Who are you?
It shouldn’t be a hard question. You’ve been living as yourself for many years. But it is a hard question. And you get very different answers when you ask people about this.
The reason is that your identity is formed through an interplay of different factors. But what are the factors that make you you?
I think Jim Clemente, a former FBI profiler and behavioral analyst, said it best:
“(…) genetics load the gun, personality and psychology aim it, and your experiences pull the trigger.”
Genetics don’t determine your fate
There is the old debate of nature vs. nurture where scientists debate if our genes or our experiences have a larger impact on our identity. No doubt about it, your genetic material fundamentally determines who you are. Depending on the genetic lottery you not only look different, but also inherit personality traits that predispose you towards certain character traits.
I’m not a biologist and won’t go into the details here. But the point is that our genes predispose us to a certain identity. They are the ammunition for your metaphorical gun. But as research in epigenetics has shown the past few years, we shouldn’t think of our genes as a deterministic force. The way our genes express themselves may vary and depends heavily on your experiences throughout life.
Experiences form your identity over a lifetime
The nurture aspect describes our experiences that teach us about the world. This includes the society we’re in, our friends and family, and the external changes that happen in our life.
Your brain is using all of these external factors to determine how to calibrate your genetic system settings to fit your environment best. This process never stops, however, it becomes more rigid when you grow older.
During the time we grow up, who we are is a fluent concept. Our brain is changing with every experience and the answer to this question might change fundamentally from month to month.
This malleability of our brain is called neuroplasticity and it is greatest during adolescence. Having high neuroplasticity during our forming years what made humans so successful around the globe. No matter where you were born, your brain adapts to the environment and learns how to survive in it through observation and trial-and-error.
At the time you are an adult this is no longer the case. Your brain’s plasticity decreases. Things are more fixed and confirmation bias becomes our primary mental mechanism. We deliberately look for information, friends, role models, and partners that ‘get us’ and further confirm our already existing beliefs.
Of course, you can still change. It’s just harder. Your character is more established, which is why you more stable than a teenager. However, the older you get the less likely you’re adapting to new circumstances and situations. You probably know from your own experience, how difficult it is to change an elderly person’s mind.
So keep in mind that whatever happens to you in life, it has the potential to change who you are, because your identity is fluent. However, it becomes more rigid and fixed when you age.
Personality as your operating system
Your personality is comparable to an operating system that determines your behavior and how you interact with the world and people around you. It’s a short-cut that allows you to react consistently and automatically to external changes. This saves energy and if you’ve got the right personality traits further increases your chances of a successful life.
By the term personality I mean your beliefs and character that determine how you interact with the world. While influenced by your genes, this factor is heavily formed by your upbringing and the culture you live in.
Beliefs are social
We all have to make sense of the world and we do so by identifying causal relationships. An obvious example would be that pushing a glass from the table will break it because of concepts such as gravity, and the physical stability of glass. We learn to believe in those concepts early on by experimenting and observing how things behave when we push them off the table.
But many of our beliefs of how the world works are not as widely shared as gravity. Some belief in a higher power steering the occurrences, while others think it’s all random. Some belief in innate human decency while others think humans are selfish. Beliefs in economics, philosophy, health, politics, religion, and justice are often opposing, especially in different cultures.
No matter how rational we think we are when making those decisions, we are often just relying on our established beliefs. What you belief is shaped by the people around you and your personal experiences.
We cannot help but be influenced by our surroundings. People sharing a similar environment tend to have similar experiences and hence, share common beliefs. The effect compounds because humans are social animals. We have an innate tendency to adopt beliefs of authoritative figures such as our parents and other role models. Most beliefs are just adopted and not consciously formed.
Character is all about emotions
The other aspect of your personality is the way you deal with emotions. This constitutes your character. Some people are aggressive, others introverted, extroverted, thoughtful, prone to sadness, etc.
There are frameworks such as The Big Five or the Meyers-Briggs that have some scientific merit in how they describe our character. Knowing how you are wired helps you to mitigate some of your emotional vulnerabilities. For example, if you know that you’re highly neurotic you can deliberately install habits and systems that make your life more stable.
However, often what we think of as character traits are just beliefs. For example, many people think shyness is a character trait, while it’s actually just a learned behavior. We use character framing descriptors all the time such as “I’m not a people person”, “I’m not confident”, or “I’m unpunctual”. These things are changeable and don’t determine your character.
There is an answer to the question who you are:
“I’m an interplay of genes, personality and experiences that make me one moment at a time”
Not exactly an easy or especially satisfying one, but its complexity just shows why people are so different and unique.