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  • Writer's pictureNicole Lovald

Who You Are Is Not Defined By What You Do

As a therapist, I often have conversations with clients about how they think about and see themselves as an individual. It has come up more frequently recently as people are beginning to re-engage with the world following months (if not years) of Covid hibernation. As we re-emerge it can be unsettling and can cause insecurities about how others see us and our perceived identities.

People might begin to wonder, or worry, about being seen as “less than” their colleagues, friends and family members. They may begin to conduct a comparison of sorts in their minds. As we compare ourselves to others, we may look for how others are achieving more and believe that they are therefore superior to us in some way.

Think about it for a moment…

Do you find yourself defining who you are by the things that you have or do? If someone were to ask you who you are:

Would you respond with?

- I’m a Manager (insert job title of choice)

- I live in the suburbs/city/country

- I am a mom/dad/sister/brother/daughter/son

- I am an athlete/musician/actor

- I own a home, a car, a cat or dog

In a world of constant striving, we learn to set goals and then feel good about ourselves when we successfully accomplish the goal. What happens when we are not able to achieve what we put our minds to? We tend to be overly critical of ourselves and harshly judge our inability to be who we are, or are meant to be. We set ourselves up for failure if we believe that we are only worthy when we are reaching our goals.

Think about your childhood for a moment. Did you receive accolades from your parents, teachers, and community when you were on the honor roll or scored the final goal? How about when you cleaned your room or did the dishes? Those are all things that we can certainly be proud of and there is nothing inherently wrong with being told as much.

However, it is equally important to balance our sense of pride with more inner experiences of ourselves. Think about how often you have been told that someone is proud of how generous or kind you are to others, or how you have the best sense of humor. By having people reflect our inner qualities to us as important aspects of who we are, we learn to embrace those parts of ourselves as well.

It is important to have a strong knowing of who we are at our core, so that when our lives shift and we are no longer able to achieve in the same way, we aren’t suddenly feeling like we have no identity. As we move through the stages in our lives, there are many times when this might happen. For example:

- Moving out of our house for the first time

- Beginning a career and/or having kids

- Having our kids move out of the house

- Losing a job/changing jobs/choosing to stay home/retirement

- No longer being a caregiver (to a parent or child)

If our identity is fully tied into the idea of who we are as defined by what we do, these changes can cause major crisis in our lives. If, instead, we are secure in our identity of ourselves and we have a sense of purpose and understanding of what is important to us, we might be able to adjust to these changes with much more ease.

How can we begin to unearth our true identity and connect with who we truly are?

1. Get quiet. Take time to be curious about what you notice as your explore your inner world.

2. Have yourself complete this sentence: I Am…

Just see what comes up. At first it might be outer definitions of yourself, but with time you might begin to respond with more inner reflections.

3. Ask others how they would define you. What do they see as your strengths?

4. Find out what drives you, what is important to you, and what you believe.

5. Remind yourself that we have many pieces and parts to who we are. The ways that you have defined yourself in the past are valid, but they may not be the entirety of who you are. What would you like to add as you further develop your identity?

It might feel like a relief to recognize that who you are is not defined by what you do. Or, it might be unnerving to think that all the hard work you have done to achieve your goals doesn’t make you inherently better than others.

At the end of the day, what is most important is that we are able to live authentically so that we can ease discomfort and suffering in our daily lives. By living true to ourselves, we may refrain from one of the greatest regrets many experience at the end of their lives. In the book The Top Five Regrets of the Dying, nurse Bronnie Ware (2012) declared that the top regret was:

1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.

Here’s to courageously living a life on your terms, defined by who you truly are and what is most important to you – not what others expect of you.

Nicole Lovald, MS, E-RYT

Integrative Psychotherapist

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