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“Who am I?” The answer to life’s most defining question

“Who am I?”

How many times have you asked yourself this question?

How many times have you questioned why you’re supposed to be on this earth?

How many times have you questioned your very existence?

For me, the answer is countless times. 

And the question itself makes me ask more questions: can I ever know who I am? Why do I need to know who I am? Will any answer ever satisfy me?

When these questions overwhelm me, I find myself inspired by this quote by Indian sage,  Ramana Maharshi:

“The question, ‘who am I?’ is not really meant to get an answer, the question ‘who am I?’ is meant to dissolve the questioner.”

Whoa. Dissolve the questioner. What does that even mean?

How can dissolving my identity help me figure out who I am?

Let’s try and find out.

Who am I = what is my identity?

The “answer” to “who am I” is our identity.

Our identity is our all-encompassing system of memories, experience, feelings, thoughts, relationships, and values that define who each of us is.

It’s the stuff that makes up a “self.”

Identity is a critical component of understanding who we are. Why? Because we can break up identity into components (values, experiences, relationship).

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These components we can identify and understand. Then, once we have understood the components of our identity, we can get a big-picture look at who we really are.

In a nutshell: we’re a lot more than one thing. We’re a whole system of ideas and experiences.

Our need for identity

“Who am I?” gets at the heart of one of our most basic needs: our need for identiy. 

We, as living beings, search for and find comfort in a solid sense of identity. It grounds us. It gives us confidence. And our sense of identity affects every single thing in our lives – from the choices we make to the values we live by.

According to Shahram Heshmat Ph.D., author of Science of Choice:

“Identity relates to our basic values that dictate the choices we make (e.g., relationships, career). These choices reflect who we are and what we value.”

Wow. Our identities are almost avatars for the values and tenets that we hold. Our identity is a reflection of what we believe, what we do, and what we value.

Powerful stuff.

Yet, our sense of identity can be compromised by outside factors.

How is that possible? Well, Dr. Heshmat explains:

“Few people choose their identities. Instead, they simply internalize the values of their parents or the dominant cultures (e.g., pursuit of materialism, power, and appearance). Sadly, these values may not be aligned with one’s authentic self and create unfulfilling life.”

Oof. This is what can cause problems.

Here’s the painful truth: much of our identity was forced upon us. This inorganic identity causes us to experience a tremendous amount of stress.

Why?

Because we know that “that identity” is false. It’s something demanded of us.

The problem is, we don’t know what our “organic” identity is.

And that’s why we ask, “who am I?”

The roles we play

To make things harder on ourselves, we each have multiple identities – sons, daughters, parents, friends.

We basically split and compartmentalize our identites into “roles.” And we perform these “roles” in different circumstances.

Each role, to quote Dr. Heshmat, has “its own meanings and expectations that are internalized as identity.”

Basically, when we perform these roles, we internalize them as if they were our real identites.

We’re all actors, taking on a dozen roles. Except the problem is, we’ve tricked ourselves into believing these roles are real.

This conflict, coupled with the need to find our authentic self, is the cause of much of our unhappiness. This conflict is called “identity struggle.”

“Often, in the face of identity struggle, many end up adopting darker identities, such as drug abuse, compulsive shopper, or gambling, as a compensatory method of experiencing aliveness or staving off depression and meaninglessness.”

Struggling to figure out who we are can have grave side effects. That’s why it is important to discover the answer to the question “who am I?” Because the alternative is “depression and meaninglessness.”

On the upside, people who have successfully found their authentic selves are shown to be far happier and more content. This is because they are “able to live a life true to their values and pursue meaningful goals.”

But how can you figure out who you really are?

How can you separate your true identity from the one given to you by your family and what was shaped by society?

Check out the video below on Justin Brown’s realization that he was playing the role of the “good person”. He finally owned up to this and managed to experience much more clarity on who he really is.

How can I figure out “who I am?”

Clearly, it’s critical to discover who you are. When you are firm in your identity, your life is more meaningful, joyful, and purpuseful.

We have found that there are 5 key steps you can take to help answer the question “who am I?”

These steps are backed by experts, and will help you firm up your identity so that you can live a life full of purpose.

Here are 5 ways to help answer the question, “who am I?”

1) Reflect

To quote the King of Pop, “I’m starting with the man in the mirror.”

And this advice rings true. You need to reflect upon yourself whenever you are engaging in self-discovery.

This means that you have to examine yourself — for all your strengths, flaws, impressions you give others, the whole lot.

You have to critically engage with the reflection you present.

