“What are you?” is a question that echos for me in really weird ways. Even in the absence of the question, I can hear it asked in all different tones, intentions (some projected from my busy mind), and accents. In the past, it would sound off at weird times like cannon fire when I felt required to find/craft/diagnose an answer to “what are you?” that satisfied me as well as known and unknown others. Now, I have a very different relationship with the question that I never thought possible.

Are you lost in the telling here? Okay–let me start again.

When I was a kid, and young adult, the what-are-you-anyway? question almost exclusively referred to my ethnic background. Strangers, fellow students, parents of friends, friends, would ask me, sometimes prefaced with “sooooo, I’ve been meaning to ask…” and sometimes bluntly and within the first clocked minute of laying eyes on me. I would hold the query in any number of ways, ranging from saying nothing, changing the subject, pre-composing a series of smart-assed, thatisastupidquestiongoawaynow, responses. I even crafted thoughtful breakdowns of who was who on both of my parents family trees (sometimes to use as a monologue punishment that forced the other person to interrupt me before I would stop). I got sophisticated somewhere in my twenties and started to answer “that” question with one of my own, such as, “that’s an interesting question, why do you ask?” None of my machinations really did much to:
-Make me feel better (or less objectified);
-Educate anyone on why that question means that we are systematically less-than, if not “labeled properly” or easy to recognize;
-Prevent the question being asked; or
-Change the way people (including myself) categorize ourselves and others (that should be “Others”, perhaps–but maybe that’s a different post).

I really think that the sheer number of asks created a groove inside my own head that made the question and answer(s) so unsatisfying that the question took on an existential quest of its own. The What Are You adventure started to apply to more than my ethnic background and extended to what I intended to be about in the world. The verbage changed, but all of the following gave me the same pit in my stomach:
-What do you want to be when you grow up?
-What are you majoring in?
-Where are you going to college?
-What do you do?
-What are you going to do AFTER THAT?
-Who are you?
-Why are you here?
-How’d YOU get in?

I worked SO HARD (see a stack 3×5 cards with quippy answers, well crafted arguments, and things I wished were true) for a clean, direct answer to each one. Sometimes I lied (see “act-as-if” instructionals on every newsstand) just to find satisfaction in the moment that either disarmed the interrogator long enough to escape, or gave me some kind of creative smugtastic pleasure in having come up with something quickly.

None of the sweat or snark provided any lasting satisfaction. So, I sought labels. I looked to formulas, technical definitions, degree/job/ethnic titles, and oh, the assessments and questionnaires. I loved the labels and comfort of knowing What I Was from tools like: astrological readings, enneagram, strengths-finders, Myers-Briggs style decoder systems. I could now list all of the things I was that someone smarter than I had figured out. It was fantastic! I could introduce myself at parties, dovetail nicely at networking events, explain away behavior, and find other people “like” me to compare gripes, frustrations and labels with. NOW: hold on–do not get yourself lathered up here–I’m saying the labels and systems HELPED me. And I still find them useful tools. But here’s the thing: the pit in my stomach didn’t go away, no matter how many labels from other systems I slapped on.

Know why? I was STILL answering someone else’s question with someone else’s answer. It took me a while to figure it out–but that approach was only yielding a single outcome, which is the immense frustration and renewable resource-style pining that comes from trying to be someone else’s ANYTHING. Their words didn’t make me feel like I mattered more. A tidy label that came from a choice of eight didn’t help me understand why “that” question still made me squirm, even though I’m-a-grown-up-and-it-shouldn’t-bother-me-anymore.

Here’s what helped me shift away from fixed, routinized labels by:
-Challenging the questions;
-Challenging the structures and systems that produced the line of questioning; and
-Designing a way to investigate myself that didn’t make me feel less than, force me into a box so someone else could feel more comfortable, or lie to myself (or anyone else).

Miraculously, my quest turned into the essential body of work, to date, and it’s called SuperConditions. So, yeah, a lifetime of paralyzing questions turned into an identity quest that yielded a practice I used for myself and have been teaching others.

So, what about you? What driving question did you get asked or ask yourself that stirred you up or shaped the way you looked at yourself? I’d love to hear them and their stories in the comments. Thanks.

