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Who Are You… Really?

Updated: Jan 20

I recently listened to a podcast where the woman being interviewed described a workshop she attended where the first activity was to spend five minutes introducing herself, but she couldn’t mention her job title, achievements, skills, or family status (i.e. wife, mother, sister, etc.)


She described how hard it was for those attending to achieve the five minute goal. Talk about getting vulnerable. There were awkward pauses; nervous laughter. Some really took the exercise to heart and inspired others to do the same. At the end of the activity, everyone reflected on how hard it was to get beyond identifying with the roles we take on – our professions, our relationships, or even our skills. It was hard to step back and answer the question, “Who am I, really?”

I smiled the whole time I listened, having been through a similar experience for the last two years. If I had to answer that question two years ago, I would have struggled hard to come up with meaningful answers. What I now realize is that I had taken on so many external identities, I wasn’t sure who I was anymore. I just knew I was exhausted and numb. If I hadn’t been able to meet the five minute goal, I would have felt shame that I wasn’t “more” in order to fill the time.


This post is about how I went from exhausted, numb, and ashamed to where I am now (which I’ll describe more about in the post, so I won’t give it away just yet!)

It’s a scary, vulnerable, and sometimes painful, journey – but in the end YOU WIN.

You win the confidence that comes with truly knowing yourself, which allows you to be known. You grant yourself compassion, and can then extend this to others. You know your true value. You trust yourself to say “no” when you need to, and, even more important, to say “yes” even where there is risk. And, you reach a point where you know when to do which. (Maybe not 100% of the time, but more often than not.)


I hope that as you read through my journey, you’ll be inspired to do your own personal inventory. Then I’d love to hear your responses in the comments section!

Culture Shock


I’ve been overseas a few times, though previously it was either for vacation or to visit family (which could technically be considered a vacation.) When you’re on vacation, you tend to have a “consumer” mentality. You want to take in the sights, experience new things, and you expect a certain level of service for what you’re paying for. Tourist spots generally cater to these expectations.

Two years ago, I went on my first overseas missions trip. The goal of this trip was to explore opportunities to serve in a third-world country where I couldn’t speak the language and they were between 40 and 200 years behind U.S. infrastructure, depending on where we visited. There was no guarantee of safe housing, reliable transportation, or cell towers. It was a completely different experience than “vacation.”


It was also the first time I started to really reflect on the question of “Who are you…really?”


In America, when you meet someone for the first time, the question of “What do you do for work?” is one of the first – if not the first – question that comes up. However, that question never came up once on this trip. It wasn’t important to know what we did back in America, how well we did it, and how successful our industries were. Even if I had been able to speak the language and translate what I did for work, there was no role to compare it to. And I’m pretty sure they wouldn’t have cared.


We were there to be present, learn the needs, and help meet the needs. In doing so, we learned about each other through the experience of service, not status. It was about collectively achieving a goal greater than ourselves. And trying not to get bit by the GIGANTIC SPIDERS while doing it… but I digress…


The point I’m trying to make is that the trip really caused me to become aware of the external identities I had unconsciously taken on, and how deeply I identified with them. It started when my typical responses to “Who are you and what do you do?” held no meaning in this other country. This was more unsettling that I expected it to be.


I was very early on in my journey.


External Identities

Returning from the missions trip, I consciously observed how I, and others, responded to the question, “Who are you and what do you do?”

I found that most responses could be categorized based on external factors.


Examples:

Vocation: Role, company, position, status, tenure
  1. “I’m a (role) at (company) and have been there for (X) years.”

  2. ” I work at (company) as (role) and they are known for (company identity).”

  3. “I’m a (professional role) in (named field).”

Residence
  1. “I live on the (east/north/west/south) side.”

  2. “I live in a (condo/apartment/home or ranch).”

  3. “I live in (X) city” (or a suburb of that city).”

Education
  1. “I have a degree in (X). I went to (X) college. ”

  2. “I have a Masters in (X).”

  3. “I double-majored in (X) and (Y).”

  4. “I specialized in (professional career track).”

Family Role
  1. “I’m (father/mother/grandfather/grandmother/son/daughter, etc.) to (my named family members).”

  2. “I’m the (oldest/youngest/middle) child in my family of (#).”

  3. “I’m a twin.”

  4. “I’m an only child.”

  5. “We’ve been married (X) years.”

Athletic/creative abilities
  1. “I’m on a league soccer/volleyball/etc. team.”

  2. “I play tennis/pickleball/etc.”

