Who Are You For?

A colleague had offered to take a look at my bio. I sent her a draft in a sharable doc, and she wrote back saying, um, I’m not getting it, not getting you. She asked me to answer, what do people get by working with you, or following your ideas?

And my mind went blank.

I have no idea, I was scared to admit. So, I wrote, um, let me think about it.

The next morning I wrote her a short sentence, “It’s about Onlyness, right?!” Instead of being defined by the place of power one has in an organization or society, onlyness celebrates that power of place each of us has by standing in that spot in the world where only one stands.

And she wrote back, of course, it is.

And then I noticed the question mark in my note.

It wasn’t, “It’s Onlyness” but, “it’s onlyness, right?”.

When people ask, what does it take to live into one’s onlyness, I always answer, being with your people. Which is not what they expect. They expect me to say some version of it’s up to you. They are expecting me to say “show up”, or, “you be you”, or some flavor of ‘You go, girl’. The underlying premise of these answers is that your own self-acceptance is the key to being yourself. As if you are getting in your own way.

And based on all the books I bought in my 20’s, I clearly once believed the same.

Until I started reading the research on conformity, power, and agency.

And the research says that we conform, not because we want to, but because we have to. To fit into those around us, we give up our own sense of what is right. Despite the psychological term, “personal agency”, the research says that our surroundings affect us. Because humans are social animals. Because we seek congruence. Because the Maslow’s hierarchy thing says belonging is a more fundamental state than claiming one’s original idea.

And that’s why it’s so important who you let into your life.

– The gossipy colleague in your circle who always makes fun of people is likely the reason you hold yourself back.

– When your colleagues are always talking about things you can’t relate to, of course, you can’t relate to them. Duh.

– If your boss asks you to do the job just as it’s been defined, then, of course, your creative new takes will be suppressed.

We do not exist in isolation. We do not conceive of ourselves in isolation. We are social.

Two thousand years ago, a Jewish carpenter posed one of life’s most important questions, who do you say that I am. 

We know ourselves as we are known.

This is why our relationships matter: they show us our interrelationships.

So, instead of asking, who am I, ask who am I for. Or have your people ask that question of you.

Who are you? 

Whose are you? 

Who am I for?

These three questions are inextricably linked to one another. American society tries to isolate the question to the first one, “who are you”, celebrating a kind of individualism that defies all logic. If you want to discover your onlyness, do what my friend did, and ask who are you for. And be sure to have people in your life who get you – whose are you – because they can provide you with this support.

2 Responses:

  1. Tim. January 8, 2019 at 10:57 am  

    Nilofer,
    Thank you for this post.
    This speaks to my heart at a time when I am wrestling through these very questions with a friend whom I love very much, but whose magnificent Onlyness I have failed to fully honour.
    I have failed to be “her people”.
    I have failed to fully get her.

    And while the gentle carpenter had perfect sense of hearing, I would also wonder if the corollary to his question would be: who do I hear you say I am.
    In the moments when words fail it seems we know ourselves as we believe we are known. Whether huge and mighty or small and less-than.

    Thank you for always challenging and reminding us to live into the Beings we were created to be.
    And to love those with whom we are in relationships such that they know themselves as the greatest imaginable version of their own Onlyness…..

    Reply
    • Nilofer Merchant. January 8, 2019 at 12:17 pm  

      Yes, it’s true. We can *all* be limited in actually seeing people as they are. It’s good to realize we can get it wrong so that we can learn to get it right. Thanks for this post. I bet it’ll help many a person.

      Reply

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