UPDATE 9/30/15:
In response to an assignment posited by the fabulous Jennifer Kem, I’m including the answers to some astute questions from some fabulous women I’m working with in Jen’s Momentum Pro group. Here is an edited selection of their questions and my answers:

Christiane, from Smart Ohana, asked:

What do you feel about when people say…”it doesn’t matter what people think, what matters is what you think.”?

Christiane: I’m a community-minded person, so I do think it matters what your core community/family/team think. I don’t believe we ever act or decide in a vacuum. However, I’m wary of my own habits of being swayed by the opinions of those close to me (or even my inner crowd of critics). So, for me, it becomes a bit of a complicated dance, weighing the impact of my decisions on my own capacity to lead as well as the impact my decisions have on others. I responded to a post that Kaye Putnam wrote which I think is a suitable response to your question (do let me know):
“I call my Haters In My Own Head my Committee of NO. And, they used to run the show. Once I started to understand them as outside/inside elements, meaning they often had the voice of actual historical haters from different parts of my life, my relationship with them changed. I started to segregate them from the Truth, consider their opinions as possibly protective versus simply adversarial. Now, I use them when I need to run through the worst case scenarios and test ideas. Haters to Committee to Allies. Now, they do become unruly once in a while and I am still prone to internalize their songs. But, truly, I use them more for good than evil now:)”

Thanks for taking the time to ask, m’dear.

Kelly, of LadyBoss Lifestyle, asked:

I would love to hear the story about when you first experienced this question as a child and what that experience looked like!

Kelly: I don’t remember my first experience of the question: What Are You? I feel like it was always there. Because it has always been there, it has certainly influenced my outlook to the point that I expect the question now–with internal groans when that expectation is met. I found, within the last decade or so, that I groan less and tune in more. I listen between the lines of the person’s question and get curious about what they mean. Where before, I would judge them and react harshly or internalize their question (as above) , now I’m more likely to make it be more about an opportunity to connect and go deeper, beyond the superficial. I want to see beyond the boxes we put between ourselves, demanding soothing labels. Often, I am surprised by the other person’s willingness to set the boxes aside, even for a moment, and enjoy the glory of exploring much more interesting and telling questions. Thank you for asking. I hope this was a helpful response. Let me know.

Kaye asked:

How did you decide on the topic for this post? What were your feelings after publishing?

Well, Ms. Kaye: I decided, like I often do, by running my mouth for a while until something tasted right coming out of it. You, and the RISE pod helped me sort out the difference between the post I thought I “should” write and the one that resonated the deepest. Translation: I hemmed and hawed and procrastinated, and had six conversations about what to write. Then, it got down to the freaking wire and I wrote it in one swoop of sweatin’ and swearin’. I posted it in the nick of time (for our deadline), and then thought, “well, that was crap.” I griped and flagellated myself over the lack of editing, worried what my mentors would think of it, sweated some more, then let it stay–because I was exhausted and I chose “done” over “perfect”. I then posted it in limited distribution, so it was technically “public”, but not in full circulation. I also (hoped and prayed) counted on the fact that the posts on my site get very little traffic. All of these coverting actions reminded me that one of my lower-vibration behaviors is to hide in plain sight. It sometimes serves me (as a protective device), and other times hinders me (I don’t get what I want or need more often than not). Thank you for asking. Let me know what you think or ask your follow up questions, please.

Sarah, the head honcho at The Writing CEO, asked:

Now that you have shed labels and come out victorious over the snarky-silent-jabbing-motives and cultural boxes that came when others asked said question, what is YOUR answer? What would you say you are?

Ahh, Sarah, you asked the ringdinger. Hmmm. I want to clarify one piece:
I disagree that I’ve shed/emerged victorious/avoided boxes. I think the question still needs challenging, so want to ask you:
That’s an interesting question; why do you ask? What do you mean by “what” am I?
Do you want to know my ethnic background?
My identity as a practitioner?
My current favorite role on the planet?
Let’s keep this conversation going–it’s deeply useful to me and I hope you’re game.


I posted this update and it caused a bit of a hubbub. What do you make of it? Do you regularly help yourself? Are you helped by others? What is the flavor of this story for you?

Here’s a snipped of what happened on Facebook: