Starting anew: is it possible to reinvent yourself?

From self-help books to, motivational speakers, Western culture is riddled with messages of identity and reinventing yourself. Individuals often want to change who they are and change how people view them, usually out of a belief that this would improve their life.

However, after speaking with anthropology professor Dr. Linda Winkler, it is clear to me that these questions of identity and reinventing yourself are more complicated than many realize.

In anthropology, identity can be defined as a complex structure of core values, roles and relationships within your culture. According to Winkler, in some sense, an individual has multiple identities that depend on the situation you are in.

How you appear in different environments to others is a key component in your identity. For example, when you are with your family, you have a distinct identity that is different from your identity at work.

Furthermore, culture shapes your understanding of who you are as a person. However, these specific components are all intertwined and affect each other.

Therefore, when you add or try to change a layer of identity, you must reconcile it with the other pieces. I look at this anthropological view of identity as a puzzle, with each piece being a unique part of who you are.

This includes your name, gender, relationships, religion, worldview and other components of culture. Dr. Winkler juggles several aspects of her identity when she completes her research in Tanzania. To those she works with she is an anthropologist, scientist, personal friend and a woman.

In some situations she encounters, it is better to emphasize her identity as a scientist and in others she prioritizes her identity as a friend and adopted community member.

Another one of the topics Winkler discussed in our conversation was how college can modify your identity. American college life is a culture, with shared experiences, rituals and values.

But, most importantly, college gives you many opportunities to add new layers as you join clubs, make friends, and complete internships and other career experiences.

Many view college as a transformative time in life and believe that you “find” yourself in college. But Winkler explains that while college is a culture and impacts your identity, it only does so if you are open to its influences and are an active participant.

If you have cemented your identity before attending college, then you might experience a level of culture shock.

In the end, reinventing yourself is better understood as adding new aspects to your existing identity. You are you and the core values, roles and relationships that make up a person cannot be completely changed.

Winkler explained that the idea that “anybody can be anybody” is simply not true.

This is not to say that a person cannot better themself and change aspects of their identity. People often try to do this by rebranding themselves, and only show certain aspects of their identity to the world and others.

Your roles as a college student, family member, friend and employee will remain even if you try to change who you are.

So, instead of reinventing yourself, immerse yourself in cultures and develop and add to your existing identity. Pick up a new hobby. Join a new club. Learn a new language. Interact with those who are different from you. And most importantly, just be true to yourself.