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Defining Everything

February 1, 2009

A definition is, well, by definition, “A statement conveying fundamental character.” Self-definitions are not static—people redefine themselves continuously, molding their personal characterizations by the decisions they make, the values they hold and the priorities they line up. The difficulty in defining something as fundamental as one’s self should not be underestimated. The significance of such a definition is intrinsic. How can someone be expected to define any other word or phrase or concept without first being able to properly define the character of his or her own being.

Self-definition is not an end result; it is not a final destination to be reached after a difficult, tiresome journey of self discovery. Rather, it is sinuous, transient and capricious—the shape shifter of personality. It progresses with new situations that involve personal challenges in different ways, providing more pieces to the puzzle of who we are with every decision and judgment made. Being faced with opportunities to grow and stretch in new ways bears outcomes either reaffirm previous definitions or trigger readjustments. When what we hold true about ourselves is reaffirmed, it strengthens the idea that this is indeed who we are. It is when these notions are challenged that these definitions of who we are shift. Self-definitions are our own personal kaleidoscopes, each change just as beautiful as the last, sharing similar qualities of the mirrored beads but obtaining its own distinction by the change in situation, the rotation of the toy. Just as these simple toys are never fixed, so too are self-definitions.

The major development of self-definitions comes in adolescence and progresses throughout life. For many, the teenage years are their first opportunity to establish how they want to define themselves. This stage of life is often accompanied by rebellion as teenagers decide whether to accept or deny the value systems of their parents. These years are crucial for sculpting the cornerstone of how they define themselves. The broad definition created here is continued to be built upon through the college years into adulthood. The stages people go through in life pinpoint overriding instances of revising self-definitions where general experiences lead to a new way of viewing one’s self and by consequence, a new way of viewing the rest of the world.

Self-definitions are situation-dependent. We define ourselves differently to different audiences. While this is not necessarily done on purpose, certain aspects of who we are become more pronounced to different audiences and thus require the internal questions, “which part of myself do I want to reveal?” “what is appropriate to unveil now?” Those many times throughout life when we are asked to define ourselves in a few moments time are nerve wracking (interviews, “ice beakers,” introductions, etc.). To more professional audiences, aspects of our social lives are not relevant and therefore omitted in the initial “define yourself in 35 seconds” situations, however academic interests and past experiences may be relevant and are thus included. To more social audiences, it might be the reverse, where the music we listen to, our sense of humor, or what we do on weekends might take priority over disclosing our career goals and lifelong aspirations. No matter the audience, the cherry picked selection of facts put forth will likely be the part that everyone remembers, the first impression that may as well have been chiseled into The Statue of David.

Many self-help books and clinics attempt to teach people how to define themselves but this is not something that can be learned, it must be discovered— sculpted from a dull block of marble into a vibrant work of art that has its own spirit. Just as an artist tweaks his masterpiece here and there, so do each of us, altering slightly our definition of who we are and how that impacts what we do. The process of not only learning who you are, but then grasping and accepting this is delicate and should not and can not be rushed. It is through actual experiences and challenges that definitions are developed and only through these can we know who we really are.

Our self-definitions are how we convey our fundamental character. Although the basic definition of who we are does not vary drastically, altercations are made by our decisions, value system and priorities. Once we have a grasp on our own self-definitions, we can then turn to other ideas to define, but until we know who we are, we cannot accurately explain or classify any word, phrase, concept or experience.

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