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Understanding Our Identity & Values

Posted on May 22, 2019


matt quote

This guest blog is by ELGL member Matt Hirschinger, the Assistant to the Town Manager in Hudson, Colorado.


Last month I presented this article on six steps in identifying and engaging with our own privilege. This post is a deeper look into Step Three: “Adjusting our Self-Identity,” as it’s by far the most difficult yet important of those steps.

Our core values, those strongly-held beliefs, aspirations, motivations can drive us forward or chain us down. They can serve as a guiding light when we’re hurt and confused or can be the kink in our armor any time we are questioned or challenged.

I have seen people be objectively wrong come across calm and centered in their incorrectness while others with high morals and standards fumble as they wrap themselves in metaphorical knots. This is about preventing the latter.

A Few Disclaimers

  1. For our purposes here, our “self-identity,” “core values,” “deeply-held beliefs” and other terms are meant to cover those things that each of us personally feel strongly about enough that they have a strong impact on our emotions and actions. This will be different for each of us, there is no set amount, categorization, or other way to neatly break this down. Family, faith, career, morals, a popular TV show, any of these and more can be tied into how we define ourselves.
  2. The focus will not be on the empirical and logical, but instead on the subjective and emotional.
  3. Our deeply held values are not always orderly and consistent. It is very possible to have aspects of our identity come into conflict with one another, such is often the case when we come across a difficult choice. Different personal values can contradict each other.
  4. Americans culturally tend to put a certain reverence to our “core self”, prefer to have a certain indescribable quality or mystery to it. The methods below are about describing it and solving the mystery.

Methods to Understanding

The main method I used when trying to better understand my self-identity was through my three-year Peace Corps Service and forcing myself to adopt new ways of thinking and approaches to life and work in order to better adjust to my adopted community.

Although I will say it was a rewarding process, it was not always a fun experience. Sure, there were things I learned that were affirming from how I was able to adapt to *most* of the changes, and how I found my sense of humor surprisingly worked well over there. I learned other things though.

I learned I had a lot of unneeded pride in, was easily affected by, things like punctuality, deadlines, things going “according to plan”. I learned that, to at least a degree, I put myself on a pedestal thinking myself some sort of hero-to-be.

The truth was that I was there more to learn than teach, to offer my friendship and help in subtler projects and good deeds rather than shiny, big, triumphant successes. I discovered biases, weaknesses, was faced with new scenarios where I fell short of my self-expectations.

However, with each painful realization came self-reflection and by accepting the uncomfortable truths I could either adjust my self-identity, or in some cases find things I needed to improve upon.

Of course, not everyone gets the chance to spend several years in an unfamiliar culture, but there are methods that I learned abroad that can be applied domestically. A few of them are:

Ask the question “Is this important?”: When confronted with a challenge or decision, figuring out whether our core values are even at play or not can simply boil down to taking the time to ask if something is important or not.

Take time to reflect on the day, particularly how we felt: WHY did we get upset when someone was tailgating us on our way to work? WHY did we feel so relieved when we completed the project early? Don’t dismiss even simple-sounding questions so easily, as we each might answer them a little differently.

Change our habits: Take up a new hobby, take a break on an old hobby, go to a different store, try a different approach to a work assignment. It can help distinguish what we’re more flexible with and what we’re not.

Expose ourselves to the alternatives: Check out a news outlet with opinions you disagree with, or a book, or a movie. Talk to people with different values with the intent to listen and learn. Better understanding what we are not can help better clarify what we are.

Lean into the discomfort: When a situation, thought, or action makes us uncomfortable, instead of pushing it away, mentally lean in on what is upsetting. Pinpoint the values or beliefs that are rattled. This goes doubly true if the situation, thought, or actions stems from the self.

Talk to family, friends, loved ones: Consult people we trust and value to give us feedback, who are willing to challenge us if they genuinely disagree.

Utilize organized tools and programs: Journal writing, self-motivation seminars, faith-based programs, there are many great tools and programs out there tailored to people depending on our needs.

Find humor and lightness in it all: We can laugh at ourselves. We can poke fun at our own quirks, at least to a certain extent. This can make the other methods easier and less intense.

And Then What?

Keep at it. Find other methods not mentioned above. Discard what doesn’t work. As certain values, feelings, beliefs begin to emerge, it is up to each of us to figure out what we like and not, what we want to change and reinforce.

Knowing is half the battle, and if we better know what we hold important and dear, we’ll be better prepared when our identity and values are inevitably challenged and provoked.

We can respond with clarity and purpose understanding why specifically we are frustrated as opposed to a general feeling of confusion and wrongness.

In the complicated, ever-changing dynamics of diversity and equity, it can only help.

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