A common set of questions we get asked are: “What do you want to be when you grow up?”, “What do you do?” and “Can you tell me more about yourself?”. These questions are essentially asking how we identify ourselves and what kind of identity do we want in the future.
If you were asked “who are you?”, how would you reply? Many people would identify with their occupation, such as a doctor, musician, software developer or actor. Some people define themselves by their relationship, such as a mother of two. Another common source of identity is your accomplishments and success, such as celebrities, a popular author or world-class athlete.
But what happens when our identity is shaken? For example, what if you identify as an author who published an immensely popular, critically-acclaimed book, but you can’t write a book good enough to follow it up? What if you are the best swordsman in the realm and you lose your hand? What if you identify as a mother, but your children are now grown up and have left you in an empty nest?
The problem with hinging our identity on one thing is that it makes us vulnerable to having an identity crisis when that thing will inevitably change.
Life has a tendency to be unpredictable and can easily throw the rug from under our feet at any minute. If this happens and all of our proverbial eggs are in one basket, it leads to a devastating blow to our sense of self-worth. Focussing our identity around one factor of our life would be as silly as investing all of our money in a single stock.
To solve this issue, we should treat our identity like any other investment: diversify your identity.
You are not “just a(n)” anything, because you are so much more complicated and multi-faceted than that. You can be a lawyer who also makes pottery and is a loving wife. You can be a mother who is also an amateur pianist that cooks well and is passionate about photography. You can be a successful internet celebrity who also happens to be an avid member of a board game community and loves playing tennis with his flatmates in the weekends.
The trick here is to find different sources for your identity. Identify yourself not only with your job and success, but also with your relationships and passions. Be mindful that most things in life are transient, whether by choice or not. That way, when we are forced to give up a part of who we are, our identity will still hold its shape so that it can heal with time, to form an even more complex and interesting identity.
When we are little, we are showered with compliments. We marvel over and celebrate a child’s first steps, or when they score a goal, or when they gift us a squiggly drawing. At school, we receive stickers saying “Great job!” when we do our homework. At home, we receive words of encouragement, support and love from our family.
Why do we compliment children over even the smallest achievements? Compliments are one of the simplest, cheapest ways to positively reinforce good behaviour. When we hear a compliment, we feel that we have done something well. We feel a sense of pride and accomplishment, building up our self-confidence. Best of all, we feel good when we are complimented, because we feel accepted and noticed by someone else.
But as we grow older, we receive less and less compliments. Instead, we are constantly under the microscope, being critiqued on every aspect of what makes us us. Our work, partners, friends and family continue to push us to be even more “perfect”. Performance reviews tell us we are not efficient enough, our magazines and advertisements tell us we are not beautiful enough, our loved ones tell us we are not successful enough… No wonder we all have such fragile egos.
A good example of how little we are complimented is how we generally react when someone gives us a genuine compliment. Some people feel wary that the other person is using it as a opener because they want something from us. Many people react by rejecting the compliment, either in an attempt to be modest, or because they genuinely don’t believe that they are worthy of the compliment. Instead of thanking the other person and moving on with your day with a skip in our step, we put up our guard and beat ourselves down even more.
In a brutal world such as this, a compliment can go a long way to make someone’s day. A compliment can range in depth, from our friends pointing out a personality trait of ours that they respect and appreciate, to a stranger noticing and commenting on your choice of outfit. A kind word can be a candle in the way down darkness of stress, hardships and criticism that we face on a daily basis, making us feel valued.
Perhaps life would be just a little bit easier if we each complimented someone once a day. If you consider how many compliments you give to a pet dog in one petting session, a compliment a day to one person seems like nothing. By giving more compliments, the more you will notice that others will compliment you back, as they feel it is safe to do so. This is particularly true in toxic, masculine cultures where complimenting is seen as a sign of being soft, weak or deceptive.
So, where do we start? Just think of what kind of compliment would make your day better if you heard it.
Start simple with a small thing that you notice the other person has made an effort on, whether it is their hair, clothing or an accessory. We feel more appreciated when someone notices something we have done and can change, rather than something we are born with, like our physical appearance.
Then, you will start noticing and appreciating more positive things the person does, such as how they work, their small but significant achievements, products of their creativity and their demeanours.
