Of Identity, Labels, and Living in the Void

Looking back on the last year, several things emerge as sort of overall themes of my life in 2010. Challenging fear was probably the biggest, setting standards and eliminating deadweight was another, questioning what’s important (and subsequently making meaningful connections) would likely fall into third place, and somewhere in the mix, amongst the hopes and dreams, was a quest for identity. I’ve always been fascinated by the study of human behaviour, and though I regret not pursuing it through formal education, I continue to seek out and digest as much information as possible on the psychology behind our personalities, our emotionals, our social tendencies, and on how we define ourselves. Mention the words “personality test”, and an initial response may very well be a wrinkled nose and questioning brow – but I put great faith in the theories developed by Jung, by Myers, and by Briggs.

Last year, I learned something fascinating about being an introvert. I also learned that when administered, answered, and researched meticulously, your Myers-Briggs Personality Type can be scarily accurate – and can shine a new light on why you think, act, and see the world the way you do. This stuff is a feast for the mind – figuring out the logistics behind your internal wiring that shape how you behave and define yourself can really go a long way in one’s quest for identity. But I can’t help but feel that despite the reading I’ve done, the results I’ve got, and despite it all making so much senseI still feel a bit of an anomaly. Perhaps that comes with being an INFJ – we do compose less than a single percent of the population, after all.

A few weeks ago, I played matchmaker for the first time, setting up a couple of friends on a blind date. It was wildly fun, hearing both sides asking about each other, about their likes, dislikes, history and upbringing – but one question stuck in my mind: “What sort of a person is he?” I tried to give as much information as I could, and went on to describe details about work, about education, and interests – but how do you concisely and accurately describe someone’s personality when inside lies a labyrinth of characteristics? With labels, I suppose. We all want to know who we are, and we all want to know who everybody else is, and the quickest, easiest way to do it is to stick a label on the outside for all to see. Goth. Nerd. Emo Kid. Lazy. Weirdo. Casanova. Drama Queen. Awkward. It Girl.  There are no end to the labels we attach to other people, but as Mr. Yorke once put it, we do it to ourselves. Everyone has an idea of who they think they are, and when asked to “tell me about yourself”, they’ll offer a few tidbits of information that combine to form a quick impression of the person as a whole. Often, these can be pretty accurate. But in labelling, we inadvertently give ourselves a glass ceiling. By defining ourselves as one thing, we conceal everything else that makes up who we really are. I’ve always found it difficult to define myself. I guess that’s why I felt like the leprechaun at the end of the rainbow when I first discovered the Myers-Briggs and the field of personality psychology. But the truth is – I still don’t really know.

I seem to defy social niches. That’s not new information, but perhaps it’s part of why it took me so long to find the people with whom I truly belong. Through adolescence to early adulthood, I flitted from group to group in an endeavour to fit in, allowing certain facets of my personality to shine through when it was appropriate, but hiding everything else in doing so. Only recently have I begun to embrace every part, instead of trying to fit a social mould – to acknowledge that it’s okay to be different. It’s okay to be an anomaly, because variety is the spice of life! Personally, I love getting to know multi-faceted people. People with different layers and contradictory yet harmonious interests. I like to dress up, straighten my hair, wear extensions, heels, and manicures. But I can also be blokier than Phil Mitchell. I hoover my counters and wear the same jeans four days in a row. I’m in love with the past, with fierce imagination, with history, culture, theatre and literature. But I’m also fascinated by science and technology, and the ongoing movement from science fiction to science fact. I love to imagine life on other planets and the evolution of the stars in the night sky, yet I’ll cover my walls with great art and beautiful words. I’m just as thrilled to listen to Celtic folk music as punjabi bhangra, Duran Duran, or 17th century choral masterpieces.  I enjoy cocktails as much as a pint of Carlsberg, and a round of Cranium as much as questing through Feathermoon Stronghold. I’ll be the first to crank up the Glee soundtrack while painting my toenails, but I reminisce about the days I fronted a punk band, thrive on the latest UK indie, and daydream of being the next Tarja Turunen, surrounded by symphonic power metal. I feel overwhelmed in crowds, yet crave social connection when alone.  I’m equally happy in a cocktail dress at a dinner party as I am dressing up in a World of Warcraft Night Elf costume at a comic book convention. I’ve been told I’m an introvert and an extravert.

I sometimes feel as though I live in the void between social identities. But then I remind myself, it’s just the world telling me I need a definition. It’s just other people that make me feel I need to fit a predefined genre instead of scattering myself throughout the library. It’s also an interesting parallel, I think, to blogging: we all know how I feel about limiting yourself to a niche despite it being the favoured means of operation, and I feel strongly that if you’re passionate about lots of different things, you should allow them all to see the light. Not tuck yourself into a box and stick a label on top for the sake of belonging to a certain crowd. We’re all such interesting and beautifully complex souls. And I think I’m finally okay with being a hodgepodge, after all.

