Identity and Self-Invention

Early yesterday morning, I received a spam message asking “ARE YOU UP TO THE CHALLENGE TO INVENT REBEKAH [SURNAME]?”

Obviously, a well-placed comma would have clarified the question: “Are you up to the challenge to invent, Rebekah [Surname]?” The sender was hawking patents.

But being groggy, I interpreted the question as “ARE YOU UP TO THE CHALLENGE OF INVENTING REBEKAH?”

Good question.

Many celebrities deliberately created their public personas, choosing new names, accents, and even new body parts. Stars like Madonna or Lady Gaga change identities the way we change sheets.

While most of us aren’t bound for Hollywood or drawn to personal branding, we still create public personas.

We are all inventors and all performers; to some extent, we can choose our education, career, social circle, religion, and political positions.  On top of those basics, we may consciously choose our speech (drawl, Queen’s English, salty sailor), body language, carefully cultivated wardrobes, grooming, and manners/mannerisms. We may even experiment with personality traits, attempting to seem more spunky, aloof, gracious, haughty, sultry, boyish, earnest, aristocratic, blunt, ladylike, macho, and so on.

Many of these characteristics are mere habits. We’re in the habit of speaking softly, wearing stirrup pants, or flipping off pedestrians; but those habits don’t have to define us. Over a lifetime, we all evolve and shed some old identity markers. If a few of your traits or characteristics aren’t serving you, it’s not evil or “inauthentic” to cultivate new ones.

Back when I was an unhappy, struggling music student, my ultra-supportive accompanist said I was a in a chrysalis, preparing to emerge as a butterfly.

Years later, I still feel like a cocoon full of liquid— post-caterpillar, but pre-butterfly, wondering how to grow and half-afraid of staying soupy forever.

Over the past two months, I’ve spent hours thinking about my future, my values, and where in hell this blog is going. I’ve pored over books about style, pondered ethical dilemmas, consulted trusty friends, and consumed gallons of herbal tea— soul-searching is thirsty work.

All this mulling has forced me to see that my life and personal identity have stalled in a rut of aimless sloth. You might guess that by seeing me wear the same ratty sweatpants four days a week.

Readers, let’s talk about self-invention.

Are YOU up to the challenge of inventing yourself? Have you reinvented yourself in the past?

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9 comments to Identity and Self-Invention

  • Oy. It’s been a rough month Chez Millie, and this sort of question’s been kicking around a bit with the rest of the mess. I have no idea how (or if) to answer it, but I empathize several times over with the “What now?!” train of thought. Tea certain helps, though. *puts the kettle on*

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  • This is a good question but it blurs for me — I mostly see it as changing what I want to do or where I can put my focus at the moment.

    I don’t ever get the sense that it’s very premeditated but that when I change, it’s based on what my natural inclinations are, for the most part. (Except trying to stop swearing at work – my natural inclinations are the opposite but I am naturally inclined to want to do a good JOB so I will try to stop swearing!)

    I think it’s really important to realize we can look outside of the box of what we currently ARE though.

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  • Jacob

    I think just the act of observing our personal identities can be a powerful thing. It’s extremely easy to live life in a “just because” way of thinking. I’m Catholic “just because” my parents are. I’m shy “just because” that’s who I am. Neither of these things need to be who/how I am if I don’t want them to be.

    The hard part, for me, is actually making the change. I KNOW what my bad habits are. I have every intention of chaning my ways…but then I keep doing the same things over and over. I think there’s comfort in familiarity that can be very difficult to break out of.

    This post has made me think about how I would like to re-invent myself…as always, thanks for writing such a kick-ass blog!

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  • mum

    I’ve been doing a bit of reinventing today actually. My Anti-Sweatshop goal for quite some time has been to get to the place where all my clothes are home-sewn or handmade or whatever you want to call clothes not produced in some overseas hideous factory.
    The slow-downs in achieving this goal are:
    1-I adore clothes.
    2-my fat ego is attached to what I look like.
    3-I want to have more clothes than I personally have time to sew.
    4-and I’m somewhat lazy.