Lastly, if it is someone we are close to and know well, it might be worth pointing out every now and then something we like about that person on a fundamental level. This includes their values, dreams, passions, convictions and character. Perhaps we respect their strong resolve and positive approach to life. Perhaps we appreciate the kindness they show to others. Perhaps we just love them for being themselves.
Think of the last time you were moved by someone’s compliment to you. Pay that kindness forward by making someone else’s day with a compliment of your own. You will feel happier just seeing another person smile when they hear your kind words.
Find a cube-shaped object near you and pick it up. How many faces can you see? No matter how you turn it, you can only see a maximum of three faces at a time. To see each of the six faces of the cube, you must look at the cube from different perspectives.
If we can only see half of the faces of a simple cube, then what about people? Too often, we judge people by the one face that we can see at a given time. Assumptions are made about their intentions and motivations, and the miscommunication drives wedges between relationships. We assume that the waiter was rude to us, without considering that they may be exhausted from a double shift. We assume that our partners are being selfish or stubborn, without considering what past traumas and experiences may be pushing them to act a certain way. We lament how much pain other people cause us, without giving a thought as to why that person is acting that way, or how they might be feeling.
This is because we instinctively want to protect our own feelings, by becoming defensive and blaming others. But this is a great barrier to connecting to other people. How can we even begin to understand another person if we refuse to budge from one point of view, seeing only a few facets of their identity and persona?
You cannot solve a Rubik’s cube if you only look at half of its faces. If you want to develop a deeper connection with someone, you must make an effort to see things from different perspectives so that you can appreciate who they are in their entirety.
A very important element of emotional intelligence is the ability to recognise why you or another person are feeling a certain way and explore it rationally. If you feel hurt by someone’s actions, avoid jumping to conclusions and instead try to see it from another perspective. Why might this person be acting this way? How are their emotions and past experiences shaping their actions? Which faces of that person are you not seeing from your current point of view?
The ability to change your perspective is a difficult, but powerful social tool. The more you practise this skill, the more misunderstandings you will clear up and the less you will be hurt by other people by accident.
In 1997, psychologist Arthur Aron and his team published a paper explaining how to accelerate the development of intimacy between two people. The team came up with a list of 36 questions divided in to three sets – each set with more probing questions than the last – and made a pair of strangers answer each question in order. In later versions of the study, participants were also told to lock eyes for four minutes after finishing the questions, to create even more intimacy.
The team found that this method significantly increased the closeness felt between two people compared to standard small talk. More interestingly, even if people had different personalities (e.g. introvert and extrovert), or one person thought the other did not share any commonalities with them, the method worked.
It does not take a scientist to figure out why this method is so effective in fostering closeness. We feel close and connected to people who we feel we can open ourselves up to. When we love someone, we reveal our physical weak spots, such as showing our neckline or exposing our torso as we greet them with a hug. We also open up our psychological weak spots: our vulnerabilities, our insecurities and our neuroses.
When the other person reciprocates by showing us their own inner selves (instead of bolting out the door), we feel safe as we trust them not to hurt us. We allow them to see who we really are behind the mask and shield, welcoming the connection between our souls.
The foundation of a strong relationship is open communication, honesty, mutual trust and understanding. The questionnaire is simply a rough beginner’s guide to exploring each other’s identity, so that we can learn more about ourselves and each other. It means that if we want to connect with someone, we must talk to them openly, rather than trying to investigate their lives via social media, assuming their thoughts and intentions, or playing games.
The questions are as follows. Try completing it with someone you wish to get to know better, ideally in a comfortable, peaceful space.
1. Given the choice of anyone in the world, whom would you want as a dinner guest?
2. Would you like to be famous? In what way?
3. Before making a telephone call, do you ever rehearse what you are going to say? Why?
4. What would constitute a “perfect” day for you?
5. When did you last sing to yourself? To someone else?
6. If you were able to live to the age of 90 and retain either the mind or body of a 30-year-old for the last 60 years of your life, which would you want?
7. Do you have a secret hunch about how you will die?
8. Name three things you and your partner appear to have in common.
9. For what in your life do you feel most grateful?
10. If you could change anything about the way you were raised, what would it be?
11. Take four minutes and tell your partner your life story in as much detail as possible.
12. If you could wake up tomorrow having gained any one quality or ability, what would it be?
13. If a crystal ball could tell you the truth about yourself, your life, the future or anything else, what would you want to know?