  3. “I paint/bake/sing/draw/etc.”

Achievements (Personal or those of others they are close to)
  1. “Our (child/friend/family member) was recognized for (X).”

  2. “I compete in (X) races.”

  3. “I (or my child) was in the top of my class at (X school).”

  4. “I (or my child) have been to (X) countries (Y) times.”

  5. “I (another family member) is on the board of (X).”

  6. “I have been to (X) concerts.”

Service organization or church affiliations
  1. “I’m a member of (Rotary, Kiwanis, Lions’ Club, Optimists, etc.)”

  2. “I attend the (Catholic, Lutheran, Methodist, Christian Reformed, etc.) church (or synagogue, temple, etc.)”

  3. NOTE: While I believe that our personal faith beliefs are a part of our internal identities, the denominations we choose to attend (or not) become part of our external/observable identities. That’s why I included them here.

Hobbies, Interests, or Serving Opportunities
  1. “I ride horses.”

  2. “I compete in hot air balloon competitions.”

  3. “I prefer (X) type of music.”

  4. “I prefer the (indoors/outdoors).”

  5. “I volunteer with (X organization).”

When meeting someone for the first time, we are often trying to find a connection that will further the conversation.


The responses above give others insights about our priorities and passions, and what we’re most proud of, and it offers the other person an opportunity to share the same with us. It’s a very surface way to share who we are, based on what we identify with.


The irony is that when we become over-identified with these external responses, we lose the true sense of who we are…really.


Over-Identification


As you reflected on the responses in the section above, did you see any that you’ve used to introduce yourself? Did you notice how they aligned with your priorities, passions, or what you’re most proud of?


Did you also notice how they describe more about what you (or others close to you) do, have done, or the role(s) you take on versus who you really are?


If that last statement confuses you, like it did for me at this point on my journey, then there’s a chance you may be over-identifying with the work you do, the groups you’re involved in, your role in your family, your hobbies/interests, etc.

See if you can answer this question with confidence:

“If you no longer had your job, your ability to help/serve others, to achieve the next goal, experience the next experience, live where you live, the ability to enhance your skills, to play the role of parent/sibling/relative within your family, to participate in your church or other organization you enjoy…who would you be, really?

If you struggled with your answer to this question, you’re not alone. I can completely relate. And I wanted an answer.


As I tried to answer the question, it felt like I was back in school – trying to get the “right” answer. But all my answers were shallow, like I was still trying to perform for some unconscious entity and coming up short.


The internal discontent of not having authentic answers was my motivation to go beyond the surface and get to the core.


As I entered into this next part of my journey, three factors played a key role:

  1. The Enneagram

  2. A trusted friend

  3. Time

Knowing and Being Known – The Enneagram

After being exposed to several different personality tests over the course of my career, I’d never come across the Enneagram personality test. It was during this time that a friend introduced it to me.


The tool describes each of us as having one of nine personality “types.” I was initially skeptical about what the results would say. I’d been described different ways by different tools and it hadn’t led to any significant life realizations…until now.


I originally scored highest in types 3, 7 and 8. I read the descriptions for the 8 and 7 first, and found I could relate to some of the descriptions, including the aggressive nature and future-focus of these types. I just couldn’t relate as much to the remaining descriptions.


Then I read about Type 3 – The Achiever. It was liberating and embarrassing at the same time. I felt like someone had followed me around with a video camera my whole life, though this camera could pick up my INTERNAL thoughts, beliefs, motivations, and desires in addition to my external behaviors and actions. It described what I looked like at my best, and what I would look like at my worst, at work, at home – in basically all life situations. The description’s accuracy was uncanny. For the first time I felt seen and known – and realized that there are others out there like me.


In a nutshell, Type 3 personalities have a tendency to over-identify with:

  1. Goals and tasks – they love deadlines

  2. Work, achievement, performing – they can be workaholics

  3. Efficiency – getting to the goal in the fastest manner; “good enough” is good enough if the goal is reached timely

  4. Discounting emotions as unnecessary if they don’t advance the goal

  5. Competition

  6. Successes, but they are only as good as their last success

  7. Avoiding failure – they will reframe failure into success or only take on things they know they can do well

  8. Appearing successful in whatever situation they are in; they have a tendency to show up differently depending on who they are with (leading to many “masks” and not understanding who they are underneath)

  9. Shame – always feeling unworthy, which drives the motivation to take on new tasks as a way of feeling more worthy/valued

Want more information? Check out the references on my resource page and scroll to “Related to the Enneagram.” Free Enneagram assessments are also linked from my Personal Assessments page.


