Hi, and welcome to another episode of “Becca talks about her mental illness as excuses for being a failure.” Today’s topic: identity.
How do you define yourself? Who are you?
Do you use your gender, your sexual preference, your job, your interests, or things like personality characteristics? What makes you unique? What makes you different?
What about when you talk to yourself, saying things like, “I’m fun,” or “I’m lazy”, or “I am not good at anything”?
We all go through periods of change in our identities, but there is a lot more to it than that.
Identity is usually defined as the qualities, beliefs, aspects of personality, and things that make up a person. Personal identity relates to self-image (your idea of yourself), self-esteem, and individuality. A person’s identity is shaped by many different aspects: family, culture, friends, personal interests and surrounding environments.
To me, identity is an ever-evolving core within us, where our genetics, culture, loved ones, those we care for, people who have harmed us / people we have harmed, things we’ve done (both good and bad) to ourselves and others, experiences, and choices made come together to form who we are at this.
So basically, your identity is kinda like how you present yourself right now + you in the past + what you aspire to be in the future.
Like a lot of people in their late-20s and early-30s, I am at a stage where I am struggling to figure out “who I am” and my idea of self. You might be feeling similarly and a different age, and that’s fine.
When people say “tell me about yourself,” I’m at a loss for words. I’m a woman living in Seattle. I’m married to a really cool dude. I’m a writer, I guess. I… uh, yeah. That’s usually where I stop.
I’m in a transitional phase between careers, from being a girlfriend to a wife, from a young adult to a real, fully-functionally adult. Hell, I even changed my name!
IDK, am I having an identity crisis?
Am I struggling to “find myself”?
Sometimes it feels like I have no idea who I am, where I belong or where I want to go. Since I stopped working full-time, I withdrew from normal life, not taking action or doing as much as I used to. Sometimes it’s hard to make choices about my future when I don’t even know what I’m doing right now.
At various times in my life, my answers would change, sometimes based on what community activity I was into at the time, which is common in identity formation; I’d say things like “I go to hardcore punk shows” or “I work in fashion” or “I’m Jewish” or “I play tennis/soccer/lift weights”. All of those things are a part of me, or were a part of me at some time in my life.
Everyone has many, many parts that make up their identity. Psychologists and sociologists like Sigmund Freud and Erik Erickson argued about this for years, but I’m not a doctor… just a gal with a lot of ideas.
I think this is something a lot of people could relate to, so I’m gonna talk about it.
On Tuesday, I went to my every-two-weeks appointment with my doctor/psychologist, where we got into a lengthy discussion about “Who I Am” and it really struck a chord with me.
I was in the midst of talking about how depression/PTSD is affecting me right now when I said “I’m lazy.” My doctor cut me off, asking, “Lazy? What makes you lazy? How much of you is lazy, if you had to rate it in a percentage form from 1 to 100%?”
I thought for a second, confused at his question. “I don’t know, maybe like 2%. I’m not lazy, actually. I’ve always been someone that ‘burns the candle at both ends.’ I just feel overwhelmed by my thoughts right now, and it’s stopping me from doing things.”
“Exactly. I think you’re attributing some of your symptoms as a part of who you are instead of symptoms of depression or PTSD. You are not lazy, you have depression. You are not crazy, you have post-traumatic stress disorder.”
So… wait. What?
Where do these “diagnoses” end and where do I begin? Where do my interests stop and where do I begin?
Am I using diagnoses as excuses for my short-comings as a person? What if I’m not actually a super messy person and it’s just a lifetime of major depressive disorder getting in my way? Is that an excuse? I don’t know.
He kept pushing at this concept and asked what other beliefs I have that might not be true.
So.. I kept thinking about the list of things I believe about myself versus reality, so I suggested we make a pie chart… about my identity.
My doctor loved this idea and sprung up to his white board. He excitedly wrote “Who Am I?” on his white board and drew a lopsided circle for us to fill in with allllll the different aspects of “who I am.” Kinda like this:
“Who am I? That’s a secret I’ll never tell.”
My doctor said, “Here we go. Who are you?”
I laughed, “An empty circle. That’s how I feel right now.” I made my doctor laugh. Do I get extra credit for that?
My doctor and I started by listing a few things I thought about myself and tried to rank them. We started out by trying to use percentages to make a pie, but that failed miserably, so I said “I’m X, more than Y but less than Z.”
Who Am I?
I’m a wife, I see that as a big part of my identity.
