Pondering the Question ‘Who Am I?’ – Shepherd Express

Posted: December 11, 2020 at 4:58 am


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A major mental task in life is to craft a coherent identity. Psychology maintains that identity is an amalgam of ones life experiences, memories, relationships, physical characteristics and values. Some psychologists believe clear self-definition (I am this kind of person) provides a steady sense of self that persists over time, affording a consistent psychological platform from which to interact with the world and contemplate ourselves. But, for many, identity is neither steady nor consistent.

When someone struggles to describe their personality, values and attributes, they likely suffer an ill-formed, conflicted or murky sense of self. This poses a substantial psychological handicap. A muddled self-definition undermines relationships, decision-making, self-discipline and life satisfaction. This conundrum is most common in young folks struggling to find themselves, but also afflicts adults who become fixated on the logistics of living, only to wake up one day and realize theyve lost touch with who they are.

Regardless, such folks are left pondering that proverbial existential questionWho am I? There are a multitude of challenges that can complicate ones answer. For example, for some folks, their identity is heavily invested in one prominent aspect of their person, such as being a parent, their career, or physical appearance and capacities. If they lose this defining role or self-image, then the classic identity crisis ensues. Attaching too much of ones self-definition to a single role is risky.

Another scenario involves people who act in ways inconsistent with their core values, perhaps by doing something hateful or destructive. This creates a psychological clash between their longstanding sense of self (Im a good person) and actions that paint a very different picture (Im a bad actor). If ones actions are sufficiently at odds with ones values, the cognitive dissonance disrupts or even shatters ones identity, sometimes with dire consequences. More than a few suicides and self-destructive lifestyles stem from this deep wound to self-definition and the shame it often engenders.

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In another troubling vein, one may harbor a hidden identity kept secret from the world, having discovered that ones authentic self is not affirmed or welcomed by others. This can leave a person feeling fake and unworthy, which fosters both self-loathing and what psychoanalyst R.D. Laing termed the divided self. Ones hidden identity and the public persona one presents to the outside world square off in a mental tug-of-war for ascendency. Which is the real me? The one I sense inside myself or the one I show the world?

Clearly, identity, even when well-formed in adulthood, changes and morphs over time, for better or worse. This evolution reminds me of a line from the Indigo Girls: Were sculpted from youth . . . the chipping away makes me weary. Some who feel theyve lost their prior sense of self talk about how difficult life circumstances, poor decisions or behavioral problems gradually eroded their previously stable self-image, leaving them feeling ill-defined. Such folks contradict the assertion that identity is stable over time.

We know certain attitudes and behaviors can support a clear and healthy sense of self, even in the face of corrosive impacts due to challenging life situations and losses. High among these is authenticity. Being real is an implicit affirmation of self, a way of saying yes to who one is. Then, there is self-compassion, which acknowledges ones flawed humanity rather than rejecting the self for failing to be perfect. Also, contemplative practices, like journaling and meditation, increase self-awareness, keeping ones identity in clear view. Another helpful element is acting from purpose, because meaning is central to a positive identity. As the philosopher Nietzsche said, Those who have a why to live for can bear almost any how. Purpose anchors identity, holding it fast in the face of lifes tempests.

In the movie Batman Begins, Bruce Waynes lady friend, Rachel, reminds him, Its not who you are underneath; its what you do that defines you. Identity is partly innate temperament, partly upbringing, partly life circumstances, but, in the end, mostly the choices one makes.

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Pondering the Question 'Who Am I?' - Shepherd Express

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December 11th, 2020 at 4:58 am

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