Allowing Others to Define Who We Are

Photo by Brian Lawson on Unsplash

“No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” Eleanor Roosevelt, ‘This Is My Story’ 1937

My week was going great until I got my annual work review. I’ve worked at this therapeutic youth center for 20 years as a recreational therapist. I love my job, my peers respect me and I have great rapport with the kids. I’m seen as the old pro of our staff. Yet my heart broke and I can’t stop thinking about the negative evaluation of my work by our brand new supervisor who is fresh out of graduate school. She said I was too slow, spent too much time small talking with the kids, and didn’t turn my program goals in on time. The only good thing she said about me is that I have good work attendance. Imagine that! Heaven forbid if I ever had to take a sick day. I felt devalued and insulted by her review of my work performance. Oh, I know. Our workplace is trying to downsize. She might be trying to get rid of me because I’m full-time salaried. After all, what does she know? She is a young whipper-snapper. Ever since I got the evaluation I haven’t been able to sleep, my energy is down, and I’ve lost interest in working there. It just doesn’t make sense. Why am I allowing this little twerp to define who I am when so many of my colleagues and clients love me? I can’t get this supervisor out of my head!

Many of us are in the same boat as the man in the above example. We get bent out of shape when someone else doesn’t like who we are. We take it personally. Somehow, despite all the evidence to the contrary, we allow another person to define who we are and we become shameful and depressed. While most of us wouldn’t like to get negative work evaluations, some of us would take it less to heart. We might listen to what is said, see the context in which it is said, disagree with it and move on. However some of us less resilient folks seem to get dreadfully affected when someone doesn’t like us. Our reactions may be mysterious to us. Why on one occasion do we take criticism so well, and at other times seem very negatively affected by it? Why is it that only certain people get to us and other people seem unable to make us feel bad? Probably none of us wants to be a people-pleaser, someone who has to continually make other people happy. Yet too many of us in our contemporary society are very prone to allowing others to define our value and decide who we are. Like the man in the example, we remain mystified and depressed. Wouldn’t it be a lot better for us to understand why we react the way we do and understand what we could do to not allow others to define who we are?

Characteristics of people pleasing

People who are prone to allowing others to define who they are either episodically or persistently are often very good-hearted and caring humans. Unfortunately, at times they sacrifice their own identities just to be close to others and they swallow their self-respect. They may be strong at times but wilt under pressure. Most of us would react to such people with a combination of compassion and concern. Privately we might wish they would just get a backbone, express their disagreement with others, and be who they really are. It may frustrate us to watch people give up on their own identities and not accept what good people they already are. Sadly, as the quote above implies, people who allow others to define them are often complicit in their own oppression. Many of them defer to others as a general pattern in relationships overall. Deferring to others may include the following characteristics:

  • A knee-jerk reaction to blame themselves first in relational conflicts
  • Difficulty with setting boundaries with others
  • Tendency to avoid conflicts in general
  • Chronic pretending in relationships so that negative aspects of the self are rarely shown
  • Inability to see how other people are blaming or scapegoating them
  • Over willingness to absorb heartache in others as if it were there own failures
  • Deep fear of abandonment and rejection
  • Undercurrent of hidden anger behind the mask of compliance
  • Histories of depression and anxiety disorders
See also  Hidden Shame: A Curse and a Blessing

Psychological roots of allowing others to define us

Certainly any of us may be prone to getting caught off guard and allow another person’s opinion of us get to us. We may be unconsciously reenacting struggles from past relationships. For example, the man in the story above may be feeling somewhat dispensable already, due to his being an aging staff person working with kids and looking to his youthful supervisor to make him feel more needed. When she was unable to affirm him, it reminded him of how unsupported he felt as a boy with his somewhat remote parents and he got depressed. He was not recognizing that it wasn’t her job to make him feel needed and by blaming himself he was unable to see fault in her limitations and superficiality in supporting him, as he did with his own parents. Typically, giving up our identity to others is an unconscious survival strategy we use to cope with being abandoned emotionally in childhood. Some of us unknowingly strategize that if we are making other people happy or making other people’s issues our own failings then we are serving a purpose and will not be abandoned. Often the strategy to make other people happy is our unconscious wish to be made happy by other people’s reciprocal attention. Unfortunately, such a survival strategy never allows us to face our grief over being abandoned, and it limits the authenticity of our identities.

