How Do I Know Who I Am If There’s No Word for It?

How Do I Know Who I Am If There’s No Word for It?

Written by Kristin Wong

Topics: Confidence

Have you ever looked a picture, listened to a song, or walked through a new city and felt an inexplicable sense of familiarity? When I look at a photo of my great-grandmother, for instance, I feel an instant connection, like I was the one who took the picture—even though I never met her. When I look at that photo, I am simultaneously grateful, sad, and nostalgic. She feels like home.

I always brushed off this feeling until recently, when I came across the Welsh word hiraeth. Hiraeth is a longing for a place you’ve never been and people you’ve never met, presumably your homeland or your ancestors. I’ve experienced hiraeth at various points in my life, and you probably have, too. Even though there was no word in my vocabulary to describe this feeling, I still felt it.

I love words that exist in one language and not another. It’s such a delight to discover that there’s a name for the weird, specific feeling you’ve had your entire life, making it a universally shared experience. It also goes to show how limiting words can be, though. Your whole life, you can experience hiraeth or schadenfreude or wabi-sabi and have no label to describe it. Yet it still exists.

The same is true of our identity. Surely there are parts of ourselves that go beyond the standard labels we’ve been given. We’re complex—our interests and pursuits are multifaceted, which sometimes makes it hard to articulate who we are as a whole. “Multipotentialite” is a good start. When I first heard this term, I had the same feeling I did when I came across hireath—finally, there was a term for something I’d always felt. Yet I still find myself searching for a more specific label to describe my own personal mix of interests. And it’s annoying—it would be nice to just let myself be whatever I am and do whatever I want to do, without having to worry about what I call myself.

We get so wrapped up in defining ourselves this way—with the labels, systems, and norms we’re familiar with—that it’s easy to brush off the most important, complex parts of ourselves that are hard to define. I have a reporter friend who wants to write fiction, for example, and when I encourage her, she always responds, “but I’m a reporter, not a fiction writer,” as if there’s a special business card you need in order to write stories.

Ironically, there is a word for not having a word for something: hypocognition. As Scientific American describes it, “Hypocognition, a term introduced to modern behavioral science by anthropologist Robert Levy, means the lack of a linguistic or cognitive representation for an object, category, or idea…It is facing a concept that captures something we cannot fathom, an exotic emotion we cannot grasp, a certain idea that arouses in others fervor and enthusiasm but strikes us as nothing but foreign and bizarre, a certain principle that must, against our own reason, be unreasonable.”

In other words, when we lack the words to describe a feeling or concept, that feeling or concept is diminished, leading some psychologists to argue that it becomes a tool for censorship. Historically, hypocognition has been used as a form of social control, writes Kaidi Wu at Aeon.

It can help to think about this in terms of identity. For example, I’ve had friends struggle with their gender identity because it falls outside of the binary way we talk about and think of gender. The thing is, they inherently know exactly who they are, but the world around them doesn’t use language that includes them. It’s a frustrating and confusing experience that I suspect has held them back from fully embracing who they truly are, and the same is true for different types of identities that are limited by language.

Don’t worry, this isn’t another rant about how labels are meaningless and confining. They are, but they can be useful, too. For me, the problem is not with the idea of labels itself, but the fact that I put too much stock in them. Like a lot of multipotentialites, I hate being asked what I do for a living.

But the truth is, I crave that definition. I crave a label. I mean, what do I do? Somebody tell me! My brain feels good when I’m able to understand who I am and what my career path looks like. It’s like discovering a new word for something that you’ve always felt. I have a hard time defining all the things I do in a single word or phrase, but it would be so satisfying to have that.

However, that cognitive satisfaction can come at a cost. For example, when I moved to Los Angeles to start a screenwriting career, I was so tied to that title that I spent years doing work I didn’t enjoy. I refused to pursue other career avenues—even if they were fun—if they didn’t fit my definition. It was the cart following the horse. Instead of doing things I enjoyed and letting the label follow, I put the label first, brushing off parts of my identity if it didn’t perfectly fit.

It’s also privileged to be able to pick and choose your professional identity, which brings up an added problem: conflating identity and self-worth with what you do for a living. If you’re anything like me, the whole conundrum of defining yourself as a multipod is rooted in workaholism. I want to define myself because it makes me feel valuable.

