I’m very proud to be a citizen of the United States. It’s one of the greatest countries in the world. America is a beacon of hope for democracy and freedom for hundreds of millions of people across the globe. Our universities consistently produce ground-breaking research, and our companies drive innovation for the global economy.
Yet I’ve always been uncomfortable being labeled “American.” Though I’m very proud to be a citizen of the United States, the term feels restrictive and confining. It obliges me to identify with aspects of the United States with which I am not thrilled. For instance, while to some we may be the beacon of democracy, our own two-party political system leaves a lot to be desired. Democratic systems that permit more than two major parties can be more inclusive of minorities and lead to less extreme policy. In many respects, our current political system can feel stifling for many of its own citizens.
I have similar feelings of limitation with respect to other labels I assume. Some of these labels don’t feel completely true to who I truly am, or impose certain perspectives on me that diverge from my own..
I recently came up with a weird trick that has made me more comfortable identifying with groups or movements that resonate with me. The trick is to simply put the word “weird” before any identity category I think about.
I’m not an “American,” but a “weird American.” Once I started thinking about myself as a “weird American,” I was able to think calmly through which aspects of being American I identified with and which I did not, setting the latter aside from my identity. For example, I used the term “weird American” to describe myself when meeting a group of foreigners, and we had great conversations about what I meant and why I used the term. This subtle change enables my desire to identify with the label “American,” but allows me to separate myself from any aspects of the label I don’t support.
Beyond nationality, I’ve started using the term “weird” in front of other identity categories. For example, I teach classes at Ohio State University, in addition to running a nonprofit devoted to helping people reach their goals using science, Intentional Insights. I used to become deeply frustrated when students didn’t prepare adequately for their classes with me. No matter how hard I tried, or whatever clever tactics I deployed, some students simply didn’t care. Instead of allowing that situation to keep bothering me, I started to think of myself as a “weird professor” – one who set up an environment that helped students succeed, but didn’t feel upset and frustrated by those who failed to make the most of it.
I’ve been applying the weird trick in my personal life, too. Thinking of myself as a “weird son” makes me feel more at ease when my mother and I don’t see eye-to-eye; thinking of myself as a “weird nice guy,” rather than just a nice guy, has helped me feel confident about my decisions to be firm when the occasion calls for it.
So, why does this weird trick work? It’s rooted in strategies of reframing and distancing, two research-based methods for changing our thought frameworks. Reframing involves changing one’s framework of thinking about a topic in order to create more beneficial modes of thinking. For instance, in reframing myself as a weird nice guy, I have been able to say “no” to requests people make of me, even though my intuitive nice guy tendency tells me I should say “yes.” Distancing refers to a method of emotional management through separating oneself from an emotionally tense situation and observing it from a third-person, external perspective. Thus, if I think of myself as a weird son, I don’t have nearly as much negative emotions during conflicts with my mom. It enables me to have space for calm and sound decision-making.
Overall, using the term “weird” before any identity category has helped me gain greater agency, the quality of living life intentionally to achieve my goals. It has freed me from confinements and restrictions associated with socially-imposed identity labels and allowed me to pick and choose which aspects of these labels best serve my own interests and needs. I hope being “weird” can help you reach your own goals as well!
How weird are you? Only time will tell. Consider these questions as you explore for yourself:
• Do you think using “weird” to manage your identity can help you? Why or why not?
• Where in your life, if anywhere, can you imagine identity management setting you emotionally and mentally free?
• What specific next steps will you take after reading this article?