What’s In a Name? – The Power of Changing Your Name

An assortment of sticky notes in the background have various names written on them. In the foreground, text reads: What's in a name? The Power of changing your name.

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Have you ever thought about changing your name?

(photo via my personal Instagram, @rileycastiel)

Hi, I’m Riley. That’s not what it says on my original birth certificate, but that’s my name. I swapped my birth name for a more fitting moniker back in 2015, and it’s one of the best things I’ve done for my own self care.

My birth name used to bother me so much, I couldn’t stand to hear it. I struggled to get a job in my late teens because I loathed having to write down my birth name on applications.

As a nonbinary person who typically prefers to present more masculine or androgynous, my very stereotypically feminine birth name, Grace, always led to my being misgendered.

But that’s not the only reason I hated my birth name.

It never felt like me.

I can’t tell you how many times I said, “I hate my name,” growing up.

As a kid raised in religious circles, it wasn’t uncommon for me to meet people named Grace. And it always seemed right for them. But for me, it never fit.

I felt like an imposter, and would often try to come up with nicknames, like Ace, or something entirely unrelated, like Star (hey, I was 9, leave Little Me alone). But they never stuck.

I endured the name Grace for 20 years, but not without a severe amount of discomfort.

When I realized I was trans, I finally gave myself permission to choose a new name.

But you don’t have to be trans to justify changing your name.

Should You Change Your Name?

If you’re asking “Should I change my name?”, it sounds like there’s already some part of you that wants to change your name.

A name is such a personal thing. No matter where you are on your journey of self-discovery, your name is always there. You probably hear it or see it daily.

If it doesn’t feel like you, your name can be the source of a lot of discomfort, or even distress.

Maybe you’re trans and you need a name that better affirms your gender. Maybe you’re reclaiming yourself after a toxic relationship or experience and want a fresh start with a new name. Or, like me, maybe you just never felt like your name was meant for you.

Whatever your reasons for wanting to change your name, it’s so worth it to find one that “clicks”.

You have but one life to live. Do you really want to spend the rest of your life being called something that doesn’t feel like you?

The Struggles of Renaming Yourself

Changing your name isn’t easy.

Even if you don’t want to legally change your name (more on that later), the process of choosing and going by a new name can be daunting!

There are a lot of variables that can put people off changing their name, even if deep down they really want to.

What if people don’t accept it? What if your family and friends refuse to call you by anything else?

I waited quite a while after deciding on the name Riley to actually start using it. And even then, I only used it in online circles and with close friends.

When I did finally tell my family that I was changing my name, I got split reactions.

My dad and his side of the family were supportive from the beginning! Bless them.

All of my friends were quick to start using my new name, and happily left my birth name behind.

My mom? Still doesn’t call me Riley. That’s one of the many reasons why we don’t talk anymore.

If you choose to change your name, you’re going to have to be ready for the possibility of some heartache.

But in the end, I believe that anyone who truly loves and accepts you will make the effort to respect your choice. And if they don’t? You might want to consider whether they’re truly worth having in your life.

What if you decide you don’t like your new name and have to tell everyone that, oops, you actually don’t want to be called that!? Back to square one!

And that’s alright!

Hey, you don’t owe that sort of consistency to anyone.

Life is all about changing and growing into the version of yourself that makes you feel the best!

If you use a new name for a few months, and end up gravitating toward a different one, or even decide you want to go back to your old name, that’s okay!

I was going by Carter for a few weeks before I decided that Riley felt more like “me”.

Sometimes, I think I’d have preferred the name Kieren. But I’m content with Riley, and I use Kieren as a nickname in some online circles. But who knows? I might tell more people to call me Kieren a few years from now, if I end up feeling more strongly about it. Or maybe I’ll find another name I like even better!

Give yourself permission to change your mind.

A square photo with a green, white, and black color scheme. A graphic of a winding road emerges from the bottom left corner. Around it, bold text reads: Life is a winding road... Give yourself permission to change. And the bottom right corner is the instagram handle Live By Your Design, and the URL www.LiveByYourDesign.com.
And yes, that includes changing your name. As often as you need.

Society assigns too much value to being consistent with names and labels, I think.

What’s in a name, anyway? You’re still you, and if people really care about you, they’ll follow your lead on how to refer to you, even if your preference changes over time.

Now, if you’ve gotten this far, and you’re thinking you really do want to change your name, we can move on to the fun part.

How to Choose a Name For Yourself

Picking a name isn’t something to do lightly, but it can still be a fun, exciting experience.