Think of it like this:

“The first step, perhaps, is to take stock. Who are you? When you buy a house and prepare to live in it, you hire an inspector to list all its faults–as it is, in reality, now, not as you wish it could be. You’ll even pay him for the bad news.

“You need to know. You need to discover the home’s hidden flaws. You need to know whether they are cosmetic imperfections or structural inadequacies. You need to know because you can’t fix something if you don’t know it’s broken–and you’re broken. You need an inspector. The internal critic–it could play that role, if you could get it on track; if you and it could cooperate.”

Dr. Jordan B. Peterson

You have to be your own inspector. You have to look at your whole self as the house, and get down deep to that foundation.

Ask yourself, who are you right now? What are your strengths? Your flaws?

Do you like who you see in the mirror?

Do you think that “who you are” doesn’t match “who you see?”

How does that make you feel?

Identify which areas of your life you are unhappy about. Look at what you think could be better – mentally, emotionally, and physically.

Don’t go rush and slap band-aids all over the issues. This step isn’t about quick fixes. It’s not even about changing anything.

Instead, it’s about sitting with yourself — ups and downs — and understanding where you are.

Once you have a good grasp on yourself, then you can move on to step two.

2) Decide who you want to be

You can never be a perfect person. There’s no such thing as a perfect person. You have to embrace the fact that you will never be perfect.

But, on the path to self-discovery, you should embrace that there are things you want to improve.

And improvement is possible!

So, for step two, what you need to do is identify who you want to become.

And be honest with yourself about what’s possible. Being Superman isn’t what we’re after.

Let’s take a page out of Dr. Jordan B. Peterson’s international bestselling book, 12 Rules For Life:

“Start with yourself. Take care with yourself. Refine your personality. Choose your destination and articulate your Being.”

Who is your ideal person? Is it someone kind, strong, intelligent, brave? Is it a person who isn’t afraid of a challenge? Is it a person who can open herself up to love?

Whoever this dream person is, define them. Define who you want to become. That’s step two.

3) Make better choices

Make better choices… for yourself.

The truth is, most of us are programmed to make choices out of fear. We instinctively make an easy choice based on anxiety, desire to please, or because we don’t want to put in the effort.

These choices only do one thing: continue the status quo.

And if you’re not happy with who you are, with your current status quo, then these choices do nothing to help you.

Those choices, then, are the bad choices. 

But you can choose better for yourself. You can make “active decisions.”

Take if from clinical psychologist Marcia Reynolds

“Choice means you are free to do or not do something because you decided on your own.

“To activate conscious choice, you first have to do some work to determine what really matters to you. What strengths are you proud of? What tasks do you most enjoy? What dreams keep haunting you? What would you do if you had no obligations or people to please? Take time to sort through your desires.”

Once you know what you want, and once you know who you want to be; you can take the time to make active, conscious choices that help you be better. 

What are these choices like?

Well, let’s say that your dream version of yourself is a marathoner. That active choice means choosing to get off the couch, lace up those shoes, and hit the pavement.

Maybe you want to go back to school and graduate college. That means choosing to complete applications, choosing to ask for recommendation letters, and choosing to study.

Once you make decisions that are in line with your values and what you want, you’ll start feeling empowered to find out your true identity.

4) Explore your passions

One of the best parts about discovering the answer to “who am I,” is figuring out parts of yourself you never knew about.

Sure, you’ve figured out who you “want to be” and you’ve done a great job “looking in the mirror,” but there’s always going to be parts of you that are hidden away.

And it’s your job to discover them.

One of the best ways to help discover yourself is to explore your passions.

When you engage in things you are passionate about, you stimulate creative energies. If you’re passionate about sewing, go out and sew! The more that you sew, you’ll begin to see yourself as a “sewer,” even perhaps a master of your craft. This exploration will give you confidence and expertise, which helps positively ground your sense of identity.

But what if I don’t know what I’m passionate about

When your identity has been built by society’s expectations, it’s natural that you might not know what youre really passionate about. That’s ok!

But if you haven’t, don’t go looking for it. Instead, develop it.

“What? How am I supposed to develop something if I don’t even have it?”

Hear me out: take a listen to Terri Trespicio’s 2015 TED Talk, Stop Searching For Your Passion.

“Passion is not a job, a sport or a hobby. It is the full force of your attention and energy that you give to whatever is right in front of you. And if you’re so busy looking for this passion, you could miss opportunities that change your life.”

If you don’t know what your passion is, don’t freak out. It’s not like it’s “the one,” and if you can’t find it, you’ll miss out on your life. Instead, try your hand at hobbies and projects that are available to you right now. 

