The simplest of life questions are also the most profound, and therefore the hardest to answer. “Who am I?” is one of those questions for which there is no easy answer, for there is no one answer.  Maybe it’s because the question of identity is not a single question, either.


Fixed or Fluid?

We change externally over the years, but underneath, are we essentially the same person? Does the saying, “A leopard can’t change its spots” mean that we don’t change our nature—even if we want to? On the other hand, Walt Whitman famously proclaimed, “I contain multitudes.” Do we have multiple aspects to our identity? If so, are we in touch with them, and can we call them forth at will?  


Towards a New Identity 

For decades, Freud’s assessment that the primary drive of humanity is the pursuit of pleasure was accepted. Enter Viktor Frankl, psychiatrist, philosopher, and notably a Holocaust survivor, who transformed our consciousness with his view that the search for meaning is the central human motivational force. And what CiWPPster could ever forget Maria Sirois’ distillation of Frankl’s philosophy into this one existential question: “Who am I—in the presence of this?”  

That presumes that we do, in fact, have a choice about our choices and behavior and can drive change. Will we rise to the occasion or wilt in defeat? Pivot or crumble? Are we kind and open, or guarded and self-protecting? Our choices inform our identity and the meaning of our lives. Or perhaps it is the other way around, and identity drives behavior. 


In the Beginning …

With the culmination of the Jewish holidays, we are about to renew the yearly cycle of the reading of the Torah, and very soon, we will read the first question in recorded history, when God asked Adam: “Where are you?” This was not a game of hide and seek; God was not asking Adam where he was, but who he was.  

Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi (the famous Chassidic rabbi known as the Alter Rebbe) explains that “Where are you?” really means, “Who are you—at this moment of your life?” In essence, God was asking Adam to consider, “Who are you now, that you want to hide from Me, your Creator?” 

And we see how in addition to meaning, the question of identity is also connected to relationships. As no man is an island, it’s fair to say that we don’t even exist except in relation to someone or something. 

At this pivotal time of the year, in which we have gone through an intense period of introspection and recommitment to growth and change, it is very auspicious to consider who and where we are now and where we want to go. Who do we want to be in this coming year? How can we understand and access our different parts and bring forth the most meaningful one to serve the moment? And how can relationships help us see those parts of ourselves that we don’t even know are there?


As part of the WBI/JCC Online Positive Psychology Hour series, Hanna will present a webinar titled “Who Am I—Really?” on October 7 at 12:00 pm. Join her to explore the complex issues of identity, with the help of a cognitive psychology tool known as Johari’s Window. We will discover what we conceal and reveal, and what the challenges of our relationships and the present moment illuminate—so that we may navigate our ongoing search for meaning with greater internal awareness. Register now.

Hanna Perlberger

A family law attorney of 20 years, Hanna is an alumni and former faculty member with WBI’s Certificate in Positive Psychology. Hanna was fascinated by the connections she saw between Positive Psychology and Judaism; but beyond those conceptual comparisons were tools Hanna thought she could use to help her connect more deeply and authentically to her observance. Judaism is great with telling you how to be, such as judging favorably or being happy with your lot, without necessarily providing the how-to so as to go about doing it.  These connections started making the Torah come alive for her in a new and personal way. Hanna started a weekly blog called “Positive Parsha,” looking at the weekly Torah portion with a Positive Psychology twist. Those blogs evolved into her book, A Year of Sacred Moments: The Soul Seeker’s Guide to Inspired Living, which leads the reader through a guided journey of the Torah. A natural alignment with CiPP is coaching, and Hanna became certified in several coaching modalities. Synthesizing all the things Hanna loves to do, she is launching the Shalom Bayit Project, to help Jewish couples and singles learn how to build the “Peaceful Home” from the ground up; and in going beyond “traditional” matters of the heart, Hanna supports individuals in cultivating inner peace, resilience, and positivity during challenging times.