I have been grappling with this question all my life. In my book ‘Get Unstuck, Change the Script, Change your Life’ I describe how our identity is usually no more than a script we have cobbled together from our experiences, our culture, family and even the geography of our lives. In particular we can define ourselves on the basis of our wounds. When we get hurt we generate stories to explain what happened. These stories often start with phrases like
The world is…
These stories become the lens through which we interpret reality. But it goes further than that. These reactions become like self-fulfilling prophesies. I was adopted at birth, left in a hospital for weeks and then picked up by a family who didn’t really want kids. So no surprise that my wounds of isolation, fear and rejection became the map of my life. For most of my life I worked on the assumption that I would be rejected. So I played this narrative out by isolating myself and retreating from others. It should come as no surprise when others pick up on our scripts and join us in acting them out. Our relationships often play out the internal script we impose on life. This can cut both ways of course. If you believe you are a Queen or a King, chances are, others will see you that way too. Often, we ascribe roles to others from our script that have nothing to do with who they really are. For years I reacted to my wife as if she was my controlling mother. Wounds create reactions in us that become stories. In my experience, stories that come from wounds tend to have certain characteristics. They usually contain a sense of being separate, alone and condemned. This can be an unbearable world to live in and it is not surprising that just to survive, people take up with all manner of addictions to sooth the pain. And yet, we hold onto our wounds, to stay vigilant, to make sure THAT never happens again. We create our defensive shields and armour up.
These old stories feel utterly true. They feel like us. But they are not. They are just a story.
So how do we build new stories? Stories that bring us life, joy and love?
Do we abandon everything that went before and start from scratch?
I believe that however difficult our stories are, that our true identity is still there, maybe buried, obscured and unclear. But there. Rather like an old master, a painting covered by the crud and crap of years. But underneath, a masterpiece.
So we can look for those magic moments in our history, the exceptions to the rule when something bubbled up that gave us a moment of joy, when it felt like you were really being you. Think about these moments from your history now. When did you feel most alive? Even if 98% of the rest of the time life was a total shit show. What were you doing? Who were you with? For me, I remember the moment when at the age of 13, I climbed up into the pulpit of Waterlooville Baptist Church and read from the Bible. In that moment I realised that a) I liked being in front of an audience and b) I liked delivering magical words into the hearts of others. Now I understand that this could be read negatively. Maybe I was dealing with my wounds by showing off to grab whatever attention I could get. There may even be truth in that, but why do I remember THAT moment? I think it’s because it contained the seed of something core to my real self.
So there are clues to the ‘real’ you in your history. I believe this ‘real’ you is not pinned down to an occupation, a personality trait, way of relating or even physical appearance. I think we all have a much wider bandwidth of self than we realise. Whatever our true self is, it is a kaleidoscope of possibilities.
I believe our true self is a cluster or nodal point where a whole network of possibilities come together like a focused beam of light.
As a therapist I have always looked to help clients increase their access to the possibilities of who they are. Creative approaches are really helpful in bringing aspects of self to the surface. As a drama therapist I am always amazed at how quickly people can access totally different characters when given a role. Where do they find this range of characters? I think they all lie dormant, inside, and outside the scope of from the dormant pool of our dominant story.
But here is the thing.
I have come to believe that the basis for my identity is not ultimately something I can manufacture alone. I can see evidence in my history but if I rely on feelings, experience, other people’s reactions, my culture or my family to define me I will be like a pinball, bouncing around between different possibilities but never arriving.
I believe the basis of who I am, in all my unique and wonderful ways, is rooted in a power greater than myself. In recovery culture this might be called a Higher Power, in faith traditions this may be called God. I find the idea that I am defined from outside my own paradigm very freeing and reassuring. If a house has structural problems. Let’s say the ceiling has collapsed. The house is unable to fix itself. It needs an external builder to come and bring it back to life. In my own faith context, I really like the idea that God chose me and has always been reaching out to me. It’s not all about what I have done but what has been done for me.
I know this sounds a bit woo woo and conceptual. I get that. But I also think we meet our God in the context of relationships. So relationships that allow us to get it wrong, make mistakes, fall apart and try again provide the safety for us to discover ourselves within. Relationships of love and compassion will never be perfect but they are often our access point into finding our higher power.
And finally there is our relationship with ourselves. How much love and compassion do you show for the mess you might feel at times. The more grace and love we have for ourselves, the more likely the true self is going to risk coming blinking into the light.
So who are you?
Chances are that you have a partial picture but there is much more to be discovered. Some of this will be in your history. Some will come through surrendering up our wounds, reactions and stories to God and then in that vulnerable potential space, seeing what emerges out of the shadows. Some will come through risking vulnerability with others (and God knows I understand how hard that can be)
Who are you?
You might be surprised!