Why Your Identity Can Be Your Biggest Limitation

I was recently approached by the President of a media company to potentially host a new web radio show he had in mind. When I first read his email, I was a bit reluctant. The concept of the show was very appealing and the subject matter was definitely something I’m passionate about, the only problem was I had never hosted a radio show and never imagined myself ever doing it.

“He’s only asking for a proposal, what’s the harm?” I thought afterwards. I overcame my initial reluctance very quickly and spent a few days putting together a proposal outlining my philosophy and ideas for the show. After the proposal was submitted, I began to think about my initial reluctance. When I first read his email, the first thing that popped into my mind was, “I’m not a radio host. I’m not qualified to do this.” When I really thought about it afterwards, it was obvious that my reaction was a pre-programmed response based on one common error—confusing function with identity.

Function vs Identity was something that became an issue for me after I left my career in the corporate world. I remember a moment when I was at the airport, filling in a departure form for the customs officer before going overseas when my mind had gone blank. Under the box for ‘Occupation’, I didn’t know what to write. After all, I had just packed up my desk and left my job the previous day. That overseas trip was my first sabbatical from work after seven years being a management consultant.

I remember standing there, pen in hand, having a hard time filling in that blank. I struggled with using the word ‘Unemployed’ but I was also reluctant to put down my previous occupation. That was the moment I realised that so much of my identity was tied to my job that when I wasn’t in that job anymore, I didn’t have a label for myself.

Unfortunately for me—and for majority of people in the world—function and identity are often thought of as one and the same. Whenever I meet someone for the first time, their introduction inevitably sounds something like this, “Hi, my name is ABC. I am an investment banker.” It always makes me wonder if the day would come when I would meet someone and he or she would say to me, “Hi, my name is ABC. I’m a kind and compassionate person who loves to serve and contribute to society. I’m really passionate about environmental sustainability. I love spending time with my kids and my dogs. My guilty pleasure is eating deep fried chicken skin while listening to jazz turned up really loudly.”

The day someone introduces himself or herself that way to me is the day I will respond by saying, “Hi, I love that you don’t confuse your function with your identity. Congratulations on not limiting yourself to just your job!”

The truth is, the only identity we have is that we are human ‘beings’, not human ‘doings’. All the labels we use are merely labels that define a specific function, i.e what we do. They do not define who we are. Our profession defines our economic function in society (e.g investment banker, teacher, accountant etc). Our marital status functions to define the legality of our relationship/life-long partnership (e.g husband-wife, ex-husband, ex-wife, de facto spouse etc). Our relationship labels define the function we perform based on biological relations and non-biological relations (e.g father, mother, son, daughter, in-laws, siblings, cousins, friends etc).

The most contentious of these labels is perhaps the label of ‘Parents’. If more parents viewed their parental status as a function rather than an identity, they would raise their children very differently. It would also be safe to say that children would have better relationships with their parents in their adulthood.

My mother is the best example to illustrate this point.

In December 2010, when I was visiting my brother in Hong Kong, my mother had said to me, “I’ve decided for you. You have to move to Hong Kong next year. No more discussion. It has to be done because I said so.” I almost burst out laughing.

I had told a friend about it afterwards when I returned to Melbourne. I laughed and said to her, “What was she going to do if I didn’t do as she said? Ground me? Hit me with a rattan cane? Take away my TV privileges? Stop giving me an allowance?” I was 30 years old and my mother was still talking to me as if I was ten.

That is the classic example of confusing function with identity. In her mind, her identity as the parent meant that she—as the older generation—was responsible for making decisions about my life, and I—as the younger generation—was obliged to obey. It’s an Asian thing. If she thought of herself as performing the function of a parent rather than assuming the identity of a parent, she would realise that as I grow and mature, her role in my life would change accordingly. My needs as her child at age 30 were very different from my needs when I was ten. I no longer needed her to tell me what was best for me, I needed her to support my decisions and my choices, even if she didn’t understand them. I needed her to have faith in the fact that she raised a smart, responsible adult who is capable of making choices for herself.

The problem with confusing function with identity is that we have the tendency to limit ourselves to just the labels we use. When I read that email from the President of the media company, my first thought that “I am not a radio host” almost took me out of the playing field before the game even began. Had I not thought about it more, I would have declined his invitation to submit a proposal, which would have closed off an opportunity for me to further expand my mission to raise self-awareness in people.

What are some common labels you use to introduce or define yourself? I would love to hear them. Share them with me at the end of this post. Also, I do love dogs and kids, and I do like to eat deep fried chicken skin, just not with jazz turned up loudly.

To Human Beings,

Chiao Kee

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