Our Inescapable Selves: The Identities That Choose Us

Friday, February 5, 2016 - 6:47am
The New Better Off

Our Inescapable Selves: The Identities That Choose Us

What are the three words you would like people to use to describe you when you’re not in the room?

That’s the question Wall Street veteran and author Carla Harris put to an audience that I was sitting in this week. She’s part of AOL’s MAKERS series, the largest video archive of women’s stories in history. MAKERS had their annual conference jam-packed with feminist royalty Gloria Steinem, sports legend Abby Wambach, and even reality TV star Caitlyn Jenner (her first women’s conference as a woman). Speakers gave all kinds of advice on leadership, described trainings for eradicating bias, and even “made it rain” with fake dollar bills printed with women’s smiling faces. But it was Carla’s question that really stuck with me.

When I went away to college, I thought that it was a chance to start over. I was determined to shed my high school reputation for being “sweet” and instead cultivate an identity that was a little more edgy, a little less conciliatory. Within just weeks of arriving, as I balanced a tray of that gooey peach cobbler and a big glass of milk in the cafeteria, one of the girls who lived on my hall said, “Courtney, look at you with that glass of milk. You are just so wholesome, so sweet.”

My insides screamed. What?! How had I failed at my very calculated project of reinvention? What had I done (besides drink milk?!) that signaled to this new acquaintance that I was sweet?

“Sweet” is absolutely not a word I would choose for people to use to describe me when I’m not in the room. And yet, from Colorado Springs to New York City, from my big public high school to this small private college, it trailed me like an indefatigable stray cat. I was sweet, whether I liked it or not. So I’d better learn to like it.

I’ve since realized that there are parts of “sweet” that I do genuinely value. To a lot of people, “sweet” means compassionate and kind, qualities I do aspire to. To some, it means approachable, which is also something I appreciate in others. Why shouldn’t I appreciate that in myself?

And then there are parts of “sweet” that I am still trying to shed. My reluctance to disappoint people, even when it means being honest or taking care of myself, is not a quality I like in myself. All these years later, I’m still working on shedding that part of my reputation, rooted in my own behavior.

Which is all to say, how much of what others see in us are qualities we get to choose, and how much are qualities that choose us? I wouldn’t choose sweet, but I would choose fun. I can be fun — don’t get me wrong — but I’m not naturally the life of the party. I have a natural seriousness about me; there were times in my post-college 20s, roaming around New York City in the wee hours, when the rest of my friends would be on the dance floor losing their minds and I would be huddled in a corner with a vodka tonic and some heartbroken boy, talking about his deadbeat dad or the girl that just left him. How does this always happen to me? I would wonder. And then the next weekend, there I would be again, in some deep heart-to-heart while my friends got sweaty to Jay-Z. Which is exactly why I would need to choose fun; it doesn’t always choose me.

Residents paste up portraits of local faces next to the historic city wall in Barcelona, Spain.

(Jordi Boixareu / FlickrSome rights reserved.)

This inquiry reminds me of my daughter. Just two years old, she’s already teaching me that there’s no escaping your essence. She’s got some undeniable qualities already emerging. She is, for example, extremely discerning. She has had clothing preferences since before she could even speak. (I realized this wasn’t typical when other friends with kids the same age looked at me in disbelief when I described what it’s like to get her dressed in the morning.) Every time she eats, she not only requests what kind of food she’d like, but what kind of bowl she’d like it in and what kind of utensil she’d like to use. The other day she told me, “Momma, I love gray donkeys.” Gray donkeys? We’ve never even seen a donkey, much less had a conversation about their various colors.

I wonder if she’ll embrace this quality as she ages, or if she’ll develop a conflicted relationship to it, as I have with my sweetness or seriousness. Will she go off to college, hoping to appear easy going, only to find out that her intensity has followed her all the way across the country? Will she come to understand, as I have, that there are light and dark sides to every quality that we realize is central to our essence? Her discernment is part of what will, no doubt, break her heart; it will also, I’m guessing, help her succeed in lots of interesting ways.

Call me serious. Call me sweet. I now understand that, though I may not have chosen those descriptors, they chose me. And there’s something sacred and mysterious about that. I can’t shed them entirely. But I can, with some wisdom and humility, wear them differently.

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Courtney E. Martin

is a columnist for On Being. Her column appears every Friday.

Her newest book, The New Better Off: Reinventing the American Dream, explores how people are redefining the American dream (think more fulfillment, community, and fun, less debt, status, and stuff). Courtney is the co-founder of the Solutions Journalism Network and a strategist for the TED Prize. She is also co-founder and partner at Valenti Martin Media and FRESH Speakers Bureau, and editor emeritus at Feministing.com.

Courtney has authored/edited five books, including Do It Anyway: The New Generation of Activists, and Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters: How the Quest for Perfection is Harming Young Women. Her work appears frequently in The New York Times and The Washington Post. Courtney has appeared on the TODAY Show, Good Morning America, MSNBC, and The O’Reilly Factor, and speaks widely at conferences and colleges. She is the recipient of the Elie Wiesel Prize in Ethics and a residency from the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Centre. She lives with her partner in life and work, John Cary, in Oakland, and their daughters Maya and Stella. Read more about her work at www.courtneyemartin.com.

Share Your Reflection



At 62, I have always been "Sweet Sue" to a chosen few and quite the opposite to an unchosen few. Ahhh, what to do with the monikers that leave there marks on us by the many observers in our atmosphere. Be grateful that that we do have moments of sweetness and are capable of expressing them with others.

Thanks from one sweetie to another.