    Recently I discovered you can by handmade dresses on ebay for no more than the cost of a factory made half-decent blouse. I got some as an experiment.
    Then a friend steered me in the direction of some ladies who sew at home for hire. I called them up and got a couple things to see how I like that.

    Last night it occurred to me that I actually have a good selection of clothes of the home-sewn variety now. They are comfortable and they fit.
    I cleaned out my closets today (3 of them) and now only have hanging at the ready the clothing of the handcrafted ilk. We shall see how this rolls. It may be my most brilliant re-invention ever. I may never again wear anything that isn’t sewn by loving hands at home.

    Or I may hate it. In which case I’m sure Walmart would be happy to welcome me back.

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  • Millie – Rough month, eh? Keep your head above water, and drink all the tea your bladder will hold. Introspective stuff can wait.

    jesse.anne.o – My natural inclinations don’t include veganism, ethical consumption, or getting out of bed in the morning. My nature and my intellect duke these issues out all the time. I want to invent a kinder, braver self.

    Also, it’s hilarious that you swear at work. Does it bother anyone but you?

    Jacob – JAAAAAAAACOOOOBB! It’s awesomeness incarnate to hear from you.
    In my youth, that “just because” notion felt more like “because God said so,” which caused me to seek meaning in trivial things— which makes me part of the “wicked and adulterous generation [that] seeketh after a sign.”

    Changing our habits can be tough as last week’s doughnuts. But living with habits we hate is tough, too. My only advice is to change one step at a time and not shoot for perfection immediately— sounds obvious, but I fall into that trap EVERY TIME.

    mum – That is a wonderful, wonderful goal, and I look forward to hearing heaps about it. What did you order from the ladies you called?

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  • My last “re-invention” was when I decided to start Kickboxing and Karate. It felt like something natural for me, but there were a lot of people who thought it was strange, especially my grandmothers.

    And, of course, I am always trying to improve myself – learn to cook, learn to sew by hand, learn to felt…

    But really these all feel likes skills to me — things I can do. They don’t feel like “the core” of me. I think many characteristics are skills, too. I think I’ve learned to be meticulous when working on a project, but I don’t think that’s a natural inclination for me. So, am I a meticulous person? Do I even want to describe myself that way? (Because if I had to do meticulous work every day – I’d go insane!) I don’t really know the answer….

    Happy Re-inventing!

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  • Patricia

    HI!! yes, re-invention is a creative thing I guess. At some points in the past noticed I was getting tired of the same look; once I made a list of the things I wanted to do to make a change (this was an external change). In few days I had my hair cut -dramatically-, had a navel piercing done, bought new and different clothes, make up, etc. It was good to see that I could make those changes in a short period of time and look in the mirror and see a “new me”. :) Sometimes we need to do that because we get stuck in a look.

    Then, internal important changes take more time usually…but I also write them down and try to achieve this “better me”. Knowing that we can be better is a motivation to transform ourselves, evolve!

    Of course there are things extra difficult to change, personality caracteristics….that maybe it would be better to just accept knowing that those things make us unique. As long as these things don’t represent an obstacle in the way. Internal true changes come from the inside and show externally….inner process!

    Maybe..external changes can change us in the inside and vice versa!

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  • hazelnutmegan – If “the natural man is an enemy to God,” then maybe it doesn’t matter which traits are “natural” to us. Maybe we all have some “useful” natural traits, and some that could use polishing.

    I agree that many or most characteristics ARE skills, but I often forget that I can develop new skills or choose how I behave. I’m naturally shy and lazy but geez, what fun is that? =)

    Patricia – Ah, good story! I find that changing one’s exterior makes it easier to accept that we can gradually change our interior, too. Evolving is fun. =)

    Sometimes it’s hard to tell which of our usual traits are endearing quirks and which are useless and holding us back.

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  • The funny thing is that I think a lot of us swear here, but being a manager, it’s not the most professional thing!

    I think the discussion re natural inclination is interesting – I meant it more as “that’s my innate desire”. I do have to focus on the actual change, the change is real work, but it aligns me with my overall values so because of that alignment, I don’t see it as “reinventing”, although it can certainly be seen that way!

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