How do you feel about the idea of ‘performing identity’?
For many people, performance is associated with ‘faking it’, ‘inauthenticity’ or even, ‘drama’. It can feel jarring to consider identity as performance.
And yet how many of us have a distinct feeling of ‘masking’ when with other people, especially people we feel won’t understand or accept the less predictable elements of us?
My hand is up.
I have a tendency to slip into particular ‘characters’ that have eased social interactions in the past – I play the fool, the quiet watcher, the intellectual, the mum… and in each role I’m reading my audience. Have they bought into my performance?
When I was studying identity at university, especially the ways in which it is socially constructed (see Goffman for a lot of my inspiration), I was intrigued by the tension observed between the performance of my Self EXPECTED by others, and the times when I CHOSE to write my own performance.
There is something very empowering about entering a room, a conversation, a relationship, with some notion of the identity you are wanting to communicate, to perform. This is THE performance – the Real One – the truth of the Self.
And there is something very wounding if our performance is misunderstood, disbelieved, or even rejected as implausible.
Enter, the props.
On a stage, props are used to back up the story being performed. A character tells us he is a pirate and we believe him all the more when he appears in pirate hat, eye patch and wielding a cutlass. The props ‘prop up’ his performance, his identity, and make sense of the story he is telling about himself.
Identity props serve the same function for our identity performances – and are critical elements of successful communication of self to others.
An identity prop is anything that connects you to your story with either its presence or by the way it allows you to ‘do’ your identity. The way we decorate our homes can act as a nod to who we are and where we have come from. The languages we speak, the foods we cook, the hobbies we love, the plants we scatter around our garden, the incense we burn… all are opportunities to intentionally communicate our stories.
Identity props are a way of bringing forward experiences that mattered to us in the past, at other times, in other places. We gather them in, finding avenues for their expression in the ongoing adventure that is Identity.
Losing our props
Some of us have lost props along the way. I have lost languages, relationships, memorabilia, collections of ornaments, photos, gardens, hobbies, access to the foods I love. Because of the symbiotic relationship of many props with the place they are ‘from’, it’s natural to feel that moving away from that place means we lose the prop. Which is one reason so many of us feel so scattered; we’ve left parts of ourselves in so many places.
Yet one of the wonders of the identity prop is that it can be reinvented, rediscovered, resurrected. Don’t misunderstand me, loss is loss and much of what we lose can never be restored. We honour that, we grieve it. But then we find ways to continue to acknowledge the significance of that loss in our daily lives. When we lose a loved one, we grieve, we mourn. And then we put up pictures, visit places of memory, light candles and create rituals that help us honour them. In this way, we bring the relationships of our past into our present, and make space for them in our futures too.
Identity props offer this opportunity to bring the significant experiences of our past into our present and future chapters. Performing identity is DOING identity. We can take classes in languages we have lost. We can scour the internet for recipes we thought were out of reach. We buy plants that remind us of distant childhoods.
Performing identity as connection
In using identity props we both honour our own stories but also offer a mechanism for better communicating our stories to the people around us too (more here about the importance of telling our stories). We share food from our stories, we invite people into our homes full of art from our host countries, and we share of our selves with them.
And this is the beauty of performance for me. It is no fakery. Rather, it is truth communicated on such a universal level that the complexity and subtlety of the story connects, rather than alienates. But it really helps when WE are writing our own script.
I love this — it captures and explains everything I’ve ever felt about my identity as an expat and a repat. Now I’m about to do a deep dive into Goffman to learn more. Thanks, Rachel!
Wow, I’m so glad this post resonated so much – and that Goffman has caught your interest! Thank you for reading and for such lovely feedback too.
Thank you for this – I read it while taking a pause from writing to my children about being ‘stage manager ‘. I have decided to stop being stage manager for the family – it was exhausting and I was almost lost. Thanks to your post I see that performance is much more authentic and powerful and all the characters ( in my family – including me !) can define Ourselves our way. Very empowering
This is amazing – timing, eh? So glad this was so empowering for you and so glad that you are feeling able to perform much more as YOU! Wonderful. Thank you so much for reading and commenting.
At the moment I am examining my relationship with control, panic and loss. And reading this, I think I need to include the exploration of identity props as part of this. I am not a “stuff” person; I like to be nimble and used to pride myself on owning only what I could fit in one easily carried box, and later one car. But I find myself surrounded by ornaments, clothes, furniture and books that I didn’t choose, that were given to me by other people. I keep them because getting rid of them would feel like I was rejecting that person’s idea of who I am.
I’m thinking maybe I need to try sorting them into identity categories, and making some
mindful choices about which identities I want to keep.
This makes so much sense – many of us actively work to disengage with ‘stuff’, but I wonder how much that is to do with our deep experiences of loss there. And does it leave a void that gets filled with other people’s ‘stuff’, as you identify? Taking that space back, and mindfully engaging with what surrounds you sounds like a wonderful plan. And very empowering.