Gray donkeys! Were you aware that donkeys are known for their comforting and therapeutic qualities? This may be more revelatory than you might have realized at that moment.

Wow, thanks for teaching me something.

What a great question. I call you sweet, serious, and fun! And wise and humble too.

Thank you!

There is no escaping your natural qualities or spirit. There is also a big difference between natural qualities and chosen or expected/learned behavior. I've known sweet people that were anything but once they were not under anyones influence ! It's incredibly beautiful that your sweet nature draws in the admiration of others, it's a great influence to others lives even if it only makes someone smile.
Children are amazing and we can learn so much from them, especially while all their interests are still very instinctual and not heavily influenced by society. I love that you describe how she views the world - she loves details. Always be as curious as a child :)

Dig into the enneagram. I've learned that I, we all, have a shadow side which is the darker side of personality traits. For example I am very prone to like to do things for other people. I also often catch myself doing things they neither enjoy or have requested. I can also resent others if they fail to appreciate me for doing the very things they did not particular.y want.
As one builds up ego over the years a natural assertiveness can go to pushy or goal driven! What makes this happen...I think the age old nature/nurture question that perennially challenges psychology.

I've always been curious about it. Thanks for the reminder!

Glad you brought up the enneagram, Shari. I've found it incredibly helpful in understanding myself and the people I live and work with. (But then again, I'm a "5" so I'm always trying to figure things out!!)

Have you been reading Winnie the Pooh? Eeyore is a gray donkey, so your daughter might be showing compassion as much as discernment. :)

What perfect timing for me to read these thoughts about personality traits, Courtney - thank you! I'm also learning that context matters for how those traits are perceived by others (and, as a result, ourselves). I recently received a surprisingly (to me anyway) negative performance review at work. I also just so happened to have been offered a different job (same organization but different boss). My new boss told me about the conversation she had with my old boss. After my old boss had described my "shortcomings" (questioning authority, acting on my own, frustration with a strong power structure), my new boss replied that those were exactly the qualities that she needed me to have for the new position (initiative, analytical thinking, problem-solving, collaborative problem solving). I still cringe at the thought of having that negative perspective of me in writing, but it helps immensely to know that context matters - and I will get to work in a context where my basic tendencies will be welcome assets.

Congratulations, Kathy, and thank you, Courtney, for this timely post. I, too, am in the middle of a transition due to my 'shortcomings' being seen as positives in a different context/organization. This isn't the first time this has happened to me but rather than "career-ADHD" (as I've taken to calling it), maybe it just means I'm here to be a change agent/problem solver in a number of work settings. There is great thinking going on in all of this - and I thank you for a different perspective.

As I read your reflection about wanting to redefine yourself when you went away to college, I thought, what a gift to have had that much of a sense of agency at age 17 or 18 to want to move away from a worn out view of your self. During my first year in college I experienced a deep depression, a new experience and one which took me years to really understand. So I went from being a smiley, popular, and at the same time serious music student, to being kind of dark, brooding and confused. However, I hadn't been looking to become that person. And I'm not sure how much my home environment played a role. At this point in my life, age 68, I am actually a very sweet, friendly, and outwardly and inwardly happy person;I think this is who I always was, but it took me a good deal of my adult life and lots of crises, ups and downs to discover or rediscover or uncover.

I can't remember whether I ever had an image I wanted to put out into the world, but right now I'll take any descriptors as a compliment. People can think I'm cute, bitchy, aloof or even (God forbid) nice. Just so long as I am not "invisible," for that would be the greatest blow of all. Thank you Courtney. I feel like I know you.

Courtney, thanks for sharing your personal insight and how you have come full circle in recognizing and appreciating the meaning and worth of these(your)core values. Your natural characteristics accompanied by your obvious inclination towards hard work, perseverance and ethical behavior have resulted in a wonderful, accomplished young woman willing and so very capable of making significant contributions to make our world a better place. Always enjoy reading your columns.

Hi Courtney, I just came across your writing via a quotation about New Friends that I read on Tumblr. I referenced it in a blog that i wrote this evening (it perfectly described the night that I had with a new friend) and so I decided to find out who this person is who said that thing. Hence: I am here. After reading this short essay, I decided that I like the way you think. It resonates for sure. Thanks for sharing.

Thanks for this reflection, Courtney! This past month while doing some long needed cleaning and sorting I found a box of cards and letters from 30 years ago - letters sent to me at ages 22, 26, 30. It was a treasure trove of often poignant letters from beloveds, some of whom are no longer in my life. It was also a rare opportunity to see the young woman, mother, friend and daughter I was then and it struck me how enduring some of the qualities are that people mirrored back to me then, and still do now. Of course I cringed with some, but others rather amazed me. So I agree with you about coming into the world with certain qualities of being and potential that play themselves out, not in just what we become but in who we are to others.

I really appreciate this piece - I've been working on a blog post for awhile about my own issues with "being too much" (too emotional, too intense, overthinking everything), inspired by a post I read on Brain Pickings (). I've felt a lot of shame for a few very key characteristics about myself for quite some time, but as much as I've tried to fight them, they ain't going anywhere. So instead, I'm learning to embrace them, and appreciate the fact that without them, I wouldn't be who I am. I'd probably actually miss them if they went away. So anyway, thumbs up, chica. I always love your posts.

When did this become a mommy blog?

Courtney, can you possibly write a column without reference to your child? Women are more than just mothers.

As a songwriter, I often hear that a song I thought was funny is "cute" and wonder if its composer were not a middle-aged woman, 4 11" with curly hair but was a 6' hipster guy, would the same song still be appraised as "cute"?