Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Who Was I?/Who Am I?

Dear George,

Back when I was teaching Social Psychology, I’d always ask people to do the “Who Am I?” test on the first day of class.  This is a commonly used self-concept measure.  Individuals are given a sheet of paper with twenty numbered lines and asked to give twenty answers to the question, “Who Am I?”  The task is very open-ended to allow people to describe themselves in their own unique terms.  [Note to the reader: You might enjoy trying out the Who Am I? test before reading further.  Results are often thought-provoking.] 

While students were completing the task in class, I’d do it for myself as well.  There was typically continuity from one year to the next, and there were also meaningful changes.  Last week I was thumbing through some old files, and I ran across a copy of a Who Am I? test that I filled out in 1997.  Before looking at it, I decided to try out the measure again. 

Some parts of one’s self, of course, remain quite stable over time. When I compared my Who Am I? responses in 1997 and 2014, half of my current statements were either identical to or very similar to those I made almost two decades ago.  Most of the stable responses referred to major social roles. “Husband” and “father” were among my initial responses in 1997, and they were among the first this time too. Both times I mentioned close friendships and other family ties. I described myself each time as having grown up in my hometown of Menominee, Michigan, and I said then and now that I was a resident of Clifton, our Cincinnati neighborhood.  In 1997 I said I was “a loner”; in 2014, “a shy person”. 

People frequently make some sort of age-related statement on the Who Am I? test.  In 1997 I said, “Getting older”.  This year I simply wrote down my actual age.  I no longer think of myself as “getting older”. Either I just don’t want to think about it, or, more likely, I’ve decided I’ve already arrived.

All the rest of my 2014 responses pointed to major changes in my picture of self.  In 1997 I was working full time, and the biggest cluster of my self-references were job–related. I described myself as a “Social psychologist”; as a “College prof. at UC”; as “Teacher of this class”; as “Grumpy and dissatisfied about work these days”; and as “Someone who hasn’t accomplished his goals.”  It’s clear that work was a big chunk of my personal identity.

Having been retired for five years, my image of self now takes on a whole new flavor.  This time I made only one job-related reference, and it was in the past tense: “former social psychologist.”  In its place I put down my new role of “retired person”.  And the biggest cluster of my statements referred to activities that I’ve taken up since retiring: “blog writer”, “photo guy”, “line dancer”, “OLLI member”.  I also identified myself by a family role that I didn’t have in 1997, i.e., “grandfather”.

I’m glad I re-did the Who Am I? test.  Sometimes I get anxious about being in a rut.  The results of this exercise, though, point not only to changes over time, but to new and satisfying parts of my life.  Sometimes researchers code Who Am I? responses as positive and negative, yielding a measure of overall life satisfaction.  When I did this, 70% of my 1997 responses were positive, and 30% were negative.  For 2014, 90% were positive and 10% were negative.  It looks like life is on the upswing.  I’ve always been skeptical of the notion of “The Golden Years.”  However, my “Who Am I?” portrait nowadays is more “golden” than I anticipated.

G-mail Comments
-Vicki L (1-29): Hi D,
I guess my first response would be "I'm jealous". Thing is, the scorers would misinterpret this as a 'negative' response. But being jealous of your relative contentment is actually a 'plus' for me - my growing capacity to feel uncomfortable feelings! I don't know....  Meantime, your blog was very interesting and entertaining. So far in my life, I've never been willing to openly take a shot at the question: "Who Are You"?.  We'll talk further in the gazebo. Love, Sis  
 -Ami G (1-28):  What is an Olli member?
-David L to Ami (1-29):  Osher Lifelong Learning Institutes (courses for people over 50 at the university).  

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