How Do We Know Who We Are?

There seems to be a lot of emphasis in the past few years about finding ourselves. As if the search for a true being is some sort of rite of passage, some inevitable gate we must walk through if we want to live a meaningful life. Parents pressure their children into cultural activities, teachers, and their students into new classes. Society pressures college, and gap years, and traveling, and service, and all of these activities with the purpose of discovering who we are (although sometimes the activities are masked with a sense of moral superiority, meant to hide the shame of our current selves and project an idealistic self to the world).

Finding who we are is not a new idea either. The great psychoanalyst Erik Erikson created his stages of development, which are hierarchical stages that we are supposed to pass through. In these stages we either achieve the success of the stage (autonomy, for instance), or we achieve the failure of the stage. Erikson stated that in adolescence we pass through the stage called “identity vs role confusion”. He proposed that as teenagers, we struggle with the world to identify who we are. When the world breaks us, and we fall apart, this, as he coined, is an “identity crisis”. The odd thing is though, Erikson stated that for a life to be fulfilled and complete, we must go through an identity crisis; it is inevitable. The crisis shakes off our old selves of youth, and allows new selves to be formed.

If we don’t go through a crisis, whether by our own doing or by the world’s doing, we may go through what is known as ”identity foreclosure”. This is when we live our whole life with a secondhand identity handed down to us that we never questioned. This will lead to a shallow sense of meaning, a lack of fulfillment, and, most importantly, an internal desire for more. We feel embarrassed when asked by others to share about our lives. We feel shame or empty when discussing work. We feel we do things because we should, not because we want to. We feel obligated to follow what our parents or peers tell us to do, and we struggle to make our own decisions.

Two questions arise from this information: 1. How do we know an identity is ours? And 2. Once we have it, how do we hold onto it?

Losing ourselves (an identity crisis) is a step in the right direction. This is because it is natural to cling to what is around us and sculpt our identity from what we absorb. We are adaptable, and can form ourselves to fit into our environment. We develop resilience, flexibility, honesty, or integrity because it is needed. But just as much, we develop weakness, the ability to lie, rigidity, and shame. The issue is, our sense of self is often formed by simpler, non-conscious reflexes, rather than conscious choice.

Our parents divorce, creating a sense of shame inside of us that we fill with shallow love. We get our heart broken, so we accept solitude in the guise of protection. We get mocked by others, so we develop an inferiority complex that never ceases. Our father tells us we aren’t good enough, so, no matter what we accomplish, we need more. Our mother leaves when we are children, so we desire love in what is immediate and pleasing.

What if our defining characteristics: dedication to fitness, emotional resilience, or kindness, are really just adaptations to ease a psychological crevasse we never addressed? We accepted these traits as just who we are, and lived a whole life punishing ourselves because of what happened when we were children. What if we just accepted that we are who we were told we are, or that we are just what was absorbed from our youth. This is identity foreclosure.

After a crisis, how do we know if the identity we accepted is truly ours, or just a set of values that we absorbed to ease the stress of being in crisis? Well first, we must question. Why do we believe what we believe? Why do we act how we act? Through this process of reflection, we burn off the parts of us that need burning. We keep trying, and we burn and burn and burn until we are sure that we aren’t a collection of mal-formed shields. With that, we develop a guideline, a rule, or a system that keeps us grounded, and prevents us from losing who we are again.

Abraham Lincoln, crippled with depression, had two rules that really stand out when discussing how he kept himself grounded. When in the darkness, it is easy to feel as though life, and the will and reason to live life, is waning. “To too shall pass” was the light he muttered every time he felt swept off his feet by fortune or by misery. He also told himself that he had to “be better or die”. These rules allowed him to maintain a sense of self when all else was failing.

There is a story that says that Amelia Earhart had the words “Always think with your stick forward” painted on the side of her plane. Jordan B. Peterson guides himself with the rule to always tell the truth, no matter the consequences. What happens after is always better than if you lied. Joe De Sena, the founder of the Spartan Races, always carries around a 50 lb dumbbell with him as a reminder that the work never stops. Ultramarathon runner David Goggins keeps himself sharp by refusing to do something unless it sucks.

The problem of slowly losing who are we is one that has been identified for as long as humans have existed. This is why we create rules and statutes and constitutions and laws. This is why we have values and traditions. They act as bumpers to ensure we are always operating in a certain direction. The irony is, these guides are the curse and the cure. If we are handed down an unquestioned guide for identity, then it is a curse, no matter why it was formed. But, if we forge our own guide, from the depths of hell, from the unknown of a crisis, then it is a cure. Order need be constructed from chaos.

An example: My father passed down a guideline of behavior to me as a child. He wanted effort and excellence in sporting events. He expected academic success and a way of behaving that would be deemed just. When I left his home, I cast aside all values he put on me, and indulged in the chaos he sought to help me avoid. I failed classes, gained weight, behaved immorally. Here, I was able to see the hell at which he meant to keep me from, and only then was I able to develop my own structure of identity to allow me to readjust. Ironically, I now live within a similar system that he tried to impose on me as a child, but I had to find it myself. If I never went through that process, and just accepted his version, I would have never been complete.

Identity is an odd ideal. Often times it seems we never really know who we are. We just suck in pieces of life until we are a mix-matched collage of ideas and values stemming from who knows where. We tell ourselves things that we never questioned. We hold truths that may be lies. And we die on mountains that in hindsight were just molehills. How do we ever know who we are? And If we know, how do we hold onto it?