The Grammar of Identity

personal development Jul 21, 2021
scrabble tiles spelling who are you

The last time I wrote about identity, I addressed the perils of clinging to identity narratives. Today, I wonder if rethinking the grammar of identity might promote a healthier and more holistic way to think about who you are while holding space for who you aspire to be.

We most often name our identities as nouns. Asked to describe who I am, I might respond, "I'm a father," or "I'm a freelancer," or "I'm a writer," or "I'm an older, straight, white, privileged man," etc. 

There's nothing inherently wrong with this kind of naming. Announcing our identity as nouns can help us step into and own an identity and create a space where others feel empowered to do the same. And yet, the downside of noun-naming identity is that we tend to see a person as objectified and fixed once named this way.

However, as the mathematician, Alfred Korzybski eloquently stated, "The map is not the territory."

In other words, the description of someone is not the person themself. More importantly, this kind of naming doesn't hold space for the potential of someone's becoming.

Perhaps a more helpful framing for how we name and embrace identity comes from an unlikely source?

"The fact is I think I am a verb instead of a personal pronoun. A verb is anything that signifies to be; to do; to suffer. I signify all three." ― Ulysses S. Grant

Whatever your opinion is of Grant, the insight is poignant (he was dying of throat cancer at the time) and compelling. In his dying, Grant saw himself not as a thing but a work in process (albeit a process of transitioning from the conscious corporeal world to another).

A more pacifist figure, R. Buckminster Fuller, paraphrased Grant this way.

"I live on Earth at the present, and I don't know what I am. I know that I am not a category. I am not a thing - a noun. I seem to be a verb, an evolutionary process - an integral function of the universe." R. Buckminster Fuller, I Seem to Be a Verb

Identifying as nouns has its place, for sure, and thinking about identity as present tense verbs can help us avoid seeing ourselves and others as commodities. Identifying as verbs helps us see shared activities and make deeper connections that lie beyond the categories imposed by nouns.

Applying this approach to myself, I might reframe the identifiers I shared above with "I love," or "I coach," or "I write," or "I live." Naming identity as present tense verbs doesn't box me into one fixed identity. It expresses what I, a fully integrated and whole human being, happen to be doing right now.

What happens if you drop your identity nouns and pronouns just for today? How might identifying as verbs help you be less trapped by labels and instead be a more dynamic and active agent in pursuit of being and doing better?


Scott Perry, Difference-Maker Coach at Creative on Purpose.

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