplistic, too reductive. I define myself, you define me, and these definitions will clash and combine and influence each other.
We understand ourselves more clearly in relationship with others.