Personal Identity: What I Learned from Living in a City of 20 Million

Personal Identity


There are more people living in the metropolis of São Paulo, Brazil than there are in the entire New England. That is, there are more people in this one city than there are in six US states combined.

To break it down to more comprehensive levels, let me compare it to my previous home. My hometown of Newington, New Hampshire has a population of about 800 people. There are about 800 people in one apartment complex in this city. That´s about 800 people per square block.

And let me tell you, the city of São Paulo is endless.

It’s an urban jungle, built haphazardly in defiance of hills, valleys, rivers and forests. The whole city sprang up too fast, faster than anyone could anticipate or regulate, and as a result it devoured the surrounding area, churning out industry and urbanization.

It’s a dynamic, diverse and demanding environment of make-it-or-break-it attitude. It’s also absolutely intriguing. (For an inside look at the city, check out São Paulo: The Most Underrated City in the World )

In a city so large, not just in population but in sheer size and scope, we might assume that it would be very easy to feel lost, swallowed up and insignificant.

However, I found just the opposite. I discovered my personal identity.

Social Chameleons

Everyone, whether we realize it or not, tends to change their behavior and attitudes slightly depending on the audience, location, and situation.

It’s completely normal and even necessary, considering that there is a time and a place for everything. You wouldn’t talk to your boss the way you talk to your best friend, and you wouldn’t act the same on a first date as you would having lunch with your grandparents.

There are certain ways of being that are generally accepted in this day and age. Not to say that there aren’t exceptions, but I’m going to assume the majority of my readers don’t go to clubs on official business or talk about relationship history with their elders.

Even though it’s completely natural to orient ourselves differently depending on the situation, we can tend to overdo it. I know I’m guilty of this, what I call The Social Chameleon. Here’s the situation:

You just landed a new job, and it’s your first day. You start talking to the guy in the desk next to yours, and you quickly find out that he’s avidly into politics. He starts asking you what you think about recent goings-on in the political scene, and you find yourself caught up in what he’s saying. You never really cared much one way or another when it came to politics, but suddenly you’re nodding along with his passionate convictions about the woman’s rights movement and gay marriage. He starts to think you’re actually really politically involved too, and invites you to come to a rally the following weekend. You say yes because you don’t want to look bad on your first day, but you suddenly realize your mistake. You’d much rather be taking a yoga seminar or a cooking class this weekend than attend a political rally, ick. So why did you pretend to be interested?

The truth is that we do this all the time, and most of times we don’t even realize it. If you don’t believe me, consider: do you ever feel like you tend to act a little differently when you’re with different friend groups?

We all know someone that tries too hard to fit in, a quality we usually associate with being “superficial” or “fake” and seen as a negative quality. I mean, it can be tiring to be around someone who doesn’t manifest a personality or personal identity of their own, because what do they have to offer?

When I lived in my hometown of 800, I used to have the “people pleasing” attitude. Whatever situation I was in, I made sure to behave in a way that would make me seem the most likeable and admired to the people around me.

Instead of asking myself what I really thought or felt about the situation, I based my actions on what the audience and situation expected or would appreciate.

I didn’t really give myself the opportunity to discover myself.

When I moved to Brazil this past summer, however, my whole mentality changed. I was no longer living in a place where the whole town knew if I so much as left a candy wrapper on the sidewalk and everyone knew each other’s first names.

I was now just one drop in an entire ocean, a feeling that I found to be a HUGE RELIEF.

I no longer had to put on any façades; I no longer had to pretend that I liked something when I didn’t, or say things just to please other people. I knew that if I went to the same bar every weekend I wouldn’t ever see the same people twice.

This allowed me to start separating my actions and mindsets into those that were genuinely ME and those that were not.

It also allowed me to start surrounding myself with only people that I felt a genuine connection with, not out of convenience or lack of options.

Of course, not everyone has the opportunity or even the desire to make such a drastic change as I did, but you can start working towards this self-liberating mindset no matter where you are or what your situation is.

First, ask yourself “What do I want? How do I feel about this? What is my perspective?”

Start thinking and acting around others in the same way that you would if you were alone. If you are constantly checking yourself with these reminders, you will start to notice the differences between your own behavior and that of the people around you.

Second, you have to free yourself of the expectations of others.

Shake off any guilt you might feel as a result of not conforming to the person they want you to be, whether they are your acquaintances, coworkers, friends or family.

Don’t be afraid to disagree or pose another opinion; don’t shy away from conflict. People will respect you more for being true to yourself and being original than just agreeing with everything that they say.

Lastly, be ready to challenge your own beliefs.

Don’t think that just because you think a certain way today that you won’t change your mind about the topic in the future. Always be open to listen to new sides and opinions, and decide for yourself what you feel is truest to YOU.

Remember that humans are dynamic, and just as you will change over time, so will your views.


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