Assuming a New Identity: Being British

There is, of course, the whole business of growing up. Someone may have been the class clown in grade school, the athlete in high school– or the nerd– and the partier in college. People change. Growing up, we are growing into and out of different roles, different persona, all the time. Most of the time, these transitions are subtle so that people remain recognizable to others—and to themselves– as the same person they used to be. The seeds of who we are were present in who we used to be.

Some of these changes are universal, and desirable. Children want to be “grown up” as soon as possible. Being grown up means being independent and in charge. It means being mature, which in turn means being self-reliant and self-confident. And sensible. Playing at being grown up starts at an early age and may include pretending to one or another kind of work, such as playing at being a teacher or a policeman. Even in our more advanced age, girls are more likely to pretend being a nurse or doctor, or simply a mother, than being a fireman. Boys are still more likely to imagine themselves as a cowboy. But nowadays both boys and girls can play at being an astronomer or a scientist or a soldier. They try out these roles a little at a time by pretending. Aspiring to be someone comes before actually entering into that role.

Soon enough older children can do real work, whether it is delivering newspapers or tutoring younger children; and they can fit more closely then into the picture they have of the way they will be someday. They will feel more comfortable presenting themselves as competent and able to behave properly. It is not just a matter of choosing a profession they aspire to. During adolescence, children begin to define themselves in different ways– as responsible, or as a good friend, or as a hard worker. Or, too often, as the trouble-maker or seductress. These aspects of personality are subsumed into a vague but very real sense of identity. At an early age, some kids have begun to drink or use drugs or establish themselves within the community as petty criminals. They may then find it easier to live up to that role, rather than living it down.

But the roles men and women find themselves playing out are not just a matter of their own choice; sometimes they are thrust upon them.

I once knew two young women who were twins. One had been told as long as she could remember that she was “the pretty one.” The other was “the smart one.” Both resented being labelled in a way that seemed to limit each of them. Both were insulted; but both found it hard to behave at variance to the way they were defined. To an extent, they believed these caricatures were true. I, myself, found the attractive one smart enough, and the smart one attractive.

Sometimes circumstances dictate an abrupt change in persona, too different from the way that person has been in the past, to adjust to comfortably.

I got drafted into the army as a psychiatrist when I was twenty-seven. My background had been very parochial. I grew up in Manhattan and except for college never went anywhere else. I thought since I was now a captain I would have to take on all kinds of military mannerisms and authority, and be something I was not up to, a little like Robert Mitchum. Most of my time in the army was like a comedy sketch. During basic training at San Antonio, I used to march in a straight line after everyone else had turned left. I usually forgot to put my insignia on my uniform. These were not attempts to make any kind of point. Being in the military was simply too much of a change for me to manage without seeming ridiculous.

Usually, people have complicated views of themselves. We are many things. We can be intellectual, kind, sarcastic, or bitter or hard-working and so on. These views are usually positive, but not always. Men and women often come to psychotherapy with a negative view of themselves that they learned growing up. Some of them have been defined by others very narrowly. They may be the ne’er do well, or the scatter-brained one, or the foolish and incompetent one. Or the one who can be relied on to do all the thankless jobs in the family, because he/she is compliant. Sometimes somebody who has succeeded in the outside world and reached a position of respect and authority is still dismissed within the family as the child she used to be. Having assumed that high status in the world at large, it still takes a fight in the home to be taken seriously. Psychotherapy is intended in part to help that process along.

Even in adulthood, men and women try out different ways of being. They try to make themselves more attractive and appealing. They may dramatize themselves. When those changes in role are consistent with the way that person has always been, he or she will feel comfortable struggling in this new direction and is likely to be accepted by others. When these individuals present themselves as very different from the way they have always been, this new way of being will seem posed, or pretentious.

When my brother began to work as an assistant director in the early days of television, he came home one day speaking with a British accent. I was annoyed. He seemed fake. But he explained to me that he was working also as an announcer; and he had to speak with a bland, Midwestern accent to do voice-overs. I could not tell a Midwestern accent from a British accent. He could pull off this adjustment with everyone else, but not his family. The way he used to be was too set in our minds. Also he changed his name.

Others in the entertainment industry, such as actors or politicians, behave similarly. And if the way they portray themselves is too at odds with their background, they too will seem fake. Politicians, for example, can pretend to be religious when their past behavior indicates no such inclination. In fact, we expect our politicians to be pretending much of the time–which does not mean we find hypocrisy agreeable. They, too, can change their accent depending on what part of the country they find themselves in.

It is natural and quite appropriate to want to change oneself into a better person. Entering college, or entering the workplace for the first time, are particular times when men and women can feel consciously the need to behave differently, to present themselves in ways that will lead to success, both at work and socially. And these transitions take place over and over again, for instance, at the point of getting married or becoming a parent. Change, however, imperceptible, is more the rule than the exception.

One mistake some people make, however, is to try to change into something that is undesirable and unappealing. For example, some men try to present themselves as infallible. Some women try to hide any weaknesses they may have. Others try to retain a sexual attractiveness long past the age when that is an attractive way to be. Some men and women assume moralistic poses, as if they are better than other people. They come off seeming haughty and condescending and self-righteous. It is bad enough that inevitably we fall short of who we would like to be, but we should not aim at becoming someone who is unpleasant.

I write this because I believe it is possible to try to change in particular directions if we make a conscious effort. We should try to become the person we would like our friends to be: sympathetic, reliable, fun to be with, and kind.

Speaking of long range changes, I had an odd experience at my 50th college reunion. I sat through dinner with an old friend that I had not seen in fifty years. At the end, he said that I seemed very different from the way he remembered me. I did not ask how. I assumed he was saying something positive about me, which meant, of course, that he was saying something negative about the way he remembered me. Either way, I thought to myself, “How could it have been otherwise? Is it possible to have lived fifty years without changing?”   (c) Fredric Neuman