A Weird Trick To Manage Your Identity

by Gleb_Tsipursky 2 min read19th Sep 201614 comments

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I’ve always been uncomfortable being labeled “American.” Though I’m a citizen of the United States, the term feels restrictive and confining. It obliges me to identify with aspects of the United States with which I am not thrilled. I have similar feelings of limitation with respect to other labels I assume. Some of these labels don’t feel completely true to who I truly am, or impose certain perspectives on me that diverge from my own.

 

These concerns are why it's useful to keep one's identity small, use identity carefully, and be strategic in choosing your identity.

 

Yet these pieces speak more to System 1 than to System 2. I recently came up with a weird trick that has made me more comfortable identifying with groups or movements that resonate with me while creating a System 1 visceral identity management strategy. The trick is to simply put the word “weird” before any identity category I think about.

 

I’m not an “American,” but a “weird American.” Once I started thinking about myself as a “weird American,” I was able to think calmly through which aspects of being American I identified with and which I did not, setting the latter aside from my identity. For example, I used the term “weird American” to describe myself when meeting a group of foreigners, and we had great conversations about what I meant and why I used the term. This subtle change enables my desire to identify with the label “American,” but allows me to separate myself from any aspects of the label I don’t support.

 

Beyond nationality, I’ve started using the term  “weird” in front of other identity categories. For example, I'm a professor at Ohio State. I used to become deeply  frustrated when students didn’t prepare adequately  for their classes with me. No matter how hard I tried, or whatever clever tactics I deployed, some students simply didn’t care. Instead of allowing that situation to keep bothering me, I started to think of myself as a “weird professor” - one who set up an environment that helped students succeed, but didn’t feel upset and frustrated by those who failed to make the most of it.

 

I’ve been applying the weird trick in my personal life, too. Thinking of myself as a “weird son” makes me feel more at ease when my mother and I don’t see eye-to-eye; thinking of myself as a “weird nice guy,” rather than just a nice guy, has helped me feel confident about my decisions to be firm when the occasion calls for it.

 

So, why does this weird trick work? It’s rooted in strategies of reframing and distancing, two research-based methods for changing our thought frameworks. Reframing involves changing one’s framework of thinking about a topic in order to create more beneficial modes of thinking. For instance, in reframing myself as a weird nice guy, I have been able to say “no” to requests people make of me, even though my intuitive nice guy tendency tells me I should say “yes.” Distancing refers to a method of emotional management through separating oneself from an emotionally tense situation and observing it from a third-person, external perspective. Thus, if I think of myself as a weird son, I don’t have nearly as much negative emotions during conflicts with my mom. It enables me to have space for calm and sound decision-making.

 

Thinking of myself as "weird" also applies to the context of rationality and effective altruism for me. Thinking of myself as a "weird" aspiring rationalist and EA helps me be more calm and at ease when I encounter criticisms of my approach to promoting rational thinking and effective giving. I can distance myself from the criticism better, and see what I can learn from the useful points in the criticism to update and be stronger going forward.

 

Overall, using the term “weird” before any identity category has freed me from confinements and restrictions associated with socially-imposed identity labels and allowed me to pick and choose which aspects of these labels best serve my own interests and needs. I hope being “weird” can help you manage your identity better as well!

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