10 Steps to Self Esteem: Step 9 - Find your identity

Welcome to the ninth step of your 10 steps to self esteem.

ACTION POINT! Remember to fill in your Progress Checker before you start!

The Beatles exist apart from my Self. I am not really Beatle George. Beatle George
is like a suit or shirt that I once wore on occasion and until the end of my life people may see that shirt and mistake it for me.

George Harrison

This step is all about finding and strengthening your sense of who you are.

But before we talk about your identity – your sense of who you are – I want to tell you a story.

Mrs. Dougherty and the class from hell

Years ago a new teacher arrived in an inner city school in Chicago. She didn’t know it, but she was about to start teaching what other teachers in the school not so secretly regarded as ‘the class from hell’. Many of the children had behavioural problems and / or severe learning difficulties. Many couldn’t read very well and found paying attention and making any real progress almost impossible. They had been labeled ‘slow learners’ and the teachers expected little from them.

Mrs. Dougherty too found herself struggling with this class. They were rude and rowdy, constantly distracted and ‘impossible to teach’. Mrs. Dougherty became exasperated and one afternoon she went into the administration office. She found a key to a cabinet containing some of the records of her students. She knew she wasn’t really supposed to look in there without permission, but she wanted to see if she could learn something more about the history of her students – to give her clues as to why they were so hard to teach, and ideas for what to do with them.

She found a file listing the names of all her students and saw that next to each name was a number score. To her shocked amazement, she saw that far from being of low intelligence many of her students were way above the normal IQ. Many had scores in the in the 120s, and she saw that the very worst offender had an IQ of 148! She realised that they weren’t ‘backward kids’ at all, but extra bright ones who were bored and under-challenged.

With this new perception of her class she went back to work and demanded more of them. She demanded that they listen to each other and her. She demanded that they take pride in their work, completing and always handing in their assignments. She encouraged them to talk about what they were learning. And everyone was listened to. And slowly, bit by bit, this ‘class from hell’, the worst performing class in the school, rose to be the best. The children were happier, learning well, and doing so much better. The other teachers (and no doubt the parents) were amazed at this transformation. At the end of the year, the Head Teacher was so impressed by this miracle that she asked to talk to Mrs. Dougherty.

“How did you do it? How did you take the class from hell and turn them into such high performing model students?”

Mrs. Dougherty hesitated, and then confessed that she had done something she wasn’t supposed to do. She had crept into the office, taken the key and looked at the IQ scores next to the children’s names. And when she saw how high they were, she knew they would be able to learn much more effectively – they just needed the discipline. She knew they could do it and they did!

The Head Teacher was incredulous: “Well,’ she said with a smile. “I suppose I can understand why you wanted to look at their records in such detail, but I have to tell you those ‘IQ scores’ next to their names weren’t their IQ scores at all. Those are the children’s locker numbers!”

This story powerfully illustrates three things:

  • how the expectations you have of yourself affect who you become

  • how the expectations of others can shape who you become

  • how identity (in this case the identity of the ‘class from hell’ and all the children in it) can be shaped by other people.

Who are you?

This was the challenging question posed by the Caterpillar to Alice:

`Who are YOU?’ said the Caterpillar.

This was not an encouraging opening for a conversation. Alice replied, rather shyly, `I – I hardly know, sir, just at present – at least I know who I WAS when I got up this morning, but I think I must have been changed several times since then.’

`What do you mean by that?’ said the Caterpillar sternly. `Explain yourself!’

`I can’t explain MYSELF, I’m afraid, sir’ said Alice, `because I’m not myself, you see.’

`I don’t see,’ said the Caterpillar.

`I’m afraid I can’t put it more clearly,’ Alice replied very politely, `for I can’t understand it myself to begin with; and being so many different sizes in a day is very confusing.’

`It isn’t,’ said the Caterpillar.

`Well, perhaps you haven’t found it so yet,’ said Alice; `but when you have to turn into a chrysalis – you will some day, you know – and then after that into a butterfly, I should think you’ll feel it a little queer, won’t you?’

`Not a bit,’ said the Caterpillar.

`Well, perhaps your feelings may be different,’ said Alice; `all I know is, it would feel very queer to ME.’

`You!’ said the Caterpillar contemptuously. `Who are YOU?’

Which brought them back again to the beginning of the conversation...

from Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

How we feel other people feel about us can shape how we feel and think about ourselves, our identity.