I’m a sister, and a daughter. It’s a big part of my identity too, but not as much as being a wife.
Fibromyalgia. I’m not sure … I feel like that’s a big part of how I view myself, but not as much as being a wife.
Mental Illness, PTSD, anxiety, depression, blah blah. Yeah. That. About the same as Fibro.
I’m Creative. I’m a writer. I’m a designer. I’m more Creative than I am Fibromyalgia.
I’m Caring/Compassionate. I care a lot. I aspire to be inspirational. I feel like that’s a big part of me, but not that big.
That was as far as I could go. The other pie slices were left empty. I stare at them like they’re knives.
And then he asked me, “What about healthy? Do you consider yourself to be a healthy person?”
I hesitated to answer. Nervous laughter. I fidget when I’m uncomfortable, but I can’t just change the subject, so I started to answer: “Well… I don’t know. I guess it depends how you define healthy. I can walk. I can talk. All of my senses work. I’m here. All of my blood work/MRI/etc. test results came back normal… So, based on those things, yeah, I am healthy. But I don’t feel healthy.”
My doctor looked at me, “So, that part of you is a challenge. You may have PTSD and battle with Chronic Pain, and several other diagnoses, but that doesn’t mean that’s who you are.”
Me: …… oh fuck ……..
My doctor kept pushing, as he does, “What about happy/calm? I believe you have some of that in you. What about strong?”
Yeah, I guess I’m happy sometimes. I guess I’m calm sometimes too. Strong, yes. Definitely strong. I might not be physically strong; emotionally, I’m a fucking warrior.
What we discovered, is that I have a lot of beliefs about myself that aren’t exactly true.
A light bulb went off: what if I challenge those beliefs and turn them around into something better?
I kept thinking about this on the way home.
What if we recognize and accept that we are all A LOT of different things? We don’t need to be just one or two things. Everyone is complicated. Maybe everyone struggles with identity and how to define ourselves.
What my psychologist suggested is that I challenge my false beliefs about who I am, and turn those into positive beliefs.
I know struggle a lot with this. I struggle a lot with who I am. I question myself constantly. I’ve struggled with seeing the positive side of things for my whole life.
But maybe instead of seeing myself as a “bad friend because I’ve been flaking on coffee with friends,” what if I say something like: “I’m a compassionate person who cares about other people’s feelings”? Instead of saying “I am a person with Fibromyalgia,” what if I say “I’m strong. I am full of life and I want to explore the world without limits.”
How can we use this concept of identifying our distorted thoughts and beliefs to turn them into something better and more productive?
From what I understand (as a non-mental health professional), this is the foundation of cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). CBT attempts to change dysfunctional emotions, behaviors, and thoughts by identifying our distorted thoughts and beliefs, so we can have better control over thoughts, thus better control over our feelings and emotional responses. I’m into that.
But still—I refer back to my original question:
How do you define yourself? How the hell are we supposed to accurately articulate who we are, in real life, (or online)?
I’ve been working in branding and marketing for nearly 10 years, and after writing this, I see a connection and something that could be a good starting point for answering these questions.
I’m sure you’ve heard the world branding before. In order to build a brand, a company has to make a bunch of decisions about who and what they are.
Building a brand is similar to building your identity.
Your personal brand (or identity) is the combination of skills and experiences that make you, you.
There are two steps in the brand creation process that I find particularly relevant to personal identity: defining your mission and defining your value proposition.
Your mission is the purpose of your existence. What are you driven by?
Your value proposition is what makes you unique. What sets you apart from other people?
There’s an old proverb that says, “life isn’t about finding yourself, it’s about creating yourself.”
So, who are you?
If you want, I made this chart for you to fill in along with me. I added some lines to this version to split up the parts that you think are “more” a part of you than others. I’m going to use the small parts on the outside to list the peripheral parts, not-so-big parts of who I am. There’s no wrong answer to this, I just think it could be a fun exercise for someone other than me.
I absolutely love this article. I practice CBT and live in the now. Thank you for making me feel normal and not crazy. We all are fighting battles within. Please continue to write articles. I will complete the pie chart.
I love reading your articles. I’m 67 and having my own issues with life, marriage, health and blah blah, I could go on, but you make me think, which is good. Sometimes I have to stop, take a breath and I will be ok. I’m still trying to figure life out, it should get easier as we get older, but doesn’t always work out the way you want. Thank you for making me think!