One of the most challenging and rewarding accomplishments we can achieve is finding our own voice, or finding our own identity. We are constantly bombarded by the expectations of others, whether they are through cultural conditioning, family expectations, peer pressure, or the even the media.
We are expected to be a certain way, to adopt certain values, to view the world from a particular perspective, etc. etc. etc. And to make things even more challenging, these expectations are often contradictory. For instance, our society places value on individualism, yet we are encouraged to be team players at work. We say that we value progress, but we fight hard against change. We claim to value diversity, yet we generally socialize and interact with those that are most like ourselves.
So in the face of the external expectations and their contradictions, how do we actually establish our own voice? And why even bother? Why not “go along to get along?”
The importance of self identity
Establishing self identity is fundamental to becoming a mentally healthy and independent person. While it is important to be open to positive influences from outside oneself, it is equally important to be able to determine which of those influences are indeed positive and aligned with ones own values.
When a person has a strong sense of self he or she is less prone to negative influences by peers and the development of destructive habits such as addiction, negative self talk, volatility, engaging in negative relationships, etc. The resulting ability to choose for oneself his or her own values, how to act and how to interpret to one’s environment is a prerequisite for finding one’s own purpose in life. And finding purpose is the precursor to finding happiness despite one’s environment.
Think about it. Think about the people who are the happiest. They are typically those who follow their own paths and are doing the things they enjoy the most. They have cast away the definitions of success that our society teaches them. They define success in their own ways, in accordance with their own values.
Whereas when you look at the average 9-5er sitting in cubicle, or even an office, you don’t often see a happy person. You see a person striving to meet societies standards for success, to achieve the things that he or she is “supposed” to achieve.
There are exceptions, of course. Jack Welch looks pretty content. He seems to have found his calling at GE… but I would suggest it is not the money that made him happy, but the thrill of building GE into one of the largest and most successful businesses in the world.
Now think about all of the people you know who chose to start smoking, or doing drugs, or worse, in high school because they wanted to fit in, or be “cool.” How many of those people, now adults, deeply regret their addictions and would give almost anything to be free of them?
When we do not have a strong sense of self identity – when we don’t have our own voice – we are often lead down paths that we later regret, and sometimes it is very difficult to go back and correct our course.
Steps to take to find your own voice
Finding your own voice begins with self reflection and self awareness. Here are some activities that can help you begin the process.
Run a diagnostic. take stock of where you are at in life –right now. Look deep inside and ask yourself if you are on the right path. Are you fulfilled in your life? Are you truly happy? Why or why not? Are you living your dream, as opposed to a dream created for you by someone else?
Examine your core values. Which values are actually your own, and which have been handed down to you by others, such as your family, friends, or school? Do the values that have been handed down to you truly resonate with you? Do they make sense? What purpose or role do they serve in your life? Can you truly strive to live by them?
Make a plan. If your life is not perfect (which it usually is not), what could you do to make it better? Using the Well-Formed Outcome exercise is often helpful in clarifying goals and plans.
Take action. What steps can you take, today, that will set you towards the right path? Again, the Well-Formed Outcomes exercise may help.
Repeat regularly. Finding your own voice, and personal development in general, is not a one time activity. It is an ongoing process. Continuously evaluating your life, improving your self awareness, understanding your values, and establishing goals that fulfill you is a life long endeavor. It is a journey.