The backyard looks a little weedy? Try mulching the beds, plant some flowers. Maybe you’ll realize you have a passion for gardening.

Maybe you won’t. But that’s ok. It’s all about exploration. You need to explore the possibilities for growth.

Developing a growth mindset is a key component of exploring your passions. Along the way, you’ll figure out who you are. If you’re looking for some inspiring in developing the growth mindset, check out these growth mindset quotes.

5) Develop your social circle

Humans are social beings by nature. So much of our identity is shaped by our friends and family.

When you work to figure out “who you really are,” you have to actively create your social circle.

This means choosing who you want to hang out with. It means choosing who to let in, and who to cut loose.

it’s crucial you find people who are aligned with your values and identity.

Author and life coach Mike Bundrant explains:

“When you understand what’s most important to you in life – your life values – you can clarify who you are by choosing your social circles based on compatible values. You can have great clarity in your relationships, too, as you see yourself reflected in the people around you.”

They always say you can judge a man by the company he keeps.

This is very true. You can judge yourself by the people you hang out with.

If you’re hoping to develop yourself as a person, look at the friend group you have. Are they pushing you forward or holding you back?

Your identity is an ongoing process

The task of finding out who you are isn’t an easy one.

It’s probably one of the hardest things you’ll ever take on.

One of the worst things you can do (during this process) is to put pressure on yourself to figure it out right away.

Discovering your identity is a journey, not an ending.

When we race to the finish line, we forget the value of the growth process.

Identity isn’t a static term. Why should it be? We’re constantly growing, changing, evolving. We have trillions of cells in our body that live and die all the time.

We’re dynamic! Our identities must be dynamic too!

Psychotherapist and author of A Shift Of Mind, Mel Schwartz believes that we should look at our identities as an evolution of ourselves.

“Our identity should be seen as an ongoing process. Rather than a static snapshot, we should embrace a flowing sense of self, whereby we are perpetually re-framing, re-organizing, re-thinking and re-considering ourselves.

“How different would life be if rather than asking who am I, we contemplated how we’d like to engage life?”

When you embrace that your identity is dynamic, you take a lot of pressure off of yourself to pin down exactly who you are. Relax! You’re you. You know what you value, what you like, and what you want to be. You got the basics down! If those change, that’s ok. Start back over from step one.

Don’t be afraid of growth.

Positive disintegration

Growth comes at a cost. When you figure out who you truly are, you have to rid yourself of the parts of you that aren’t honest.

So how do you go through such a complicated process? When you have to shed off parts of yourself to become who you really are, it may feel like you’re tugging yourself in two.

Ripping yourself in two can be scary, right? There’s fear that you could be throwing away a valid part of yourself — a part of yourself that you’ve held onto for far too long.

But, you have to remember, that isn’t you.

We have to embrace our ability to change, evolve, and become better.

We have to engage in Positive Disintegration. 

“The goal then is to access that potential, keeping the parts of our identity that continue to serve us well and shedding the old, habitual pieces that constrain us. This process is known as positive disintegration. This permits us to find balance between the extremes previously discussed and enter into a relationship with self that commits to our personal evolution.”

You have to let go of the things that are holding you back. You have to trust that you’re doing the right thing by shedding the parts of you that aren’t you. 

I promise you, you’re not going to miss the false you.

Instead, you’ll be excited to finally meet and accept yourself.

Takeaway

This much is clear: discovering who you are is a never-ending journey.

Like the universe, you are never in the same state. You will always change, evolve, grow.

Why do we get so caught up with our definition of identity?

It’s because we all crave for the same things: happiness, peace, and success.

Without finding out who you are, you feel like you’ll never come close to any of it.

So in your journey of self-discovery, remember to take a step back and reflect on yourself:

“Am I making decisions based on my own values? Am I who I want to be?”

Once you have reflected upon yourself, and discovered who you want to be, you can engage in the process of pushing yourself forward through active choosing, exploration, and positive disintigration to finally make yourself the person you always hoped you’d become.

And in the process, you’ll discover the answer to the question “who am I?”

“I am me.”

Written by Nathan Dennis

Nathan Dennis is a Manhattan based playwright and poet of Floridian extraction. A graduate of NYU Tisch Department of Dramatic Writing, he served as a Rita and Burton Goldberg Fellow, and was awarded Outstanding Writing for the Stage in Spring of 2015. His most recent play, Lord of Florida, was workshopped by PrismHouse Theatre Company in the Fall of 2017.

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