Musings: Identity versus Role

You are reading a Stream of Consciousness (aka SOC) blog entry. These are written from a personal point of view when I am right in the moment of figuring something out. People unfamiliar with my writing over the years may find it hard to follow. All are welcome to read, but keep in mind that these entries are raw and not representative of how I may actually feel/think about a given topic.

I’m continuing to ramble my way out of motivational depression through writing. On Tuesday, I postulated that pursuing ‘my art’ instead of ‘goals’ might be a more natural fit for my personality, followed by Wednesday’s questioning of my ‘should do’ reasoning. As part of the review of ‘the shoulds’, it occurred to me that I’m actually doing pretty ok, but I seem to be missing a catalyst in the form of community relationships. But just what does that mean?

Independence and Community: Using Identity as the Filter

I have never liked being part of an organization. I’m not sure why this is, but it may be related to the feeling of not belonging to any mainstream group. Growing up in rural New Jersey in the 1970s as the only Asian kid had its share of casually racist experiences, and then moving to Taiwan when I was 9 made me an outsider again because I could not speak the language though I looked like I was ‘from’ there. Moving back to the United States for college, I was a third culture kid, a computer nerd, and then a video game developer nerd. I have never really fit in anywhere, and my coping mechanism has been to decide who I am independent of what other people told me I should be. This gives me quite a lot of power on the individual level, but at times I think it also creates a barrier between myself and other people; I am so used to not being understood (both figuratively and literally) that I assume that I’m not wanted because I am not “relateable” with most people.

Because I’ve placed such an emphasis on deciding who I am, I’ve tended to be preoccupied with questions of Identity. I’m fascicnated by personality typing and other people’s stories, probably because I’m trying to understand myself in relation to other people. Although I can exist pretty well in isolation, I do not thrive without other like-minded people around me. Over the years I’ve found a clustering of friends and colleagues around the world, but I miss having the face-to-face daily communion with people like me. This is the main impulse behind my living room cafe (LRC) project, so I can create a communal space that is under my control (and it would be funny-cool). The people who come to the LRC are people who already know me and my personality. This is a self-selected group of people, and therefore it should be comfortable.

Expanding Roles

While the LRC seems to be a good approach, it’s ultimately limited because only people I already know can participate. The LRC is my actual home; I am not going to invite strangers into it.

Still, I need to meet new people to form an expanded community of like-minded people. As an adult, it’s much harder to meet people than when you’re going to the same campus every day. It’s a little easier to join a club, gym, or organization if one catches your interest; I have done this and it’s a promising avenue of exploration. However, I am limited by the efforts of other organizers, and I’d like to find something that is more aligned with my own interests and projects. I have started groups before, but found that the demands of leadership detracted from the enjoyment of being in the group. I have enough experience with such groups now, I think, to avoid the mistakes of the past that made these groups less fun for me, but I have to psych myself up to commiting to it. Starting something myself is aligned quite well with my penchant for independent action. However, I don’t really want to lead a group. There’s a measure of anxiety about being accepted or forming good relationships. It’s easier if it’s “my group”, but then I also start worrying whether people are having a good time or are getting a good value in return for their time investments. I know this is silly to think, but it is the way I’m wired; I am highly susceptible to other people’s emotions in that they occupy my full attention when I sense any kind of disharmony.

The triple-whammy of “identity/who am I” combined with “are people enjoying themselves” and “managing organizations is not fun” tends to make me want to avoid commiting the time to starting something new. However, my recent pop up restaurant experiment in the LRC changed my mind. I was struck by how friends from different circles, who did not know each other, were able to mix and share their stories. I enjoyed taking the role of host, and this got me thinking that instead of trying to define my identity, perhaps I can just define my role. Identity is a personal, hard-to-define subject. A role, by comparison, is both easier to define based on need AND less personal. I’m very comfortable with taking on a hosting role, for example, because I can actively seek what people need and fulfill them to the best of my ability. I’m a lot less comfortable when the focus is on ME as an individual; this makes me feel that I am more vulnerable to judgement followed by rejection as a human being. I think this is a fear that a lot of people with high emotional sensitivity can relate to.

Choosing a role over defining an identity may be the bridge I need to step forward into leadership more confidently. Identity is always going to be important for me, but like my pursuit of art is reserved for my closest friends. Perhaps choosing a role is the way to put forward my best face for everyone else, and through playing this role I will find my future friends-to-be. I’ll muse more on this tomorrow.