Posted by: sailingspirit | May 27, 2011

Trying It On for Size: Fearing the Dressing Rooms of Identity

Fitting Room
Image by orijinal via Flickr

I love watching those how-to-dress shows. The kind where someone who is basically a hot mess is given expert instruction and encouragement on how to make the kind of first impression that represents their true selves in the best possible light. What I find most fascinating, though, is the psychological process they go through. At the beginning, they don’t understand how someone else can possibly identify their true self better than they can, much less choose how to represent it. So they resist. And in the dressing rooms, they alternate from one foot to the other, head cocked to the side, trying to decide if what they’re wearing is “them” or “not them.” And frequently they’re really not sure. Just as frequently, they have pre-formed rules about what is them and what’s not them, which the experts have to prove is more often based on fears and insecurities than on their “true” selves. The people don’t really meet their true selves until the end of the show, when they see in the mirror the person they always wanted to be. And suddenly, their whole posture and demeanor change.

Most of us don’t expect re-invention of self to occur much after high school or college. Certainly, who you are by the time you’ve been married a few years is who you are, right? Why? Says which authority? I’m reminded of Rachel’s line, “Once a cheater, always a cheater.” And the adage, “People don’t change.” Where do these sentiments come from? Are they even true? I think we have been clinging to a concept for a long time that isn’t true at all. Maybe the Stacys and Clintons of the world are helping us refute that.

People can change; however some do and some don’t. So, why do the do’s do it? I should think they perceive some kind of potential benefit–the reason why anybody does anything. I mean, does it make sense to assume people have figured themselves out by adulthood? They did all the exploring they wanted to do in high school and college, maybe even took a trip around Europe to “find themselves”? What if they didn’t? What if they were too scared, or they were the “in” crowd everyone else was trying to be, or maybe they couldn’t afford to experiment? Is their shot over? “Too bad, so sad.” Should we put an age limit on personal change? The fashion help shows mentioned above seem to indicate No.

Generally I think these are good changes, but after hearing someone’s story recently I wanted to go back and think about it some more. Have you ever known someone to go through some kind of substantial personal change and then affect radical change on their lives? Change careers, move to a different side of the city, launch out toward new friendships and relationships in almost utter neglect of the existing ones, perhaps? And then, it’s like they’ve become a different person. Perhaps not entirely, but substantially. Enough that it’s weird hanging out with them again. In some ways you want to be happy for them, but in other ways you want to say “Why are you acting like that?” Because you can remember the Before person. What seems like the Real person, because it pre-existed the After person and lasted a good long time unchanged. Your concept of that person is having a hard time keeping up with all the changes.

(Maybe, secretly, you didn’t even think the Before person was totally great yet you still want them to be that person? I suppose we prefer the comfort of predictability, and perhaps more so, don’t like the re-stacking of the social hierarchy when it would suggest we’re no longer as high as we thought we were, and are under pressure to grow/change, too. Can’t hide behind an excuse anymore when someone you know has proven change possible. I wonder if a lot of people don’t change because their life situation isn’t changing, so they figure there’s no point in changing personally. They think they’re stuck, because they think one has to preceed the other. Hmmm….)

Well anyway, I’m pondering how many of us truly are exactly who we want to be, and how we try on new concepts of self in much the same way we try on new outfits. As pre-teens, and even through college, we start expressing ourselves with clothing and hair styles, personalizing everything from the color of our shoelaces to the skins on our gadgets. Re-decorate our rooms, perhaps try to copy the look of a favorite movie star or singer from the poster on the wall. We try these identities on for a while, evaluating how well they express us, but really isn’t the true reason why a look stays or goes about the effect it has on the people around us? If a particular appearance brings us more compliments, or more respect, or keeps unwanted people at bay, it’s doing something for us. It’s a small form of social control, really. We know this to be true from the fashion advisors, who tell us that a certain appearance will make it more likely we’ll get an interview or land the job, build our client base or attract potential dates.

But we seldom connect these ideas together much less apply them to adult behavior in general. In what ways do adults experience personal change inwardly, and express that outwardly, as if trying on their new identities for a period of time to see whether it both feels right and affects others’ behavior toward them in the desired way? How often do we perceive these trials as permanent when they may, in fact, be temporary?

Here’s a couple examples for what I mean:

Many brides want to look a certain way for their wedding, and especially in their wedding photos, that is largely unlike their typical appearance in regular life. Dedicating years to growing their hair really long, let’s say, specifically for the wedding, then after the wedding cutting it short again. It is usually some idealized representation of self, their best self, or in the case of character weddings an expression of a side of themselves that they don’t feel they can adequately express in daily life. We both understand the significance to the bride to do this, and the change back to regular afterward, and think it rather normal because so many do it. But is it sensical to aspire to our ideal selves briefly, only to backslide to mediocre thereafter?  If we treasure that image of ideal self enough to attain it, why do we settle for less after having tasted it?

Many couples who feel their relationships are progressing aren’t ready to commit to each other in a permanent way yet, so they decide to move in together and try it out. Some decide the married lifestyle suits them and they decide to get married, others decide it cramps their style and they split up. (Yet others linger in indecision because they’re struggling to address their fears.) They may not change their wardrobe, but they may start hanging out with different people–couples only, for example. Might seem logical to that couple, but to their former friends it might seem a real slight; why are they suddenly not good enough to warrant the time and loyalty of before? Why does it seem like they’re only worthwhile friends during the single years, and forgettable during the couplehood years?

We’ve all probably witnessed or experienced these two phenomena. So why is it so hard to remember the idea of trying on a new self in other areas of relationships? Why are we so easily hurt? It seems we have little patience for the temporariness, the trial periods. We fear that “this one will stick” so it will be all over for us. Instead of giving other people space to try on new selves–and, if necessary, take a few practice swings with the new self elsewhere before returning to display the new self to old friends–we tend to focus on our own desires and the changes to what we get out of the relationship. That is, we’re all about how the change benefits us, not them. We not only tend to be selfish, we find out just how needy we really are.

In relationships where one person is undergoing significant change, I should think the greatest chances for positive reconciliation and growth thereafter exist when a patient confidence in self is maintained. Taking the stance that he/she will be back when the time is right, because he/she knows the quality of the relationship that was and will be waiting for them again, is a healthy stance. Being other-focused does not necessarily mean you have to be involved with or responsible for the change (in fact in some cases it may be far better if you’re not in the midst), but it does mean keeping a supportive attitude and communicating that supportive stance periodically so they know you’ll be a safe place to land when the season of change ends. Every young eagle learning to fly needs a soft place to land.

So maybe the change will happen quickly, or maybe it’ll take time. Maybe it will take one trip to the dressing room or several. And there may be some uncomfortable test-runs in there, too. Keep in mind that change is more normal than constancy, and the new person won’t be exactly like the one you knew before so you can save time by making room in your mind now. Like freshening up the guest room of your mind, to receive them, when they return. And since we’d all still like to become our best selves somehow, you might also take this opportunity to try out a few changes of your own. That way, when you’re together again, you’ll both have some adventures to talk about.

(And aren’t you most grateful for the friends who stuck with you through all the awkward phases of your youth? Just look at some of those old photos to see what I mean. If they still loved you after all that, you ought to be that kind of friend, too.)



  1. You have raised some very interesting points in this post. Friends and loved ones may change, but we must be there to accept them and support them through the change. In the same way as we’d like acceptance and support during our own times of change.

How has this impacted your thinking on the matter?

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