14. Is there something that you’ve dreamed of doing for a long time? Why haven’t you done it?
15. What is the greatest accomplishment of your life?
16. What do you value most in a friendship?
17. What is your most treasured memory?
18. What is your most terrible memory?
19. If you knew that in one year you would die suddenly, would you change anything about the way you are now living? Why?
20. What does friendship mean to you?
21. What roles do love and affection play in your life?
22. Alternate sharing something you consider a positive characteristic of your partner. Share a total of five items.
23. How close and warm is your family? Do you feel your childhood was happier than most other people’s?
24. How do you feel about your relationship with your mother?
25. Make three true “we” statements each. For instance, “We are both in this room feeling…”
26. Complete this sentence: “I wish I had someone with whom I could share…”
27. If you were going to become a close friend with your partner, please share what would be important for him or her to know.
28. Tell your partner what you like about them; be very honest this time, saying things that you might not say to someone you’ve just met.
29. Share with your partner an embarrassing moment in your life.
30. When did you last cry in front of another person? By yourself?
31. Tell your partner something that you like about them already.
32. What, if anything, is too serious to be joked about?
33. If you were to die this evening with no opportunity to communicate with anyone, what would you most regret not having told someone? Why haven’t you told them yet?
34. Your house, containing everything you own, catches fire. After saving your loved ones and pets, you have time to safely make a final dash to save any one item. What would it be? Why?
35. Of all the people in your family, whose death would you find most disturbing? Why?
36. Share a personal problem and ask your partner’s advice on how he or she might handle it. Also, ask your partner to reflect back to you how you seem to be feeling about the problem you have chosen.
If you grew up in an English-speaking country, you may have read the Berenstein Bears books. They are a collection of books telling very sweet stories about a family of bears. If you asked someone who had read those books as a child to spell out the title, most people would spell it as Berenstein. Funnily enough, the actual spelling of the family of bears was Berenstain Bears. Not a single book was printed under Berenstein Bears.
This caused a massive debate on the internet. Why did so many people misremember the spelling (with such confidence) of such a beloved book? One theory is that according to the many-worlds interpretation of quantum physics, there exists an infinite number of parallel universes. Therefore, it is possible that people who remember the spelling as “Berenstein” come from a parallel universe and somehow crossed into the current universe where the spelling has always been “Berenstain” at some point.
Of course, the most logical answer is that our memories are not as trustworthy as we think. The Berenstain Bears is a classic example of collective false memory, also referred to as the Mandela effect. This name comes from a similar phenomenon where many people reported having memories of the South African president Nelson Mandela passing away in the 1980’s, rather than 2013 when he actually died. The most likely reason people think the name is spelled “Berenstein” is that “-stein” is a much more common suffix to a Jewish name and we are more used to it.
We still do not have a perfect model of how memory works, but there is substantial evidence that memory recall is not perfect and can easily be manipulated.
For example, in one study, a group of people were shown a childhood photo of themselves standing next to Bugs Bunny at Disneyland. A third of people reported that they had a clear memory of that day, some even coming up with elaborate stories of how the day went. However, the photo had been falsified by the researchers with a failsafe way of proving it – Bugs Bunny is the intellectual property of Warner Brothers and has never featured inside Disneyland.
A simpler example is when someone is asked to recall something through a presupposition, such as asking “What shade of green was the perpetrator’s shirt?” which automatically leads to person to falsely think that the shirt was green.
We are all the product of our past experiences and thoughts. But can we really trust the past if we cannot trust our own memories? Perhaps it is more comforting to believe that we are from a different timeline.
From a young age, we tend to be placed on a pedestal. We are consistently told that we are unique – that we are special. We are told we should make something of ourselves and to be brilliant.
But as we grow up, we realise that this is not necessarily the case. Society does not particularly appreciate us for our uniqueness. We learn that in many situations, we are treated as a dime a dozen. This could not be more evident than the example of job hunting, where you are competing with other young adults of similar qualifications, skills and general background. Once you enter the working world, you soon find that you have become a cogwheel in the machine.
As adults, we start to lose some of the things that made us unique when we were younger, such as our passions and imaginations. We even start to lose our identity as an individual as we become categorised, such as an accountant, a doctor, somebody’s partner or a parent.
Instead of feeling like a unique snowflake, it is easy to feel like a plain white dot in a field of snow. Perhaps this is why we yearn to find someone who will treat us like we are the most important, special person in the world.
