The evolution of self and how to generate greater freedom

Kegan and Lahey (2009) wrote that “the leader of today may need to be a person who is making meaning with a self-transforming mind.”[1] This semester has been an introspection of where my meaning making comes from — how much of my socialization has informed the way I construe the world, and how do I navigate this life with a sense of self that allows me to incorporate new stories into my internal narrative to hold the complexity of modern living.

One of the key propositions of this semester is that — I am not my identity but I am the composite of my multiple identities, experiences, feelings and body. This proposition is underpinned by a constructivist philosophy — building on the works of Kegan — that acknowledges that the meaning making I do in life is constructed out of my experience in interactions with society and the world at large.

A core sense of self that is not my identit(ies)

While there are adjectives that can be used to define me, the exercise of “delabel-ing” myself is an example of how I can create distance from my identifications to hold broader concepts. I do not have to define myself as Singaporean, rather I am someone who grew up in Singapore. I do not have to label myself as Christian, rather I am someone who grew up within the Christian tradition. I do not need to identify myself as Chinese, rather I am someone whose family has Chinese roots. In each of these examples, holding myself apart from these adjectives allows me to treat these adjectives as objects in my contemplation. I have greater distance to muse on topics such as what does it mean to be a citizen in today’s global world, the role of national states in a globalized world order, I can explore with greater freedom the role of religion in today’s pluralistic and increasingly secular society, how does cultural histories inform the way we make meaning today and how interracial couples can influence their children to think about race and culture.

Intrinsically the self as distinct from my ascriptive identity has been an easy concept to grasp. When I sit with myself and think who I am, I don’t necessary gravitate towards the ascriptive outward identity markers but rather I sit with my core sense of being — what brings me joy, what am I fascinated by, my taste and preferences, my embodied self. There is an abstractness of selfhood that I am familiar with — I am part of the broader human race, I wonder what it means to be human, I contemplate existential questions for human species.

It has been a curious juxtaposition to see how others tend to describe themselves using ascriptive markers (race, nationality, gender, religion) instead of a general abstract self. I am realizing that constructing the self as distinct from ascriptive identity could have been a byproduct of my socialization. This could be socialization within the protestant Christian tradition around recognizing the quality of human life that is inviolable — there is a respect for human dignity (“made in the image of god”). But more tellingly, I think it could be from growing up within a homogenous school bubble (all girls, middle-class, intellectually well-performing cohort) where we are encouraged to distinguish ourselves with our thoughts and works — in this context the way I present myself is something I do not need to over think because I’m not met with much contrast. I have not been socialized at school to internalize the differences between boys and girls, nor do I need to bear the burden of explaining what it is like to be someone from my ethnicity given how most people look like me.

Yet our identities matter in how we co-create our realities

It is easy to sit as a hermit and postulate that ascriptive identities are distinct from our core self, but as social creatures it is in our nature to be in society and interact with each other. Our concept of self in the context society must consider who we are in relation to each other. As we construct meanings out of our experience, these are social constructions that are informed and shaped by the people around us. While on one hand — it is true that we are not our identities — but on the other, our identities are social markers that help us as social creatures navigate around each other. Our outward identifications serve as heuristics for our stories and experiences in the world. Our ascriptive markers (race, nationality, gender, religion) serve as signposts to others to decode our social and ancestral histories, but they reveal just a small fraction of the whole story.

My blindspot has been to conflate the invariance of self with the abstractness of self, and not fully appreciate my own richness and multi-dimensionality as human being when I can connect my self to the fullness of stories within my family, my culture and my ancestral histories.

Growing up in an English-speaking postcolonial multiracial immigrant society that is Singapore with a western dominated education discourse — I often shy away from exploration of culture and ethnicity especially of my own. As a child of the 90s where Singapore was undergoing rapid modernization, I am a product of the times in embracing the headwinds of modernity — and viewed Chinese practices as traditions of the past. Despite having Mandarin as a mother tongue, I am more comfortable with English. I had the aspiration to become a global citizen, the conception of a self that is universal that moved with the secularism of progress. Even while navigating the US as a Chinese female for college and then work, I saw no need to tap into the cultural aspects of my identity.

While this abstraction and non-representation of the self may have merits in being efficient at work, in getting tasks done — it serves a utility function — failing to recognize the richness of my cultural legacy (not just Chinese, but a colonial history from South-east Asia) prevents me from recognizing the complex histories that others have too. In not wanting to decode my ascriptive markers, I may fail to engage with the same curiosity with others on their own histories — and choose to engage “color blind”.

Greater freedom from (and with) identities

The tension that now needs resolving is how to hold space for a self as distinct from identities but also recognizing that our identities and cultural histories can inform the way we shape each other’s reality. How can I view my self as distinct — but not removed — from my key identifiers, while having the freedom to see how my identifiers construe the way meaning is made for my reality, and to also have the curiosity to see through the lens of others and how their identifications is informing their meaning making.

I think it helps to chip away at large questions with a bias towards action — a good starting point that I want to challenge myself with is to embrace more conflicts. This does not necessary mean I want to embrace initiating more conflicts, but I want to have the freedom of mind and the courage of heart to have conversations around beliefs, ideologies, prejudices, assumptions that we carry around. To engage in these conversations effectively, I need to have a freedom of mind to stand back from my identities (of race, nationality, religion, cultural identification) and to hold in conversations these concepts as objects for discussion through the interactions with others.

Lastly, another practice I look to cultivate is to be able to sit with my confusion, my paradoxes, my existential uncertainties about what makes me “me” — and be okay with not fully embracing any one answer. I look to cultivate the grace and acceptance of my self — to feel whole in who I am as a being — and embrace the discomfort of losing an attachment to a particular way of thinking that could have brought me much certainty but less curiosity.

[1] Kegan, R., & Lahey, L. L. (2009). Immunity to change: How to overcome it and unlock potential in yourself and your organization. Boston, Mass: Harvard Business Press.

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Dora Heng

Recovering economist passionate about global development and being human in an age of technological disruption