I tried therapy once because I wanted to figure out my identity. I was 19 and somewhat experienced in life, but my inner sense of self wasn’t very solid at the time.
My eyes darted around the room. I didn’t know where to start. My therapist calmly waited for me to get my thoughts together.
“Well, I’m here because…” I gave her a taste of my personal baggage. “I just want a second opinion on it.”
“You know I can’t tell you what’s true about you,” she said. “I can only help you figure it out for yourself.”
She asked me some questions about my family and about my mental health history.
That’s not what I came for! I came here to figure myself out and to get a second perspective on my baggage!
I poured out more baggage until we were out of time, and even after we were.
“Look at these texts!” I showed her a text conversation in my phone. “Who thinks it’s okay to treat someone like this?”
Newsflash, 19-year-old me: You’re not special or fucked up for having been mistreated. Everyone has their baggage and their hangups.
Later that day, I e-mailed her saying psychotherapy wasn’t for me.
I got all the answers I needed just from getting my bullshit out. That day drove home for me that:
Most parts of your identity don’t mean shit outside your head
Back then, much of my identity came from:
- My self-perceived intelligence
- My emotions
- Being someone who’s gone through hardship
- Not fitting in with most people
- My dating/sex life
So when I spoke so much of it for a reason besides connecting with another person, I felt stupid right after. I realized the unimportance of things like being able to read when I was 4 or trying to put a label to my personality quirks.
I redefined my identity into one from my present, not from my past. It was still subjective in new ways, but it was more solid than my old one.
Especially if you’re a teenager or a very young adult, odds are much of your identity is based on subjective impressions like:
- Your intelligence
- The media you’re drawn to
- Your ideologies
- How you measure up to people around you
- Your baggage
It’s valid, but it’s not solid. This kind of identity is very easy to threaten or invalidate. Subjective impressions don’t exist outside your head, and you could be very wrong about how you think others see you.
Instead, I recommend an identity that comes from your behavior. The first 1/3 of my course about social ability and personal identity is about exactly that.
Perceptions of you can be questioned and invalidated, but behavior is impossible to invalidate; it’s objective and completely in physical reality.
If I self-perceive as being an introvert but you tell me I’m more of an extrovert, both of us are right despite our conflicting viewpoints, unless we figure out an objective way to measure introversion and extroversion.
If you go to the gym a few times a week, I don’t get to tell you that you don’t.
If you paint regularly, I don’t get to tell you that you don’t.
The benefits of a behavior-based identity include:
- Less stress about how others perceive you.
- Few worries about “finding yourself”.
- Finding your value through your contributions to the world, not through static, questionable traits.
- Less internal comparison to other people.
- Reducing your internal biases.
Define your values
Values motivate behavior, so if your behavior sucks, check your values.
You can say you value honesty, but if you lie or hide truths to keep people comfortable, do you really?
You can say you value loyalty, but if you can’t commit to a person or to a cause, do you really?
You can say you value integrity, but if you fall apart easily…
The values that are an honest part of your identity will always be shown through your behavior.
Someone who actually values honesty will stand up for what’s true even if it incites a strong reaction in someone.
Someone who actually values loyalty will stick by who or what they value even in hard times.
Someone who actually values integrity will stand strong in those hard times.
If you don’t like yourself, I encourage you to find someone you want to be like and ask yourself: What do they value? What do I value that they don’t? They’re not who they are just because of how they dress or how they behave, those are consequences of the values they actualize.
After you get your values in order, the changes in behavior and in presentation will naturally follow. It may be a slow process, but it’ll hopefully be a sure one.
Find meaning in the unexceptional
When you were young, you were likely praised for a static quality: Your beauty, your intelligence, your achievements, etc.
Then whatever that was became your identity. You were The Smart Kid, The Beauty Queen, The Winner, etc. When you’d meet someone smarter, prettier, or more accomplished than you, it’d threaten your identity.
As you got older, your identity got threatened more and more. You’d meet other people your age who were on your level of whatever trait you valued most. Maybe you got along with them, or maybe your ego ruled you.
Alternatively, you were devalued: You didn’t do well in school, your parents didn’t encourage healthy habits and you got ugly, or you grew up without standards. You learned to see yourself as undesirable, undeserving, or as a failure.
Your later experiences would invalidate those perceptions. Maybe you thought you were ugly, but people would show sexual interest in you. Maybe you thought you were stupid, but you ended up with a mentally stimulating job.
These subjective measures of value are ultimately only a placeholder for greater meaning. Always wanting to be the smartest person in the room becomes an empty pursuit. You realize that while looks matter, they’re not the be-all-end-all of your success in life. You spend the best moments of your life with your friends and family, not with the awards on your shelf.
As I’ve grown out of a subjective identity, I’ve realized that my love of cats defines me more than my hardships do.
My measurable intelligence doesn’t matter nearly as much as what I choose to create with it. My behavior says more about me than any adjectives can. My emotions are experiences, not identities. My past is only a story and my present self is my true self. Getting superficial validation doesn’t do much for me, but sharing experiences with honest people makes me feel great.
Paradoxically, having a solid identity means accepting that your identity isn’t set in stone. I choose not to measure myself as someone extraordinary, but as someone who doesn’t need to be measured to feel like a person.