“Who am I?”
The most recurring question of our lives.
How many times have you questioned your existence? Your purpose?
First of all, why are we so obsessed with an answer? Do we even need an answer?
Perhaps it’s best put by 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.”
Let’s explore the gravity of this question and its impact on our lives.
Our need for identity
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.”
Sounds simple, right?
Yet, our sense of identity is compromised by outside factors.
“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.”
Furthermore, we each hold different identities ourselves – sons, daughters, parents, friend. Each role, Heshmat adds, has “its own meanings and expectations that are internalized as identity.”
He adds that this conflict coupled with the need to find one’s authentic self, is the cause of much of our unhappiness, saying:
“Psychologists assume that the identity formation is a matter of “finding oneself” by matching one’s talents and potential with available social roles. Thus, defining oneself within a social world is among one of difficult choice a person ever makes.”
“Often, in the face of identity struggle, many end up adopting darker identities, such as drug abuse, compulsive shopper, or gamble, as a compensatory method of experiencing aliveness or staving off depression and meaninglessness.”
On the contrary, people who have successfully found their authentic selves are happy 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?
Here are 5 things that may help you answer the question, ‘who am I?’ according to experts.
“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.”
Ask yourself, who are you right now? What are your strengths? Your flaws?
Do you like who you see in the mirror?
Identify which areas of your life you are unhappy about. Look at what you need to inspect and fix – mentally, emotionally, and physically.
2. Determine your ideal person and aspire to become that person.
Here’s the key point:
You can never be a perfect person. There are some things you lack, some things you can’t achieve, and there are certain things you can’t be.
However, there are things you can aspire to be.
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. Define who you are. Refine your personality. Choose your destination and articulate your Being.”
Who is your ideal person? Is it someone kind, strong, intelligent, brave?
Define who it is you want to become, and build your life trying to become this person.
You might never reach such a level of perfection, but at least you can develop a set of values and expectations of what kind of person you want to become.
3. Choose better.
Make better choices… for you.
The truth is, most of us are programmed to make choices out of fear. We make decisions because of low self-esteem and lack of self-power.
But you can choose better for yourself.
Clinical psychologist Marcia Reynolds explains:
“Choice means you are free to do or not do something because you decided on your own.
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“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 make decisions that are in line with your values and what you want, you’ll start feeling empowered to find out your true identity.
It would be easy to simply say:
“Go find what you are passionate about and do it.”
But like everything in life, it’s complicated. If you’ve found what you are passionate about, then good for you. Do it.
But if you haven’t, don’t go looking for it. Instead, develop it.
Terri Trespicio’s 2015 TED Talk, Stop Searching For Your Passion, she says:
“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.”
As mentioned earlier, develop that growth mindset and explore all the possibilities. Along the way, you’ll figure out who you are.
5. Develop your social circle.
Humans are social beings by nature. In fact, most of who we are is influenced by our families and the society we live in.
Finding out who you are also involves choosing your social circle. Because it’s crucial you find people who are aligned with your values and identity.
Author and life coach Mike Bundrant explains:
“You became who you are by association with – and through the interventions of – other people. It’s very difficult to separate out the role of other people in forming beliefs about ourselves and the world. We’re all carrying around the messages we’ve received from others throughout life.
“A big part of our identity, then, is a social identity, which is defined through association with the people in our lives. Many roles we play cannot exist without other people: Father, mother, husband, wife, friend, companion, lover, neighbor and so on….are meaningless outside of a social context.
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.”
Your identity is an ongoing process
The task of finding who you really are isn’t a simple one. In fact, it’s probably the most frustrating and exhausting things you ever have to do.
Perhaps it has something to do with the pressure we put in ourselves. We put so much urgency in figuring out who we are, that we often forget the value of the process.
Psychotherapist and author of A Shift Of Mind, Mel Schwartz believes that we shouldn’t look at our identities as a fixed thing. Rather, we should look at it 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?”
Having this mindset will relieve you of the pressure. Even better, you’ll feel kinder to yourself.
“A sense of inadequacy often informs the question around “Who am I?”
“As people engage the deepening complexity of understanding themselves, they would fare much better to devote themselves to the unfolding process of life. Witnessing our thoughts, not reacting out of old habit, and becoming present enable us to better craft our lives. As such, the identity that we seek fires the wave of life, enriched by the flow.”
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.
But according to Schwartz, there’s one way to look at it. Just like how the universe flows in a “state of flowing potential,” we too, have the ability to change, evolve, become better.
He calls this process 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.”
What it comes down to, essentially, is having a growth mindset – becoming intimately aware of your thoughts, emotions, fears, yet have the willingness to overcome them.
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?”