All people are made up of many different selves—offspring, sibling, employee, friend, significant other, pet owner, cousin, neighbor, you get the picture. How you interact with the people in each of your relationships springs from your personal identity in each one. So, what is personal identity? What does personal identity do? Can personal identity be lost or stolen? What if I don’t know what my self-identity is? Can I develop a new self-identity?
What Is Personal Identity?
Personal identity is the integration of your lived experiences and how you interpreted them. The whole of your life—mentally, psychologically, emotionally, and spiritually—is affected. It evolves as your roles change and as you acquire wisdom from the lessons you learn from your time with others. Physical responses demonstrate your emotional interpretation of each incidence. In every one of the relationships above, you respond to a different set of beliefs, rules, and expectations. What you share freely with one person or group may be a carefully protected secret with someone else. External characteristics—things you cannot change—determine a different kind of identity. Race. Height. Eye color. Shoe size. Disability. Age. Upbringing. To name a few.
What Does Personal Identity Do?
Personal identity is your value monitor. It informs your decisions about with whom you will let into your life, how long you will tolerate bad relationships, how you feel about yourself, what salary you expect, what you eat, and other standards important to you. Personal identity is the You that shows up in all the circumstances of your life.
Everyone seeks out others with similar beliefs, interests, professions, and abilities. When you are with people with whom you resonate, you have a comfort level that allows you to communicate effectively. You know how to behave and whether you have enough autonomy in the relationship to speak up. New or guarded relationships, such as what can happen in work, school, or social contexts, alert your mind to a certain level of conformity and the consequences of violation. Over time, these instances either mature into interactions in which you know how to respond, or they were seldom, and you decided not to do that ever again. And everything in between as you have myriad new encounters throughout your day.
Can Personal Identity Be Lost or Stolen?
Personal identity is fragile and can be upended, damaged, destroyed, or stolen. This happens when others take away something valuable to you, resulting in emotional distress. This kind of identity loss often requires professional help. Identity loss may also happen with major life changes—new baby, empty nest, breakup of a relationship, loss of employment, retirement, aging, loss of a significant other through death, life-changing health concerns, etc. Even when you prepare for these events, the actual incident may send you into a tailspin.
What If I Don’t Know What My Self-Identity Is?
If others have dictated your life, determining your definition of yourself is a rocky journey. Getting out of someone else’s definition of you is hard. You may have ingrained their messages about you—possibly reinforced by others—to the point you feel shame and guilt that you cannot be who they want. So, you redouble your efforts but always seem to be just out of reach of their satisfaction. When the problem is over, you may look in the mirror and see a face you do not recognize.
Being yourself while “fitting in” is a matter of balance. While you must learn how to coexist with others, too much of others defining you can be exhausting and demoralizing. Everyone has an opinion of how you should live. Much of the information is contradictory or just plain not true about you. You become a composite of all the people others want you to be rather than who you want to be.
How Can I Develop a Self-Identity?
Defining yourself on your terms requires dedication, diligence, patience, and practice, lots of practice. Reclaiming your personal identity may feel daunting. Using your journal, ask the following core questions.
- What is important to me?
- What do I like? Dislike?
- What am I good at? Not good at?
Think about the answer to each question in terms of, “Is this really what I want or is this what X wants?” “What do I want?” Spend some focused time with each question. Other questions will most likely arise. If your mind wanders to, “What will X think if I do this?,” gently return your focus to what you want. Then, think of ways to honor your values, interests, abilities, and temperament. You will get closer and closer to writing your self-identity and gaining confidence to self-advocate. Remember, “No,” and “Yes,” are complete sentences and personal rights.
Knowing your self-identity is empowering. You live with more authenticity and cultivate happier relationships. Courage and strength nudge you to let your authentic Self shine through from deep within you. Learning your values, interests, and levels of tolerance helps you balance your interactions with others. Shedding the definitions others have of you is as exhilarating as it is challenging. And, so worth every minute you dedicate to yourself. You learn what you value and with whom you want to spend your life and which endeavors you want to pursue. You step out of other people’s fantasies of you and into the reality of you. You have your life just as others have theirs. There always will be people who assign themselves the authority over other people’s lives. You can be who you are and live your life with integrity.
Billie Wade, a lifelong journaler, believes people are precious, sacred, resilient, and stronger than they know. She created Journaling to Heal, LLC which helps people discover the power of writing in their process of recovery from emotional stress and trauma. Visit her at www.billiewade.com and find more of her writing on www.dmpcc.org/billie where she writes a monthly newsletter column for Des Moines Pastoral Counseling Center.