Ah — that blessed, belittling interrogative. The one with the power to shoot you down in a second; make a comedy of your greatest life aims in minutes; prevent you from telling anyone about your achievements for months; turn you into a person who apologizes for every accomplishment while branding it “self-deprecation” for life.
Because when someone asks you who you think you are, how do you respond?
Most likely with fear.
Fear of sounding too self-important. Fear of being “full of yourself.” Fear that if you dare stand tall and say exactly who you think you are, you will be laughed at and dismissed as a “dreamer”…
I used to fear hearing the term ‘Who do you think you are?’ or ‘You must be pretty full of yourself.’ Now, I work at being full. I want to be so full [that] I am overflowing — so when you see me coming, it ought to make you proud.– Oprah Winfrey
Here is the issue: we 21st-century citizens are conflicted by a desire to share with the world the best, proudest aspects of our lives, while not wanting to appear special or better than anyone else.
Reality check: you are not better than anyone else – nor is anyone better than you. We all came onto this planet as human beings and are therefore fundamentally equal.
However, here’s the second reality check: you are special. This much is undeniable. You have something to give that somebody else could never give, just as much as they have a gift you could never bear.
Knowing that you are special does not make you self-important; it makes you self-aware.
The good news? People are asking you who you think you are because you are daring to do/say/practice things that are perceivably bigger than yourself. This can intimidate people, because you’re exceeding whatever limits they’ve set up for you in their minds. So, for people to be asking you this dazzling compliment shrouded as an insult, who exactly do you think you are…?
Someone who no longer puts up with adequacy
You once accepted half-hearted adequacy from your peers so that peace could be kept. As long as you were doing the right job, why bother over what others are doing? It’s their business, you once thought. But now you know that, as Viola Davis once put it, “You only get better by working with people who are excellent.” If your team isn’t excellent, neither will you be — and you won’t grow.
Therefore you’re no longer afraid of conflict with those who choose to be only adequate. Naturally they’ll ask you who you think you are because it’s easier than rising to the high bars you set. Realize you are doing the right thing and continue; if you persist unapologetically towards excellence, people will either quit or come around eventually. Move forward regardless.
Someone who speaks up for what they believe in
People ask you who you think you are when you dare to voice your opinion. As a result of speaking up for your beliefs, especially if they go against the grain, you’re going to experience backlash. Nonetheless, if you are speaking for what is right – not offending others unnecessarily – then you are doing what you were sent here to do. So many people submerge their opinions – and rightly they should, if any of those attitudes target anyone based on their gender, race, sexuality, religion, or any other factor they cannot control. But if you are voicing your beliefs from a place of profound passion about something you love, or an injustice you hate, then you are on the right track.
Beware, however, that as a consequence people will ask – albeit under their breath, “Who you think you are?” Why? Because they haven’t yet found the courage in themselves to speak up for what they believe in. More often than not, they are, as Erin Elizabeth expressed it, the “people in this world that will stay quiet while surrounded by ten people talking crap about their best friend.” Draw confidence from the fact that you are not one of them.
Someone with big dreams
The inspiration for this article came from the biggest dreamer I know: Oprah Winfrey. In an interview with Brené Brown, Oprah admitted that the one shame-gremlin-message that has followed her throughout her entire career has been “Who do you think you are?” — not from herself, but rather from what was reflected to her by other people. Because as a “little black girl from Mississippi” commanding millions of dollars a year from The Oprah Winfrey Show, she surpassed every limit her ex-bosses, coworkers, family members and members of the public had set up for her.
As the people with the biggest dreams, we will always be asked who we think we are.
Why? Because we are dangerous. Because we are unafraid of failure. Because while other people may have doubts about our abilities, we never listen. We simply accept feedback where useful, reject what isn’t and then move forward. We persist. We are, in the words of Les Brown, “An uncommon breed.”
And because of this we are going to be laughed at. We are going to be mocked. We are going to be told again and again that we are setting ourselves up for lives of poverty and disappointment.
We are going to be asked repeatedly: “Who the hell do you think you are?”
And now you know what to tell them in response.