A Weird Trick To Manage Your Identity

I’ve always been un­com­fortable be­ing la­beled “Amer­i­can.” Though I’m a cit­i­zen of the United States, the term feels re­stric­tive and con­fin­ing. It obliges me to iden­tify with as­pects of the United States with which I am not thrilled. I have similar feel­ings of limi­ta­tion with re­spect to other la­bels I as­sume. Some of these la­bels don’t feel com­pletely true to who I truly am, or im­pose cer­tain per­spec­tives on me that di­verge from my own.

Th­ese con­cerns are why it’s use­ful to keep one’s iden­tity small, use iden­tity care­fully, and be strate­gic in choos­ing your iden­tity.

Yet these pieces speak more to Sys­tem 1 than to Sys­tem 2. I re­cently came up with a weird trick that has made me more com­fortable iden­ti­fy­ing with groups or move­ments that res­onate with me while cre­at­ing a Sys­tem 1 visceral iden­tity man­age­ment strat­egy. The trick is to sim­ply put the word “weird” be­fore any iden­tity cat­e­gory I think about.

I’m not an “Amer­i­can,” but a “weird Amer­i­can.” Once I started think­ing about my­self as a “weird Amer­i­can,” I was able to think calmly through which as­pects of be­ing Amer­i­can I iden­ti­fied with and which I did not, set­ting the lat­ter aside from my iden­tity. For ex­am­ple, I used the term “weird Amer­i­can” to de­scribe my­self when meet­ing a group of for­eign­ers, and we had great con­ver­sa­tions about what I meant and why I used the term. This sub­tle change en­ables my de­sire to iden­tify with the la­bel “Amer­i­can,” but al­lows me to sep­a­rate my­self from any as­pects of the la­bel I don’t sup­port.

Beyond na­tion­al­ity, I’ve started us­ing the term “weird” in front of other iden­tity cat­e­gories. For ex­am­ple, I’m a pro­fes­sor at Ohio State. I used to be­come deeply frus­trated when stu­dents didn’t pre­pare ad­e­quately for their classes with me. No mat­ter how hard I tried, or what­ever clever tac­tics I de­ployed, some stu­dents sim­ply didn’t care. In­stead of al­low­ing that situ­a­tion to keep both­er­ing me, I started to think of my­self as a “weird pro­fes­sor”—one who set up an en­vi­ron­ment that helped stu­dents suc­ceed, but didn’t feel up­set and frus­trated by those who failed to make the most of it.

I’ve been ap­ply­ing the weird trick in my per­sonal life, too. Think­ing of my­self as a “weird son” makes me feel more at ease when my mother and I don’t see eye-to-eye; think­ing of my­self as a “weird nice guy,” rather than just a nice guy, has helped me feel con­fi­dent about my de­ci­sions to be firm when the oc­ca­sion calls for it.

So, why does this weird trick work? It’s rooted in strate­gies of re­fram­ing and dis­tanc­ing, two re­search-based meth­ods for chang­ing our thought frame­works. Refram­ing in­volves chang­ing one’s frame­work of think­ing about a topic in or­der to cre­ate more benefi­cial modes of think­ing. For in­stance, in re­fram­ing my­self as a weird nice guy, I have been able to say “no” to re­quests peo­ple make of me, even though my in­tu­itive nice guy ten­dency tells me I should say “yes.” Dis­tanc­ing refers to a method of emo­tional man­age­ment through sep­a­rat­ing one­self from an emo­tion­ally tense situ­a­tion and ob­serv­ing it from a third-per­son, ex­ter­nal per­spec­tive. Thus, if I think of my­self as a weird son, I don’t have nearly as much nega­tive emo­tions dur­ing con­flicts with my mom. It en­ables me to have space for calm and sound de­ci­sion-mak­ing.

Think­ing of my­self as “weird” also ap­plies to the con­text of ra­tio­nal­ity and effec­tive al­tru­ism for me. Think­ing of my­self as a “weird” as­piring ra­tio­nal­ist and EA helps me be more calm and at ease when I en­counter crit­i­cisms of my ap­proach to pro­mot­ing ra­tio­nal think­ing and effec­tive giv­ing. I can dis­tance my­self from the crit­i­cism bet­ter, and see what I can learn from the use­ful points in the crit­i­cism to up­date and be stronger go­ing for­ward.

Over­all, us­ing the term “weird” be­fore any iden­tity cat­e­gory has freed me from con­fine­ments and re­stric­tions as­so­ci­ated with so­cially-im­posed iden­tity la­bels and al­lowed me to pick and choose which as­pects of these la­bels best serve my own in­ter­ests and needs. I hope be­ing “weird” can help you man­age your iden­tity bet­ter as well!