However, there are some downsides to being unique. More often than not, people feel alone because of their niche interests, specific perspectives and strange imperfections. Then you meet someone who shares a quality that you thought was unique to yourself.
It might be the way they think how it’s odd how an object looks different as you move past it or even something as little as sharing the same guilty pleasure song. When we meet someone like that, we feel connected with them and that we are not alone in our weirdness.
Furthermore, thinking that we are special makes us feel entitled and act less kind to others as we believe we deserve special treatment. Not being unique grants us empathy as we can see ourselves reflected in another person.
Statistically, most of us will lie within the bulk of the bell curve where we are not so different from the average person. But perhaps that’s okay as long as we can find someone who we can be uniquely weird together with.
“We are all a little weird and life’s a little weird, and when we find someone whose weirdness is compatible with ours, we join up with them and fall in mutual weirdness and call it love.”
“People love what other people are passionate about – you remind them of what they forgot.”
~ Mia, La La Land
What do you do for fun? It sounds like a simple question, yet a surprising number of people have difficulty answering it. Some fortunate people will talk passionately about their hobbies and interests for hours on end. Others, reflect on their day-to-day lives and realise that they haven’t been truly passionate about anything for a long time.
We all possess passion deep in our hearts. Think of your childhood – fulfilling curiosities, exploring new places, playing your favourite instrument or sport… But at some point, they became lost under the mounting pressures of stress and fatigue from work, financial responsibilities and relationships. Sadly with time, passion falls lower and lower on people’s list of priorities. Ironically, passion is the cure to the reasons why people forgo their passions.
Passion is one of the best ways we can obtain happiness. This intense emotion overwhelms us with a rush of excitement and joy, motivating us while dissolving away our worries and fatigue. With passion, we can enter flow state – the magical state where the world around you fades away and only you and the subject of your passion remain, leaving you in perfectly focussed bliss.
For most people with a passion, they will often say that it is part of their identity. They feel the desire to engage in the activity at the end of a rough day and when they do, they feel cathartic and recharged.
An interesting aspect of passion is how we will happily sacrifice time and money for it. Perhaps this is because we know that this is an example of how money can actually buy happiness. We are happy to pay the cost of happiness, whether it be waiting two days in the rain for a tennis tournament ticket, buying an expensive instrument or losing sleep practising intensely for a tournament.
In a sense, passion for a hobby or interest is quite similar to love.
For those who don’t know what their passion is, think back to your younger self and remember what made you really happy. If you can’t or if it is no longer feasible, there is always the option of finding and learning a new passion. There are some common qualities in hobbies and interests that people are passionate about:
Ideally, it should be skill-based, so that you can improve in it through investing time and energy. The desire to be better is an excellent self-motivation tool and the key to reaching flow state.
It should be sustainable and not self-destructive. For example, luxurious parties, drugs, alcohol, sex are all examples of dopamine-inducing activities that are not sustainable as they cause “lows” where you feel miserable without the next “hit”. Furthermore, some of them may damage your physical and mental health rather than improve it. You should also consider whether it is financially sustainable, as at the end of the day, you still need to pay the bills.
It should excite you and make you happy. Sometimes people force themselves to like the same things as their significant other. It is okay to have different passions in a relationship, but you should try to understand why that person is passionate about that particular thing instead of blindly copying it. Plus, it is healthy to have something in your own life outside of your relationship that can keep you happy.
Unfortunately, you are the only person that can find your own passion. If you have forgotten passions, then that is a great starting point. Pick up a camera, brush, guitar, pen, racquet or whatever it is that made you happy, and revive your passion.
If you truly cannot think of anything, then focus on something that has piqued your interest and give it an honest try. It will be a much more effective use of your time than lamenting that your life is dreary and unhappy.
A practical tip is to start with a creative hobby, such as music or the arts, or a sport. These tend to fulfil most of the above criteria while also offering a creative or physical release, both of which can easily be lacking in our modern day lives.
Passion is a renewable source of happiness that does not rely on other people. Many people rely on the company of other’s for their happiness, but this is ultimately unsustainable and will lead to resentment.
How can we make someone else happy if we don’t know how to make ourselves happy? Maybe this is why we find passionate people attractive – it reminds us of what we had forgotten and how happy we could be if we tried.
What makes us “us”? This is a question that every person on Earth would have asked (or constantly asking) themselves at some point in their lives. We seem to be gripped by an instinct to be unique – to not only discover our identity but to express it to the world.
