Paul Cockayne – 07791 970406 – firstname.lastname@example.org
Welcome to my counselling blog. You can find more information about me by clicking one of the links at the top of this page
What is it that makes you who you are? What gives you your sense of personal identity?
As a student in the 1970s I wore my hair fashionably long and it stayed that way when I left uni and started work. But a few years into my working life, I applied for a new job, and it was politely but firmly suggested to me that I should smarten up a bit – that the long hair was not really appropriate.
I was outraged, at first. Shouldn’t I be judged on the work I did, on the way I behaved towards other people, not on my appearance? Did I not have a right to wear my hair how I wanted to? And growing my hair had been, I suppose, representative of my independence, a reaction against school rules, and it seemed to be important, to say something about who I was.
But I wanted the job. I wanted it for career reasons, and for personal reasons. And so eventually, reluctantly, I made a trip to the barbers, my first for many years. It felt like a big, big, decision, but of course after having my hair cut I was just the same person, but with much shorter hair. It made no real difference.
“I can’t change who I am” is a phrase I often hear from clients, usually as a defence against making some sort of adjustment to their behaviour. And indeed you can’t change who you are, but you can change your behaviour, and just as my identity did not change with the length of my hair, neither do people change inside – change who they are – as a result of changing their behaviour.
I remember a client who was a very keen footballer. As a single man his life revolved around football – playing it, watching it, and talking about it with his mates in the pub. When he became a father, he had a difficult time adjusting to the idea that he ought to spend more time at home. “Football is who I am”, he said.
I remember too, a woman who found herself getting very angry with her children, shouting at them, and hating herself for it. “But my temper inherited, that’s how my parent were, it’s in my blood”, she said.
The ideas we carry about who we are can be restrictive – we can find ourselves disabled by them, unable to change. But we can change the stories, we can choose what we think about ourselves. “Football is who I am” can become “I am someone who loves football and also wants to be a good dad”. ”It’s in my blood” can instead be “I can be inclined to copy the way my parents brought me up, but I am going to make every effort to do some things differently”.
The story of Samson and Delilah comes to mind, when Samson loses all his strength after having his hair shorn. It’s a great story, but in real life our personal identities are not changed quite so readily!