Our sense of identity versus who we really are

In my last post, I talked about the difference between guilt and shame. Today, we will look at a related topic, which is the difference between our sense of identity and our “true self.” For some reason, we humans typically have a strong need to form an identity, to know exactly “who I am.” When we are first born, or course, we have no sense of identity, but it doesn’t take long before we learn the concepts of “right” and “wrong,” and then to apply those concepts to ourselves. When we are very young, we lack the ability to distinguish between our actions and our selves. If I do a good behavior, I am rewarded, and so I think of myself as “good.” When I do a bad behavior, I am punished, and therefore I think of myself as “bad.” Eventually, I will learn to separate the concepts of my behavior and my self, although for some this task remains difficult. For the person who confuses her behavior for who she is, bad behavior will result in a sense of shame, rather than guilt, which is the more appropriate emotion.

In adolescence, the need for an identity becomes strong. During this time, we are often drawn to “cliques,” groups that have a clear identity that we can belong to and therefore establish a personal identity as a member. We might label our self as “preppie,” “goth,” “freak,” “stoner,” “nerd,” and so on, and we might try several different identities. Or maybe we find that we don’t fit into any of those groups, and so we become a “loner” or “misfit,” which can become an identity, also. We might continue to carry our chosen identity for many years, or we might shed it upon going to college or entering the workforce, but by then we will likely adopt another identity. This is especially true upon entering the workforce. We tend to identify very strongly with our job. If someone asks, “What are you?” then we typically answer by giving our profession: “I’m a teacher.” “I’m a plumber.” “I’m a computer guy.”

During our lifetimes, we will assume many roles. Son or daughter, brother, sister, student, worker, parent, grandparent, and many others as well. We might identify ourselves by these roles, but the truth is, none of these roles defines who we are. Roles come and go, and none are permanent, so how could they define the essence of us? Likewise, we might identify with other labels, such as Democrat or Republican, patriot, dissident, intellectual, outcast, connoisseur, and on and on. Or we might identify with our spiritual beliefs, or our past, or even our feelings. Many times I have heard people say, “The past makes me who I am.” I must respectfully disagree. The past may have had an impact on how you think and feel, but it did not make you who you are. I believe you were who you are from the moment you were born – or before.

Which brings us to a point, which is: It is a lot easier to define what we are not than it is to define what we are. What are we not? We are not our jobs, our past, our beliefs, our race, our nationality, our habits, our defense mechanisms, our scars, our belongings, or any role that we might inhabit over the course of our lives. So what does that leave us? How does one answer the question, “Who am I, really?” I suggest a perfectly acceptable response to that question is, “I don’t know, and that’s okay.”

Consider this scenario: Steve is a thirty-three year old single male who is having what we might call an identity crisis. He feels an overwhelming need to answer the question, “Who am I?” The fact that he has no good answer fills Steve with anxiety. One night, while lying in bed in his third-floor apartment, Steve is consumed by this question, and he cannot sleep. He feels like he is in free-fall. Suddenly, the sounds of shouting interrupts his reverie. Someone is yelling, “Fire! Get out!” He smells smoke, and from far away comes the sound of sirens, getting closer. Steve jumps out of bed and runs to his front door. He looks through the peephole and sees the hallway is engulfed in flames. There is no exit that way. He must use the rickety fire escape outside his bedroom window. Steve climbs outside onto the fire escape while the first firetrucks arrive. People are running from the building and the air is thick with smoke. Already the flames have entered his apartment. He begins the climb down, aware of the fact that the fire escape seems to be groaning and shifting under his weight. He climbs down to the second story and descends a ladder that stops about ten feet up. He has to hang from the last rung and drop the rest of the way, but he lands safely and quickly backs away from the building. Looking up, he sees flames shooting out of the window he recently climbed out of. All his belongings are being destroyed, but he got away with his life, and he has never felt so grateful to be alive.

At this point, is Steve going to say to himself, “Whew! That was close. Now, where was I? Oh, yeah: who am I? I must get back to pondering the riddle of my identity.” Not very likely! If he thinks about the question of his identity at that moment, then most likely, he will think to himself, “Who am I? Who cares? The important thing is that I’m alive!” The anxiety he felt at the question has vanished, and he realizes now that there is absolutely no danger in not being able to answer the question of who he is. He can always go back to it later if he wants, but it’s not likely to carry the same kind of urgency as before.

To sum up: If you don’t know who you are, join the club! I suspect very few people on Earth really have the answer to that question, although there are a whole bunch of people who would like to think they do. My personal belief is that, when we die, all of those questions will be answered, and I am in no hurry to find out. A more practical and pressing question might be, “What should I do?” That one is actually worth the time to figure out.



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