When I decided I wanted to change my name, I made an extensive list of all the options, and eliminated them one by one until I settled on Riley.

I’ve always had a thing for names – as a fiction writer, I put a lot of thought into naming my characters. So coming up with name ideas for myself wasn’t too difficult.

If you already have a few names you like, write those down!

You can use sites like BabyNames.com, or play around with a random name generator, to get inspired.

…Then comes the actual choosing.

Here are my suggestions for some criteria in narrowing down your name search:

Pick a Name With Meaning

I chose Riley because it means “courageous” or “valiant”, and I found that empowering. Nothing like a good, strong new name to give you a confidence boost!

What do you want your name to mean?

Should it represent some aspect of your personality somehow?

Do you want it to have a spiritual meaning?

Or a reference to something you love – like maybe a favorite movie or musician?

Look up the meaning of each name you’re considering, and decide whether it feels right for you.

Pick a Name That Sounds Right

There were a lot of names I initially considered, but half of them didn’t sound right.

I would try saying the name while looking in the mirror, and I felt like it didn’t fit my face.

“My name is Peter… I’m Peter… Hi, Peter! Hmm…”

Or it would sound like me, but didn’t roll off the tongue when combined with my last name.

Say the names you’ve been considering out loud, and evaluate them one by one.

How does it sound with your last name?

If you’re keeping your old middle name, does it sound right with that?

What other middle names would sound best with it?

A Note on Middle Names: You can use a runner-up on your list as a middle name! If you can’t decide between two names, see if they sound right together as first and middle names.

Pick a Name With Nicknames You Like

Do you want a nickname based on your new name?

One of my more minor complaints about my birth name was the lack of nicknames available for it. Ace never stuck, and Gracie made me sick to my stomach.

Part of the reason I chose the name Riley was the opportunity to go by Riles, which I always thought was a cute nickname.

Think of the nicknames than might come along with some of the names you’re considering, and decide how important those are to you.

If you don’t want a nickname at all, consider this when choosing a name. For example, if you like the name Jeremiah but don’t want people calling you Jerry, you might want to scratch that one off your list.

OR! Straight up tell people not to call you that. Your name, your rules.

Pick a Name at Random

Can’t decide? Try writing all your ideas on pieces of paper, shuffle them in a pile, and pull one out without looking.

If it feels right, go with that one.

Or maybe you’ll realize which name you’re hoping for as soon as you reach for the paper.

It’s like flipping a coin to make a decision; sometimes doing so can help you realize what you actually want while you’re waiting for the penny to drop.

Still Not Sure? Try It On!

You don’t have to decide on a new one the moment you realize you want to change your name.

Take your time, and feel it out.

If you think you like a certain name, experiment with it for a bit.

You can try on a new name by:

  • giving it to baristas when you order a drink
  • filling out fake profiles (for private use–I’m not advocating catfishing, here)
  • asking a trusted friend or two to use it with you
  • greeting yourself every time you look in the mirror (“Hi, Riley!”)
  • writing down your potential new signature in your journal

Plenty of websites where you have to create a profile will allow you to change your display name. Try that! Just seeing the name next to your posts or profile picture might help you decide if it’s right for you.

What to Do Once You’ve Chosen a New Name

You’ve done your research, you’ve tried on some new names and finally settled on one.

Now what?

Well, that’s up to you.

Transitioning to a new name is such a personal experience, there is no One Size Fits All method.

It’s like coming out; only you can decide how and when you do it.

Some things you might do when changing your name are:

  • telling friends and family about your new name
  • changing your name with your employer and/or school
  • introducing yourself as your new name when you meet new people
  • legally changing your name – here is a guide on how to change your name legally in the US

Changing Your Name Might Feel Weird At First

When I first started going by Riley, it felt almost surreal. It was definitely the right decision for me, but after two decades of being called one thing, suddenly being called another was a strange feeling!

Don’t panic if you start going by your new name and get a weird feeling when you hear it.

It’s new! It’s going to be a bit of an adjustment.

Change always takes some getting used to, even if it’s a change you wanted.

Be You, Boldly

If you’re seriously thinking about changing your name, I wish you the best on your journey – no matter what you decide.

You deserve a name that makes you feel empowered and at home with yourself.

And remember, no matter what name you go by, you’re amazing.

Sincerely,

Signature of the name Riley
Riley, he/they pronouns

Changing your name can be hard. If you find yourself stressed, here are some self love affirmations to strengthen your spirit.

Want to get to know yourself better? Check out this how-to guide for self discovery!


If you were going to change your name, what would be on your top five list of name ideas? Drop ’em in the comments below!!

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