Know Yourself: Don’t Let Other People Define You

mirror-istockMany times I talk about the importance of self-awareness, defining who you are, knowing who you are and just as importantly, knowing who you are not. People will always try to define you and put you in a box based on their own perceptions of reality, even when those perceptions are false or misconstrued.

People will try to define you based on obvious things such as race, gender, nationality, weight, the way you dress, the way you talk, how much money you make, education, etc. People will also try to define you based on their prejudices and past experiences.

For example, a man who grew up watching his mother bring men in and out of the house may not only define his mother as a whore, but may go on to infer that all women are whores and therefore treat every woman he comes in contact with as if she were a whore, even when she is not.

That means that this guy will never trust a woman, even if he is in the best relationship possible, he will always be looking for evidence that supports his theory that she is a whore, while almost always ignoring evidence that proves otherwise. He will always accuse her of cheating, of wanting to cheat, and will always be suspicious to the point that he will never allow himself to be happy in the relationship and will either leave after convincing himself that she is a whore or will push her away when she can’t take it any more. The sad part is, he’ll probably even then rationalize to himself that the reason she left was because she was a whore.

**On a side note: Numerous serial killers had “loose” mothers and ended up killing women that they perceived as sluts and whores (prostitutes and women they could pick up in bars) because they reminded them of their mother.***

People do this all the time and it’s largely unconcious and that is how stereotypes not only develop, but get maintained. They will assume that a particular group is lazy, or a particular sex is weak and even when they are faced with evidence that disproves this, they will still only see what they want to see.

Richard Sherman

I wasn’t going to get into the whole Richard Sherman conversation that has been going on around the country and in the media, simply because I thought it was pretty well covered. For those of you who don’t know, Richard Sherman is a professional football player for the Seattle Seahawks who in an interview two weeks ago after a big win, made some colorful statements that didn’t include any profanity, but left many in the national media and across the country, labeling him as a “thug”. Why? Because apparently after just one interview people felt like they knew Richard Sherman enough to define him as a thug. Besides, he kind of “fit the description” being that he is Black, has dreadlocks is full of testosterone and embodies everything mainstream America has defined as dangerous and “thuggish”.

This despite the fact that Richard Sherman has no criminal record, graduated from high school 2nd in his class with a 4.2 GPA and graduated from Stanford with a high GPA. The people who were calling him a thug don’t know all of this. All they know is the quick glimpse they got and felt like it was enough to define him. Even more sad is, that some of those who called him a thug who have since learned that he doesn’t qualify to be called a thug, will still consider him to be a thug because they want to place him in a box that matches their perceived reality of what and who a thug is.

Why all of this is important is because everyday we are being defined by people as broad as the media and society to as small as our coworkers and neighbors, right down to as intimate as our family and romantic partners. When you aren’t anchored in knowing who we are and who we are not, it’s easy to get confused and to even start playing into other peoples definitions and perceptions of who we are and from there, we can get lost and find it difficult to get back to “the real us”.

As adults this may seem unlikely, but it happens more often then you realize and usually without us knowing it right away. It’s even more dangerous when we talk about children who are still very early in the process of not only trying to definte themselves, but also trying to understand themselves.

For example, as a kid in elementary school I was told that boys weren’t as smart as girls. I was told that boys weren’t supposed to do good in school. So guess what? I didn’t do good in school, I did the bare minimum. I let that definition stick with me all the way until I was halfway through high school when I learned that it was “cool” for guys to be smart and then I had to unlearn that definition of myself. However, many boys get this same message passed on to them, especially boys of color in the inner-city and they never learn to redefine themselves and unlearn that message. The damage may be so detrimental that they may never learn to redefinte themselves.

I used to tell the inner-city teenagers I worked with that it was absolutely paramount that they define themselves and know themselves because if they didn’t, society would come up with a definition for them and if they didn’t know better, they would unwittingly settle into the role that was laid out for them. Society would see them as thugs, as whores, as future leeches of society and would treat them that way if they didn’t define themselves and stand strong in knowing who they are despite the pressures around them to be what other people want them to be.

Some teenage girls I worked with wanted to go to college, or graduate from high school, but no one else in their family did so they often weren’t supported, sometimes even encouraged to drop out so they could work or baby sit their mothers (or sisters, or cousins) kids. They were even told that they wouldn’t be anything because no one else in their family was. These girls had to remain strong and learn to define themselves and their reality, despite the pressures to succumb to everyone elses definition of who they were and who they were going to be.

People will tell you over and over again who they think you are. Some will say it blatantly, most will do it subjectively, but if you allow it, it will slowly and surely start to move you away from your center, from your core definition of who you are and move you further into someone elses perceived reality of what they think you are instead of your reality of who you really are.

I included a TEDs talk by Tony Porter called A Call To Men because he talks about how men are forced into a box, the same box that society has tried to force me and most men into. It is generally ten times easier to just go along with other peoples definition of who they think you are and should be then to actually go against the grain and stand strong in your self definiton.

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