Our identity is manifested through how we interact with the world. Some people express themselves visually – colourful hair, a token accessory they always wear or a general “look”. Some people opt to express their uniqueness through what they say – such as having catch-phrases or being the witty, funny guy.
However, by far the most common way people show their identity is through their mannerisms – specifically those we display consciously. For example, some common traits people openly show are “being a hugger”, “always smiling” or “never swearing”. It is almost as if we set up intricate sets of rules for ourselves so that we act in a way that is predictable by people who know us well – a persona code, if you will.
This becomes interesting when the expected behaviour is not necessarily positive, such as when your friend is acting in a way that irks you, like saying something stupid or being overly affectionate. Well, it could be that they are purposefully doing it as per their persona code, knowing that it may not be received well. This seems illogical – why would you act in a way that hurts your image?
This is because our “trademark” – what makes us “us” – is a complex combination of our past experiences, present behaviour and our choices for the future. Due to this complexity, it is impossible to be a “perfect person”. So perhaps the reason that we cling to our mannerisms – whether they are good or bad – is that we would rather be a perfect “me” than a perfect person.
Each and every one of us have two selves: the self we truly are in our mind and hearts and the self we present to the world. Let us call these the inner self and outer self. For the most part, we know both our inner and outer selves quite well, because we know what we are thinking and feeling and we consciously control what image we show to other people. But because we cannot read minds, we usually only know the outer selves of other people.
Our inner self is somewhat difficult to change consciously as it is mostly shaped by our natural personalities, our upbringing and environmental factors such as life experience. On contrast, we have the ability to change how others see us through various ways. We wear smart clothing to suggest we are well-cultured, we tell jokes to give the image of a funny person and we emphasise our strengths while downplaying our weaknesses and insecurities to show our best possible side. Because of this, it is unfair to compare yourself (your “inner self”) to others (their “outer self”). The “perfect” person you are comparing yourself to may just be an outer shell shielding that person’s weak, insecure inner self that is no better than you.
We all have our own demons and insecurities, but no one wants others to know as all we see in society are strong, charismatic, charming outer selves and we seem so weak in comparison. In the end, we all live behind masks to try fit into a world full of masked people, too afraid of showing our true selves and being hurt.
Then how can we truly connect if we are all pretending to be different people? Always remember that others are just as afraid of lowering their mask as you are. You cannot expect the other person to open up to you first when you are not prepared to yourself. On the other hand, you cannot be hurt when they are reluctant to open up just because you have. To show your inner self means leaving yourself to be vulnerable, so it is understandable for people to take time for it to happen. All you can do is to let yourself be vulnerable first and show the other person that you are just as weak and scared as they are. That is the cost of connection.
Imagine that you built a house out of Lego blocks. Now break apart the house until it is reduced to individual blocks. Where is the house now? You could say that the house is still there, except now that it is in the form of a small pile of blocks. On the other hand, you could argue that the “house” itself no longer exists – only its components. The pile of blocks does not have a roof or walls or a living room. It is not a safe, homely place Mr. Lego can return to after work to relax in. However, it has the potential to be a house again. All you need to do is arrange it in a certain way to make it a beautiful home for a nice little Lego family.
What makes the Lego house a house is the specific arrangement of the bricks in an aesthetically pleasing yet functional and practical way – crafted by a creative mind and a set of hands. Through these hands, the blocks can be crafted into a house, a car or even a space station. But without them, they will forever remain a pile of unused blocks stored away in some dark container.
Now look deep inside you and ask this question: what have you made with the Lego pieces that make up your identity? How have you pieced together your strengths, your skills, your experiences and your dreams? We are all unique in the sense that we are born with certain virtues and talents, while gaining various experiences and skills through the chaos that is life. But all of these are just Lego pieces. What kind of masterpiece these pieces will be a component of is up to you to decide, design and build.
Just like Lego, if you don’t are not truly happy with what you see inside you, feel free to tweak it, add to it or even disassemble it and rearrange it into a different final product. Try emphasising your language skills, or chasing after a lost dream. Draw from different experiences and play around with your various strengths. This is not to change who you are completely; no matter how many times you break up and reassemble them, you still have the same components. All you have to do is come up with a new design, build it and judge the product. Hopefully, you will find the right arrangement of pieces that result in a product greater than the sum of its components.