When Hats Become Masks: Identity and Profession

Sarah contributes today in the ongoing series on Identity. I am so enjoying how different people take such different tacks with this one, albeit broad, topic. I know Sarah from twitter, and her blog is thoughtful and fun. Please say hi to Sarah in the comments.

Pardon the cliché, but I wear lots of proverbial hats.

In fact, I may wear enough of these hats to open my own proverbial hat store. What hats? The usual suspects: woman, wife, daughter, stepmother, sister, reader, writer, teacher, student, cook, occasional overeater. These I wear daily, one stacked upon another, an ever-present balancing act of managing all of these various roles, their demands, without bringing the whole lot crashing down on my head. My identity makes for an interesting hat display, or does it? Am I just a whole mash-up of roles, hats, and duties? I think not.

Too often, the hats we wear become masks.

These masks suffocate our true selves, our identity. There is a fine line between a hat and a mask. Hats accentuate while ski masks hide. Too often, I choose to mask my identity. I hide behind what I do—the mothering, cooking, cleaning, writing—as though I can only be identified by these. All of these things are safe places, good things, needed things, but still a mask. Masks require no explanation or justification because they come with a full set of expectations and presuppositions. Far easier to be branded with a stereotype mask, than the arduous task of discovering  true identity.

So, why do I choose to hide behind the mask of “what I do?”

I am reminded of a scene in Eat, Pray, Love when Elizabeth Gilbert tries to encapsulate her identity into one word—writer. She is quickly corrected by this answer: “that is what you do. Not who you are.” We Americans tend measure ourselves, frame our identity through the lens of our profession. Success is the litmus test for our identity. Identity falsely defined as what we do, or worse what we have done. If I’m not a productive member of society, I’m devalued. Once I believe that my self-worth exists solely in what I do, then I cower behind the ski mask of disillusionment and falsehood.

Identity has very little to do with what I do, but who I was created to be.

If we rely too heavily on what we do as the marker for WHO we are, we risk closing off opportunities to change ourselves, to experience personal growth. Change becomes the impetus for us learning more about our complete identities. Those parts of ourselves that we may not even know we have to offer, but we can’t access these facets of ourselves if we constantly limit our worth by our professional skills and success. So what if I don’t make money off of my writing, does that mean each new word captured and dropped upon a page isn’t positively influencing who I am? If we still want to frame identity within what we do, we leave out a the people who encourage the positive facets of us, help us revise our weakness. Do friends help shape our identity? Why yes! We are more than simply what we do; our identity stems from the sum total of experiences, creations, and relationships.

Are you wearing hats or masks?