This is natural and understandable up to a point. However, if your sense of yourself issolely based on how other people treat you (or how you imagine they feel about you) then your identity will be weaker than it need be, and will be unduly vulnerable to the changing attitudes or prejudices of people around you.

In the example of the class from hell, Mrs. Dougherty’s changed attitude to her class altered their sense of who they were and, in this instance, that was great. But of course it can work the other way. If you are, or have been, around people who seem to think you’re stupid, bad or somehow a ‘loser’, then their negative labeling of you may have shaped your own sense of who you are in a negative way.

Alice had a conversation with a Duchess in the course of her adventures. The Duchess was fond of pointing out the moral of everything that happened, or was said. So when Alice told her that mustard was a vegetable and not a mineral, the Duchess was ready with her moral.

And the moral of that is: Be what you would seem to be, or if you’d like it put more simply: Never imagine yourself not to be otherwise than what it might appear to others that what you were or might have been was not otherwise than what you had been would have appeared to them to be otherwise!

from Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

Fortunately, our sense of self isn’t fixed. It can alter and improve.

Being your own person

Because we are all social beings, it’s quite natural that your identity will be shaped, to some extent, by other people’s expectations of you.

Imagine transcending this. Imagine shaping yourself. When we describe a man or a woman as being ‘their own person’, what we mean is that they are not too influenced by what others think of them.

A perfect example of someone who is ‘his own man’ is Phillip Marlowe, Raymond Chandler’s fictional detective. Other characters in the books have all kinds of expectations of how Marlow should be, how he might be led astray by greed, how he might think and feel, and so on. He confounds them all, he makes his own rules (which happen to be highly moral) and he sticks by them, regardless of how it looks to others. This is what makes him such an interesting character. He simply doesn’t conform to the way others have labeled him.

If we are just what others think we are, our ‘identity’ is little more than a projection of their ideas and has little substance of its own. To establish an identity that is truly ours, to be ‘our own person’ involves developing the courage not to care so much what other people think. Your identity is your identity.

But let’s look a little closer at the whole concept of ‘identity’.

Getting to know you

When you see a man or woman in the street you see an image. You might make all sorts of judgments about them based on their appearance, their weight, age, looks, dress and so on... but you don’t see them.

You don’t see all the aspects that go to make them who they are. You don’t see their beliefs, their thoughts, their feelings about what’s important to them, their interests or foibles or preoccupations or talents or attachments. You can’t see all their strengths and values, or how they feel about themselves in relation to others.

We’ve already said that, perhaps inescapably, people form their sense of self partly through comparison to other people, but ultimately you need to tread your own path.

Your identity is made up of:

  • your beliefs

  • your conditioning

  • your values

  • your intelligence

  • how you feel about yourself

  • groups you belong to

  • the way you relate to others.

Identity parade

We build our sense of identity in lots of different ways.

As teenagers, many of us dress and speak in ways that allow us access to a ‘ready made’ identity. How we speak, how we look, the kind of music we listen to and how we behave all contribute to this sense of identity. Doing this can help a young person in their transition to their own identity. Many adults also like to join groups which offer them an ‘off the peg’ identity.

Some people experiment with their identity as adults. They engage in a lifestyle or become a ‘type’ of person like a Hell’s Angel or a train spotter, or build their identity around their job (a job with uniform provides a pretty recognisable identity). Some people become major fans of something or someone, or fanatical about a particular hobby, and this all helps build their identity. There are many lifestyles and groups to join to help people feel they have an identity.

Screenshot 2019-09-10 at 23.12.18.png

But within that wider identity they have a more personal one. Being a police officer or a Hell’s Angel can only ever be part of our identity, not the whole picture.

Personal identity is also much more fluid than most of us imagine. It can change from moment to moment.

Take crowd psychology or ‘mob rage’. For some people, a sense of separate personal identity can all but disappear when they get caught up in a crowd. People who wouldn’t commit crimes on their own can take on the ‘personality’ or identity of the mob and do things they normally wouldn’t dream of.

When you think about another person, you also have feelings about them. You have opinions about them, even if you don’t examine those feelings consciously. Perhaps you like them or feel intimidated by them or feel they are basically decent or distrustful. Maybe you just feel they are okay.