I love to work, but part of the reason I love to work is that I’ve grown up in a system that values people based on their earning potential. I hate to admit it, but a lot of my work ethic comes from trying to prove my value as a person. I don’t think I was born this way, either. This attitude is very much linked to how our culture values human beings, which is often in terms of their economic output. This is especially true for marginalized groups, who often have to prove themselves in terms of work and GDP. Even the most progressive, pro-immigration arguments are centered around their hard work and the country’s economic health.

As a child of an immigrant, I most certainly inherited this approach to work ethic. I was told to keep my head down, say yes to anything my boss wants, and be grateful for whatever job I could find.

Today, I’ve grown out of that a bit, but work still dictates nearly every aspect of my life. I love what I do, but it’s hard for me to find the line between doing what I love and simply working compulsively because that’s how I’ve been trained. When I met a new friend at a networking event and she asked what I did for fun, I fumbled over my words before blurting out, “I dunno. I work a lot.” How exciting.

Lately, I’ve been trying to define myself outside of work. When I saw that same networking friend recently, we laughed at my response, and she said, “Okay, let’s try it again. What do you like to do for fun?” And I said photography and hiking and planting stuff, and it felt good to have an answer.

Maybe if we start to define ourselves outside of work, the need to label ourselves becomes less important. And when you’re not limited by labels, it’s easier to be your complete, complicated, hard-to-define self.

Your Turn

Do you crave labels to describe yourself and does it get in your way, too? How do you get over the need to define yourself so that you can fully flourish in your multipotentiality?

neil_2017_2Kristin Wong has written for the New York Times, The Cut, NBC News, and Glamour magazine. She’s the author of Get Money: Live the Life You Want, Not Just the Life You Can Afford. Kristin is a writer, but she’s also an amateur photographer, speaker, podcaster, and recovering workaholic. You can find her on Twitter or Instagram @thewildwong.

12 Comments

  1. Wonderful, brilliant article Kristin. This not only helped me feel okay about not having a single word, definition about what I do, what I’m good at, and what energizes me but I got some clarity on the impact of inclusion.

    Cheers!
    Nadia

  2. Roxana says:

    Hi Kristin, it was a pleasure reading your article. It feels good to know that you are not alone with your struggles. Do you think this”not feeling alone” have a specific number of people and after a certain number it become less important? To be better understood, i mean… Being alone it sucks. If you find out another person like you, feels better, two persons even better….until what? Let’s say…100 persons. After that, it doesn’t matter anymore. Is becomes normal. Is this normality we are craving for? I am in your group of people! Have a nice day!

  3. Jase says:

    A fantastic analysis of cultural indoctrination and the journey onwards Kirstin.
    I just loved the content and your writing style.

    Thanks.

    Jase

  4. MarGo From Russia says:

    Kristina, every time I read you, I think – would I have read this article – if you weren ‘t a workaholic? Let me know!

    • Kristin says:

      Ha! That’s a good (and valid) question. I certainly get a lot of inspiration from my own struggles with work. Either way, thanks for reading!

  5. Maryske says:

    Love this post, Kristin! Thank you!

    Especially the concept of hireath fascinates me. I experience it quite a lot, especially with places. I feel perfectly at home in places I’ve never visited, and have absolutely zero idea on where to find anything – and still, it feels like I’m “at home” there. So thanks for the term!

    Actually, “Schadenfreude” is not quite as unique. It does have a perfect counterpart/translation in Dutch: “leedvermaak”. I do wonder though what’s behind the fact that two neighbouring countries both have a word for this, which the rest of world seemingly seems to lack…

  6. Ryan says:

    From one recovering workaholic to another, I enjoyed reading this great post. Allowing ourselves to color outside the lines whether in predefined job or pursuing new hobbies is liberating and vital to grow.
    We tie ourselves to various job titles and how much we earn. However, the net worth of a human cannot be measured by earnings alone.

  7. Jenny says:

    I found this at just the right time (feeling despondent), so thank you for making me feel slightly less frustrated and alone. I do crave being able to sum myself up, its something I don’t feel able to do succinctly yet, and not really having had a career, I can’t use that to define me which can leave me feeling unworthy. Still, need to work on how I define me!

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