How sex roles and culture deplete our identities

How we have been raised to be male or female in this culture considerably affects how willing we are to give up our identities to others. Although women have a tougher road to hoe than men when it comes to holding onto identity in our culture, both sexes are prone to deferring to others. Many young women these days are increasingly asserting their identities in academics and athletics yet are acutely aware of the social pressures to be seen as thin and attractive. This having to be a “hottie” effect puts an extra burden on women to be something they are not or don’t want to be and undermines the value of who they are already. Eating disorders, abusive relationship with men, and “dumbing down” to fit in diminish the identities of young women. On the other hand, young males are often culturally thrust into workaholic corporate roles or expected to be the dutiful hero in giving their lives for their country long before they have any idea of who they really are as human beings. The grandiosity of males to be bigger than life and out of touch with who they are often reflects our culture’s idealization of male heroic roles. The roles we put men and women in as a culture often cause them to have fragmented and incomplete identities and be prone to conformity and passivity.

Overreliance on media undermines our identities. Children in our society watch TV on average 35 hours per week for entertainment’s sake and are prone to childhood obesity and loss of identity. Rather than looking within themselves or peer friendships to develop imagination and create their own happiness, they are being trained to passively defer to electronic media to entertain them. When our brains are glued to electronic media they aren’t developing the neural pathways that promote self-reflection, imagination, and autonomy. We need to be in human relationships to do that because we humans are wired to be social creatures. What doesn’t get fired, doesn’t get wired and many young adults have considerable difficulty with passivity and thinking for themselves. Children who live on the web don’t risk the face-to-face contact of human relationships and have diminished social skills. The dramatic increase in social anxiety, mood disorders and chronic shyness among young adults is a likely result of over reliance on electronica.

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Getting a backbone

It’s best to be aware of your skill at diplomacy. Putting other people at ease is not something everybody can do. However the drawback of being too tactful and diminishing from your own identity will not make you very happy. You don’t make real friends that way. You also don’t like yourself that way. Plus, there are times you just need to stand up for yourself no matter what the other person thinks.

The man in the example above benefitted from writing a response to his work evaluation. Doing so didn’t change the evaluation but it did affirm what he had to offer in the workplace and enabled him to be more receptive to reasonable parts of his work evaluation. Unless we are in life-or-death threatening situations, conformity is generally not a good idea. In fact, it would be healthier for us to assume complete responsibility for our own identities. We each ought to be the CEO’s of our own corporation—ourselves. Others may tell us who we are but ultimately we make the final decision of who we are, just like the head honchos at workplaces.

It’s best to have skills for asking for what we feel and need. Read, Your Perfect Right by Robert E. Alberti and Michael L. Emmons. It’s also wise to learn how to not take on other people’s issues. Much of what is said by another to be true about ourselves may in fact be more true of what is going on inside the other person. Many of us need to learn to externalize what others bring to us and have a more balanced view of ourselves. You may learn such emotional boundaries from reading, Don’t Take It Personally by Elayne Savage and getting involved in a good Al-Anon group  which affirms your identity apart from others.

Needless to say, if you’ve read this article, you can tell I’m not a big fan of vicarious relating through electronica. May I suggest you have face-to-face encounters with important people in your life, take walks with people you have lost touch with, and receive hugs from people who love you. There’s no replacing the real thing. That includes being who you really are, imperfections and all. We are all good enough just as we are.


John H. Driggs, L.I.C.S.W., is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in private practice in St. Paul and co-author of Intimacy Between Men (Penguin Books, 1990). He can be reached at 651-699-4573. 

This article first appeared in the November 2007 issue of The Phoenix Spirit. We may earn commission on some of the links in this article – at no cost to you. Thank you for your support.

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