A Trusted Friend

As I was processing this new information, I started meeting with the trusted friend I mention in the “Who’s in Your Tier 1?” post. When you are getting into this next level of answering “Who are you, really?” you want someone who can handle a lot of emotion and truth without judgment. She was just that friend.

During our conversations, there were tears – which I hated because I wasn’t used to processing my feelings. After all, you don’t need feelings to get tasks done – they just get in the way! Apparently, they are still part of you and it’s better when they integrate. Which means crying. (I know, I know, some of you are thinking, “Thanks, Captain Obvious.” I just hadn’t used the ‘vulnerability’ tool enough yet, so it was uncomfortable at first.)


I’m more than my goals and successes. Again, this probably sounds like ‘DUH’ but I vividly remember one conversation where, though more tears, I honestly asked, “Who AM I if I’m not DOING or ACHIEVING something?” This was the most powerful question I had to answer for myself.


Another hard truth was that I couldn’t approach this journey with the same energy it took to create my surface personality. Meaning, I couldn’t just set a goal and a deadline and complete all the required tasks to get my identity question answered. I’d tried that already, and all the initial answers came back hollow. I’d have to spend more time observing, reflecting, and stepping into my truth. It would reveal itself when it was ready…when I was ready. And I realized how impatient I can be…even with myself.


Rebuilding The Foundation

I started a journal. One entry contained a pyramid of bricks, representing my foundation. The goal was to fill in a brick each time I learned a new truth about myself.


I left the bricks empty until I could identify an authentic truth about myself. Only then would I fill in a brick. My truths had to transcend my job, my roles, my background, and my relationship to others – things that were outside my control and couldn’t define my value. I had to believe them from the inside out, or I wouldn’t write it down.


I wanted to rebuild the shaky foundation I had built previously on lies, lies such as:

  1. You’re only worthy if you’re succeeding

  2. People only want you for what you can do for them

  3. Unless you maintain a certain image, you can’t be accepted

  4. You are what you do

  5. Vulnerability is weakness (oh man, this was a BIG one)

Who I Am…Really

It took about seven months to fill in my bricks; to come to the end of my personality and stand on my true identity, which is:

  1. Chosen. I was put here on purpose for a purpose. No one else has my unique background, skill sets, experiences, and perspective. I now want to share these with the goal of helping others gain new perspectives and achieve better outcomes (embracing the achiever in me, but more to help others succeed.) This blog is part of that purpose.

  2. Worthy of love and affection. It wasn’t until this journey that I realized how much time I spent unconsciously feeling unworthy. Now I realized shame would always be a part of me, though now I could pet its head and put it on a leash. I didn’t have to add this accessory to my daily outfits.

  3. A human being, not a human doing. When I accepted this truth, I realized I was worthy and valued even if I did nothing other than sit still in a chair. This didn’t mean I wouldn’t still be motivated to set goals and achieve success – that’s part of me, too. Now, though, I could recognize what my motivations were. Was I doing this to feel valued or because I already felt worthy and wanted to help others from the overflow of that truth? This helped me determine what to say NO – and YES – to. I cannot fully describe the empowerment of understanding your motivations and using that to make authentic decisions.

  4. I’m not a problem in need of fixing. I’m not flawed. I’m who I’m supposed to be. Being able to recognize my motivations within the description of the Type 3, I can better recognize what will trigger me to descend into lower levels of health… and what will help me ascend to higher levels. The path to freedom is surrender.

  5. Courageously Imperfect. Like the CI logo implies, we are born whole and worthy of love. Given the world we live in, we have to adopt tools, personalities, and behaviors that help us survive. Over time, these may unconsciously fool us into believing they are our true identity. They’ve gotten us to this point, but they aren’t working for us anymore. It takes courage to clear out the old and make way for the new.

  6. Constantly dependent. I had to create new definitions for success, ones less focused on validating my value and more standing on my truths. Only then was I able to show up fully whole and authentic. This requires regular reflection and surrendering the unhealthy aspects of my personality when my insecurities kick in. And constantly holding myself personally accountable. Recognizing it’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon.

Who Are You…Really?


For those of you still in the process of answering this question, it helps to have support and encouragement. Someone who can handle a lot of emotion and truth without judgment. I can be that person for you.

Schedule a free, 30-minute consultation. Let’s talk about your unique situation and what next steps may be.







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