Who decides who you are?

Since you were born, you have been given names by others.  Photo by Valeria Zoncoll on Unsplash

Ever since you were born, others have been deciding what to call you.

When you were in the womb, you may have been called Baby.  When you came out, you may have been called Darling or Little One.  Later, your carers perhaps gave you a name of significance to them.  At school, some teachers may have used your surname to mark distance and respect.  Others may have used your first name to mark familiarity and informality.  In adulthood you might be called by a role.  You become Sergeant, Auntie, Granny, Sir, Madam – others will place you where they want you.  You will become Darling to some.  You may become Idiot to your political or social opponents.

The plethora of names may sometimes confuse you.  You may be intimidated by formal address, but perhaps also by informal address.  You will be sensitive to the context, the other person, and what they might mean by the name they have chosen.


At various points in your life, you will be given an opportunity to name yourself.  This can be a very significant moment.  Imagine a Buddhist monk taking on a new name as a sign of taking on a big commitment.  Imagine a victim of bullying deciding to insist on what they are called.  It could be a request for a particular gender pronoun.  It could be a request that others use a name you wish to adopt.

Whatever the context, it is often a very significant time in the life of the named one. After all, we are surrounded by our names; they come at us all day… Sir, Madam, Fred, Anna, Mohammed, Chicken, Treasure, Ginger, Teacher, Oy You…  Requesting a change can be a very nerve-wracking moment.


Often, though, the change marks a transition involving respect, or some changing aspect of relationships.  For instance, my mother became called Granny by me in the presence of my children.  It was partly an act of empathy, and partly an act of family consolidation.  When alone with my mother, I may revert to Mum.

At one point, one of my sons decided to call me by my first name.  It was strange, going out and about and being referred to like that.  Third parties must have assumed that I was not a father, but a friend.  I went with it, because I assumed that it was important to him in some way.  When he was ready, he reverted to Papa.  Even this was significant, as he had called me Daddy before.

Meanings can change as a signal of many things:

  • Age and stage – what are you becoming?
  • Relationship – how does the namer see the relationship, and how much power does the named have?
  • Social structure – how does society define the roles we have to play, and push us into set terms?

Have a think, if you want to, about what all your names are.  Maybe, one day, write them down.  Collect all the different terms people use over a week to define who you are.

Then I would ask you one thing: what would you like to be called, and why?  What is it about your preferred names that grabs you, and adds to your contentment?

My guess is that your favourite names will mark your place in a world of intimacy, importance, respect, familiarity, love, caring and kindness.

Then maybe have a think about whether you feel you have the right to ask others to call you by a preferred name.  How would it feel to stand tall and say ‘Please call me xxxxx.  I prefer it.’



Throughout your life, you have been given names.  They emerged from social roles, relationships, confrontations, friendships, family trees.

You can choose a new or preferred name.  Such a moment of choice can mark a profound transition.