“They say a name expresses the thing it stands for, but I wonder if it isn’t the other way around—the thing gets more and more like its name.” Haruki Murakami
“What’s in a name?” asked Shakespeare. Recently the top most popular baby names in the U.K were released (Oliver and Olivia in case you’re interested) and it got me thinking about names in general. Can your name influence who you are?
I must declare that I have a personal interest in names given my surname, being Chick, is slightly unusual (and at times comical) and has posed some challenges for me through the years.
For example I’ve come across clients who have changed their surnames to distance themselves from their past, often selecting new names to represent a desired quality or state of being. Or clients who debate whether to revert to their previous names post divorce. I’ve also come across clients who have accumulated multiple names through all their many migrations and how these numerous identities seem to echo a somewhat fragile and fragmented sense of self. Our name represents a part of our identity and often we are unconscious to the way we negotiate our ultimate label.
Richard Wiseman (a wise man so to speak!), a professor of psychology at the University of Hertfordshire explains that “Your name can influence the assumptions that other people make about your character and background, and thus the chances you are given in life.” Your name can become a self- fulfilling prophecy, i.e. I am Mr Wiseman, therefore I exhibit qualities of a wise man. The latin proverb “Nomen est omen” embodies this situation, meaning the name befits the person (nominative determinism is its modern day equivalent). There are lots of examples (including some ironic ones), here are just a few:
- Singer Bill Medley
- Golfer Tiger Woods
- Sprinter Usain Bolt
- Race car driver Scott Speed
- Poet William Wordsworth
- White House press secretary Larry Speakes
- pain relief expert Dr Richard Payne
When you become aware of names, it’s quite amazing the number of examples of “Nomen est omen” you can uncover.
Reading a recent article about the white supremacy marches in Charlottesville over Summer, it did not surprise me that one of the young white men who marched was called Mr Fears. Fear for me absolutely sums up the unconscious processes a foot when we split ourselves between them and us. Another male marcher was called Mr Parrot. The irony of the big bird who repeats what it hears without any thought or discretion was not lost on me.
Speaking personally, I have had a turbulent relationship with my own surname, and this came to the fore recently as I qualified as a psychotherapist and was needing to put my name to my practice (be it on business cards, at conferences etc).
My first reaction, was to consider using a different surname for my therapy work. I was carrying the scars of regular playground teasing compounded by some uneccessary belittling I have received as an adult. I have always felt embarrassed and awkward about my surname often preferring to declare only my first name in interactions (as if I don’t have a surname).
Exploring my negativity towards my surname in therapy allowed my hurt and shame some much needed space. Through our exploration, I discovered that by denying my surname, I was trying to protect myself from being seen. I was in effect re-appropriating my name in a distorted way, in the sense that I had a name which was noticeable but I was trying to deny it, as a means to ensure I wasn’t noticed.
After several months of sitting with my feelings, (and with a very cute toy chick which I bought during this time), when it came to taking the first steps to change my surname, I realised my original desire had disappeared. By talking about my negative feelings with not just my therapist but also close friends and family, I essentially came out of hiding. I no longer needed to conceal a part of my identity. I finally felt ok about my name.
I’ve now started to view my surname as a gift. It’s helped me confront my fear of being truly seen and hope this will in turn enhance my work with clients. If I can find the courage to own my identity (funny name and all), then hopefully I can encourage others to do the same. People always remember us Chicks and maybe that’s not a bad thing after all!
Photo by Ian dooley on Unsplash