When you think about yourself, how do you feel? I guess it depends what mood you’re in, what you’ve just been doing, who you’re with... Hold on, it sometimes seems like we all have lots of identities!

Well, in a way, we do. And we are not the first people to notice this. An Eastern philosopher poet wrote about it many centuries ago.


The Guest House

This being human is a guest house. Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness, some momentary awareness comes as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all! Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows, who violently sweep your house empty of its furniture, still, treat each guest honourably. He may be clearing you out for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice, meet them at the door laughing, and invite them in.

Be grateful for whoever comes, because each has been sent as a guide from beyond.


In the course of a single day, a man might be a loving husband, an angry father, a disappointed friend, a disapproving uncle, an intimidated employee, a cheerful neighbour and a hilarious brother recounting a funny story.

Which is the ‘real’ him?

Well, they all are of course. But each ‘personality’, for the time it lasts, can feel like it’s totally him. If he doesn’t have a good strong basic sense of who he is, he may be swept in the moment into believing that his current self is his total self.

This often happens when people fall into despair or anger. They forget that such feelings are clouds passing by – not the sky itself.

When people talk about ‘personal development’ they don’t always know exactly what they mean by that. It’s become one of those vague, fuzzy terms that people bandy about.

But one very important aspect of personal development, in my opinion, is learning to stabilise our identity so that we are not continually ‘in flux’.

For example, it’s a common experience to feel like a different person with different people in different situations to some extent. But as we progress through life, as we learn and begin to properly champion ourselves, and work in our own true best interests, we can discover how to keep a greater sense of our own basic identity across all kinds of situations, and not be so easily swayed.

How do we do this?

One way is to practice watching our different selves and, as Rumi’s poem suggests, instead of fighting them, seeing them as passing ‘guests’ who all have something for you, the ‘owner’.

This takes effort and the capacity to be calm about yourself. The ‘you’ who welcomes in the ‘guests’ is, in a sense, the real you.

This aspect of identity is sometimes described as ‘the observing self’.

The overseer (observing self)

There is a part of you that can watch yourself.

If you know you are angry, or sad, or nervous, then there is a bit of you outside of these feelings. That is your true identity.

Sometimes this is known as ‘mindfulness’ or going into the ‘observing self’. 

Your observing self isn’t about being ‘cold and detached’, because you can even observe yourself being cold and detached. It is the ultimate ‘observation point’ in your mind. And when you just watch the different ‘characters’ within you, in this way, they lose much of their power.

‘Low self esteem’ isn’t an ongoing characteristic of a person that’s there even when they sleep. It’s a characteristic that has been grafted on through their responses to life’s experiences – but it is not them. It is not ‘who they are’.

There is a huge difference between being in the middle of the storm at sea and observing the storm from the safety of dry land.

Exercise • Playing host

Sit quietly and think about the ‘guests’ in your ‘house’ right now. Notice the different kinds of feelings you are having.

Pick one of the feelings and give it a name. You might see it as a ‘person’, or some symbolic creature, or you might just have a sense of it.

Pay attention to that ‘guest’ for a few minutes, without judging it in any particular way, just letting it be what it is.

What is it doing? What is it saying?

How does it react to the fact that you are watching it so curiously?

What changes about it as you watch? What changes about you as you watch it? Repeat this exercise once or twice a day.

Learning to watch our ‘multiminds’ and detach from damaging emotional states and so strengthen our ‘observing self’ is an effective way to really get a continuous sense of who we are ‘underneath’ all the conditioning we get from life.

Progress indicators

  • you notice your sense of who you are getting stronger

  • you are more focused on what is right for you no matter what others think or say

  • you are less inclined to feel you have to ‘live up to’ what you imagine others expect of you

  • you feel more comfortable just being you

  • you can watch and observe your own emotions and thoughts with detachment

I don’t think I can overstate just how important it is to ‘get’ the idea of the ‘observing self ’.

Being able to mentally detach yourself from your own emotions – pleasant or unpleasant – and ‘see them from outside’ is one of the most liberating and empowering skills you can learn. The more you can do this, the less likely you are to be swept away by your own or other people’s feelings, and the stronger your identity becomes.

The next (and last!) step is ‘Put yourself first’. As you’ll see, this is not a call to selfishness but rather a call to action – to put all that you have been learning into practice and to live in such a way as to meet all your emotional and physical needs so that you really can live more happily.

Until next week