The Identity Question: Who Am I?

A personal anecdote regarding one of life’s big questions.

Photo by Tim Marshall on Unsplash

Who am I? Where did I come from? Where am I going? Why am I here? These are questions often found on the short list of philosophy’s big questions.

From earliest times people have wrestled with these questions, debating — throughout the centuries — the ideas of previous thinkers. Every aspect of what it means to be human has been debated. Do we have a soul? Some insist yes while others deny. Do we have free will? Most say yes, but again there are naysayers like Sam Harris who insist not.

My main point, which I will present in a minute, is that there is no fixed self, that who we are varies depending on circumstances, especially in our relation to others.

When you meet me in one setting, I may come across as an extrovert, confident and outgoing. In another setting you may find me quiet, self-conscious and even anxious.

Am I one and not the other? Is one form of myself “me” and the other “not me”? This is not to suggest that there is no real “I” or that I do not exist. I wouldn’t be typing this if I didn’t exist. But who are we precisely?

25 years ago a company I worked for conducted a two-day workshop to help us understand our Myers-Briggs personality profiles, to help us better understand ourselves and our company co-workers. I found it personally helpful with many takeaways. One of these I discovered through the following experience.

Preceding the two day off-campus workshop we were each required to answer a batch of questions which would be analyzed and used to help us understand our personality types. If you’re unfamiliar with the 16 Myers-Briggs types, you can learn more at the Myers-Briggs Foundation website and even take the indicator test.

On the first day of the workshop they pulled ten of us out of the group and had us wait in the hall. Unbeknownst to us, we were the five most extroverted and five most introverted people in the company. The facilitator came and called five of the ten into the room. I was not in this first group.

After a few minutes, the facilitator retrieved myself and the other four from the hallway. We had no idea what this was going to be about, nor had we guessed that it was related to our being the extroverts.

We were seated at a table in the middle of the room, where the introverts had been seated before us. It was like a theater in the round, with everyone watching us as we faced one another. We were then given a problem to solve along with a two minute time limit (or some arbitrary amount of time.)

As we bandied about solutions to the problem — which may have been to come up with as many ways to cover a floor or fill a room, a problem with a variety of solutions — our watching co-workers began laughing. Whatever we were doing was funny to them, but we stayed on task and grappled with the problem, continuing to develop ideas.

Afterwards, the facilitator stopped us, explained what was going on and why it was funny. We then discussed our own feelings about it.

Here’s why it was so amusing to everyone. As extroverts we were all talking at once, in complete contrast to the introverts who had gone before.

First off, the introverts were somewhat self-conscious being seated in the middle of the room with everyone watching them. They took turns talking, with thoughtful pauses between their offered up solutions. Nor were they loud. The extroverts on the other hand were talking over one another, probably finishing one another’s sentences. There was probably not a second of silence.

Photo by author. Kathy McTavish quilt design.

HOWEVER, there was another lesson from this experience, besides the comic contrast. Of the five most extroverted I was neither the most nor second most outgoing of the group. My score was either fourth or fifth, and here’s what happened.

In the presence of these louder, bolder, more extroverted people than I, I ended up becoming quiet, behaving more like an introvert.

It even made me uncomfortable. It felt unnatural. And here’s my point: Who I am is, to some degree, altered by the people I am with.

In a hundred different ways our behavior can be crimped or nurtured. We can be made to feel small and powerless or confident and strong, depending on the situations we are in, so that if someone makes a judgment about us based on a single encounter, they really don’t know us at all.

All this to say that before we put other people in boxes and label them, let’s remember that people are more complicated than that. I dislike being labeled as something I’m not. You probably do, too.

PostScript: For the record, my MBTI was ENTP. What’s yours?

Originally published at on April 10, 2019.

An avid reader who writes about arts, culture, literature & other life obsessions. @ennyman3 Look for my books on Amazon

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