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53 comments

  1. i’ve told you before and i’ll tell you again: i LOVE that you and i are both the rare INFJ and that you are just as fascinated by personality studies and human behavior as i am!! i also would love to go back to school and study these things formally. i don’t think i’ll be able to do that, but thank goodness we have a rich wealth of information through books and the internet, ready any time we want to educate ourselves.

    glad your speaking program works so well!

  2. I thinkwe all feel like we’re outside the labels sometimes. I sure do. My taste in music alone is so eclectic that I can’t put a label on it. I have everything on it from classical music to pop to rock, musicals and French chansons (I love Charles Trenet). The rest of my personality is also defined by moments. I love to talk, but I’m also rather shy. I crave large groups of people, but love to be alone. There are millions more things I could say, but at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter who or what I am. What matters is that I like who I am, and quite frankly, as long as I like me, I don’t care what anyone else thinks. I hope you will let yourself be whoever you want to be (it sounds to me like you do that already, which I really admire, because that certainly isn’t easy). You are a great person, with all your quirks and I like you all the better for speaking up about not fitting any labels.

  3. This is an important post. The beauty of who we are is that we are nothing at all. We are simply endless possibility. We can invent and reinvent. We can wear labels like onion skin. We may have many, but one alone can’t begin to define us.

  4. Hi Emily,

    I don’t know if you read my post from yesterday but I spoke to the very subject of Yeats and labels. How I’ve always lived my life based on other peoples perceptions of me and cast myself in the role of cognitive distortions that abound in the mirror. If you haven’t had a look ya probably should. I love your post and that I truly know how you feel. It makes me feel slightly less alone. Not that being alone is a bad thing for me because I’m starting to like myself a little bit at least. This is progress.

    Yours Sincerely,
    Corey

    1. hey Corey, no I haven’t had a chance to read your post yet because at work they’ve changed it so I can’t read blogs on my coffee breaks or lunch anymore! 😦 will be catching up ASAP – sounds like a fascinating post 🙂

  5. Love this! I’m a walking contradiction myself. I especially love the paragraph where you talk about why people label. I think it couldn’t be said any better, and I’d love to borrow your words for when my students label and stereotype each other.

  6. Hi Emily,

    Like you I am fascinated by the study of human behaviour. I started out with astrology when I was younger and then I came upon the Myer Briggs test. They both work equally well for me. There are many things I wished I had studied earlier now that I am clearer about life and what I want out of it. I am sure you know how it is with self-study in any field. At least for me, I always wonder if I am missing something or whether what I studied on my own is good enough. Then I think of Miyamoto Musashi the famous Japanese swordsman and how he taught himself his sword fighting skills through practical experience. It may lack the flourish of studying at renown schools, but he was one of the best swordsmen of his time. There is something to be said for self-study.

    And don’t worry about it, you are not that much of an anomaly. You might want to check out the INFJ section of the Personality Cafe. http://personalitycafe.com/tags/infj.html It is based on the Myer Briggs test and you will have your fill of INFJs there. I never felt like an anomaly as an INFJ after I found that place.

    Personally, I think it takes time to fully understand a person. People are like onions, you have to peel back the layers slowly. And if they are worth it, you will invest the time and effort to do so. After many years of observation and interaction, I doubt we can safely say we know anyone well since we are all changing and evolving all the time.

    At the end of the day, it is always best to be ourselves. Like you, it took me many years and trial and error before I learned to be comfortable with who I am instead of trying to fit in. We should be whoever we feel like being at a given point, what else can be more natural than that. Oh yeah and recently I have been hooked on Fringe.

    Anyway, I hope your hand gets better. Thankfully you have your speech recognition software in the meantime. 🙂

    Irving the Vizier

    1. you’re right, there is a lot to be said for self-study! Although it’s sometimes frustrating, especially in the working world when so many say you need a certificate of qualification in order to be able to do a job you have taught yourself to do just as well…

      I will have to check out the personality café, sounds very interesting – another interesting thing is finding that a lot of bloggers also INFJs – perhaps because this is the place in which we can truly explore our thoughts and feelings without fear of social awkwardness 🙂

      I’ve heard great things about Fringe – will have to check it out!

  7. psychology is SUPER interesting. i have kept pretty much all of my books simply because they’re so interesting. i have one that i bet you would really like that talks about personality and gives a personality quiz that comes up with a profile for you across 14 different personality traits. it’s really cool and interesting and SUPER informative. you could even make sweet take it and then see just how ‘perfect’ you are for each other. 😉

    1. what is the name of that book? I have one called “please understand me” and though it’s kind of all over the place, once you figure out how to navigate it’s actually quite interesting – sweet and I have both taken that the tests online and he is an INTJ so not too far off at all 🙂 I would love to take a look at the book you’re talking about!

