Musings: Identity versus Role

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.


  1. Mary 8 years ago

    “Playing a role” is definitely the mechanism my introverted family members have used to successfully navigate interacting with large numbers of strangers. My oldest daughter had a campus job in the graduate department of education as a receptionist. She answered phone and dealt with walk in questions. She played the role of helpful receptionist with ease. In real life, she has a hard time walking up to a check out counter in a store and interacting with the clerk. Being the fun LRC host sounds like a great fit for you. :-)

    • Author
      Dave Seah 8 years ago

      Mary, that’s really interesting! It used to scare me a lot when I was younger when I had to take on a role, but in hindsight it might be because the role was not well-defined AND I was not applying my own idea of what would make the role great. I would worry a lot about getting something wrong and getting yelled at! :-) Once I learned that it was OK to have my own notion of what was right (and this is much easier when I am the host) I seemed to do better.

  2. Nicole 8 years ago

    For me, motivational depression tends to stem from some sort of resistance to those “shoulds” that I mentioned. Sometimes this presents as self-sabotage (ie. not calling back clients, even though it’s something easy and will benefit me), sometimes it’s a reluctance to address problems (what I call the “ostrich syndrome”) and sometimes it’s just a sort of generalized malaise. I’ve been amazed, reading here, at how doggedly you tackle your goals. I guess the grass really is always greener. :)

    • Author
      Dave Seah 8 years ago

      Nicole: I am like that with any kind of phone call. I have been putting off several repair-related phone calls that I should make before the winter hits because…well, I’m not sure why. I just don’t want to! Maybe it’s a bit of distrust or the sense I am at the mercy of other “expert” opinion that I am not sure is really expert, but I am also not interested enough to become an expert on the matter. What often happens is that I reluctantly become an expert so I can make the right decision for me. Ugh!

      Yah, the grass is always greener! Remember that it’s easy for me to look like I’m doggedly pursuing my goals as you read about them in concentrated article format. I did some thinking about them for an hour. Then I spent an hour or two hammering at them, before taking a long nap :-) I’m susceptible too to thinking that everyone else must be AMAZINGLY MORE PRODUCTIVE than me, and have to remind myself that the two minutes it took me to read about someone’s TWO YEAR journey is likely hugely misleading. It’s especially misleading when I read 10 such stories in the space of an hour, and feel that I’m not doing anything at all by comparison. It’s easy to develop a false sense of just how fast other people are doing work when the Internet makes such news so accessible. I wish there were more timelines on projects that got completed to get a sense of how fast people really are learning and working.