There used to be a getting-to-know you game we played as kids where you picked one adjective to describe yourself which started with the same letter as your name. We’d go around the group remembering everyone’s name and descriptive adjective. Nice Nolan, Hilarious Heidi, Kind Katie, Adventurous Aimee, Strong Sam. These flat, one word identifiers were our first impressions.
As adults, we have an only slightly more sophisticated methods of becoming familiar with one another. “This is Sarah, she’s an actress,” “meet Tyler, he’s in med school,” “Hi, I’m Emily. I’m studying political science at USC,” or even, “You see Mark? He’s the hot one. He surfs.” That first meeting can shape how we think of each other for an entire relationship, and no matter how deep a relationship goes, sometimes we get stuck in those first impressions. I knew a girl once who told me that she had an uncanny knack for reading people, and that her first impression of a person was always was spot on. My view that she was too stubborn to see a person in a new light, but her conviction is a prime example of what we are up against in defining and reshaping our personas. Once you fall into a roll, it’s difficult to play a new one.
Take this website’s namesake for example, June Cleaver. Her role on Leave it to Beaver was very one-dimensional. She was prim, proper, responsible, lady-like, and motherly- the ideal woman of her time. Think of what would have happened if one episode she had decided to play baseball with the boys or had taken a wild night out to the city with her friends. It would be laughable or scandalous, respectively. The feedback from these responses would have likely shoved her right back into the happy homemaker identity everyone was so comfortable with.
“Friends” is another prime example of stagnant identification. In the beginning of the series, we got to know the characters and all their quirks pretty well. The characters were fun and loveable many times because we felt like we knew them. You’d think something was funny because, ‘thats SO Joey!’ I remember people saying things like, ‘I pulled a Phoebe’ when they had done something absent-minded. As the show went on, the characters became more and more embedded in these certain personas, but from 23 to 30 years old, many of them scarcely evolved.
Now, look at yourself. Think of how you introduce yourself. Try to remember what others say they’ve heard about you when you first meet. Whether you realize it or not, this is the role you are typecast as. We fail to recognize that we are multifaceted individuals who evolve and re-mold ourselves constantly with every conversation, adventure, dream, sight, and thought we experience. No matter how much you grow or change, the feedback others give you fight to keep you in that same role. That one word adjective will follow you around until you make an active effort to change it.
Think of your identifiers again. Think of the times they hold you back. Among my friends, I tend to be typecast as the athlete. For years, I’d wonder why guys invited me to play football instead of going to movies, or why girls assumed it was a special occasion for me to want to wear heels. Then I realized they were just feeding back to me what I’d been showing to them. Sports have always been a big part of my life and the fact that I can be a dedicated athlete has always been something I take pride in. By clinging to that one side of my personality, I basically told everyone to see me that way. When they did, it reinforced my identity as a fun, sporty girl. It’s like standing sandwiched between two mirrors where one reflection shows another which shows another and another.
The problem comes in when you need to see something different, but as much as you want to see something new, the same old messages of who you used to be keep coming back at you. After a few seasons rifled with injuries, I asked my coach in a meeting to please see me with new eyes. As much as I envisioned myself dominating on the field, I kept feeling that they could only see me on crutches on the sideline. When I came back to practice, I was right where I saw myself, and I changed the supporting role I’d been playing for so long.
This week, we are working on breaking out of roles we’re too comfortable in. If you are known for being late everywhere, change it. Don’t tell everyone, just start arriving ten minutes early to everything. If you’re known for being silly and ridiculous all the time, show that you are more. Share your big-picture ideas or help a friend with a problem. Make a point to change an attitude about yourself, and be dedicated to that one thing each day this week. The more you are committed to it, the more others will be able to change their outlooks, and the easier it will be for you to be who you really are.