  8. I’m an INFP…close! I know what you mean about struggling to fit in with our rare personality types! I also have trouble with people assuming things about me that aren’t necessarily true!

    Glad you’re writing again, Emily!

    Wendy

  9. Oh, I’m all over the place. But the best part is that everything that I wanted or thought I should be, I merged them together to get me. =)

    I’m an a social introvert (who passes out at dinner.) 😉

    1. 🙂 it’s okay, next time we won’t go to a brewery at five o’clock in the afternoon!

      I love what you said about merging absolutely everything together to get you – couldn’t have said it better myself 🙂

  10. I love every inch of this! I too seem to live in a void at times. I think that is why I am loving this stage in my life so much more than any other. Yes, I struggle to find professional balance. Yes, I have dealt with anxiety and depression. But, I’m not involved in some social strata that requires me to become part of a group. I have the ability to live MY life and surround myself with people who fulfill me. It’s amazing sense of freedom. Keep on keeping on, Emily Jane. You’re beautiful just the way you are.

    1. Aww, you really made my day! I remember learning something in psychology class, first-year university, that stuck with me all these years later – that the older we get, the weaker our need for social interaction – as children or teenagers, we try to surround ourselves with as many people as we can, calling each and every one of them a “friend” just for the sake of having more than somebody else. In our late teens, or early adult years, I think there is still that pressure, but it seems more to be able to say you have a group of people with whom to do something on a Friday or Saturday night. And here in my mid-20s, once in a while I will crave some company, but it’s the only point of my life in which I feel truly comfortable – and sometimes even craving – being by myself 🙂

  11. Great to see you writing again!

    I found myself reading your post, and nodding pretty much all the way though it – and identifying with what you had written. I tend to think of our situation as “not fitting in, but in a good way”.

    p.s. rumours of my blogging demise (spread by myself) were vastly exaggerated 😉

    1. sometimes I wish I were more toward one end of the spectrum than sat here pretty much on the fence [on top of other things, you get a sore arse after a while!], Just because them that way at least it would be 100% certain what made you comfortable what made you uncomfortable; I find I just have to take each situation as it comes, knowing there’s a risk of wanting to dive straight in, or wanting to jump out the nearest window 🙂

  12. Awesome post, Em! This kind of reminded me on Shrek and the quote about being an onion and having LOTS of layers 🙂

    I am kind of an extrovert in the sense that I can be very outgoing and dynamic. At the same time I do have a slightly introverted side that sometimes just wants to be ALONE!

  13. Wow Emily!
    I never did realize that we’re so much alike! (as in, more than I already thought)
    I especially resonate regarding being both and introvert and an extrovert. In truth, I think I figured out that I am an introvert but it is confusing because I am not shy…
    I also took the Myers Briggs test and I fit into a 1% of the population category. These things can be useful to understand ourselves and the way we interact.
    Thanks for this, it’s nice to see you back. (I plan to be back myself this month and I can’t wait!)

        1. haha i love that you’re using your speech recognition software! 🙂
          also: did you get my reply to your latest comment? i’m coming to your neck of the woods in march… 😀

  14. Finding your identity is a crazy journey (one that I don’t know I’ll EVER complete!), and I too have reverted to describing myself via labels, only to find that I don’t ever find one that fits me perfectly. Like you said, “by defining ourselves as one thing, we conceal everything else that makes up who we really are.” I think we’re all a hodge podge, but it’s all in how much you choose to explore your personality and get to know yourself. Great post, Em!

  15. I’m taking a class called “Self & Society” and we’ve spent a lot of time talking about how we define ourselves and how our minds work. It’s fascinating stuff, the mind and all it’s madness.

  16. hodgepodge is on my list of favorite words 🙂 love this post ❤ i do like me some labels, but i also like switching up which ones i use for myself. i'm the only one allowed to put me in a box :p 🙂

    ps – not to be a negative nancy, but the MBTI is questionable. it's not reliable (you could take the test 2 days apart and receive wildly different scores), which makes it less than valid 😦 it's funny that i took it for work before i started my grad program and thought it was a little ridic then. i got an INTJ, but i could've just as easily been an ISFP, even though i do not actually feel on the cusp of anything. after taking a course in psych assessment (b-oring), i'm shocked at how widespread it's usage is given the stats. the NEO-PR is slightly better, but doesn't get the same love. makes me sad for practical psych application since a lot of things seem to come down to who can spend the most money convincing people of awesomeness (hello SAT data that's worthless after the first semester)… /psych rant 🙂

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