When you’re born, you never question what it means to be you. You’re so busy learning to breathe and walk and talk that the idea of your ‘self’ isn’t much of a focus. As you got older you focused on how to be social, fall in love, start a career, maybe even build a family. For many years then, the idea of deliberately creating your identity may not have been even the tiniest speck on your list of things to do.
Then one day something happens — an unexpected event or experience — and you realize you haven’t made any choices about who you are. You’ve just become someone along the way. Having never really thought about things, you’re absolutely out of touch with what’s important to the deeper you only you know.
It’s natural, over the course of a lifetime, to reach a moment when you question everything about your identity. Don’t be alarmed if, when you pause to assess your life and yourself, you suddenly become aware that you can’t answer the question I hear so often from clients every week: “Who am I?!”
To be clear, you would certainly be able to provide an answer based on a description of your name, gender, profession and familial status. It’s below the surface of these social titles that the sense of confusion occurs. It’s below that surface, too, that your real self exists. Take Jim, for example: A violent car crash last year has sent him into an evaluation of who he is, what his life is about, and what he wants. “I have no idea who I am,” he shared with me. “I grew up in an abusive home, so I just hid inside to get through it. Now, since the accident, my whole life has changed and I realize I’ve never known the real me.”
Jim’s experience is very common. Whether you’ve sustained a car accident, serious illness, divorce, job loss, abuse or assault you can find yourself suddenly feeling very disconnected from a sense of who you are. Like Jim, you may discover that you’ve never really known your true identity. Depending on circumstances, you may have formed your entire adult identity by reacting to life rather than creating the person you deeply wish to be.
If that’s the case, don’t worry. By setting an intention to discover who you are you can begin a journey that transforms your life into something more deep and full of meaning, purpose and joy than you have ever imagined possible. The key is to approach your identity exploration with patience and a willingness to be surprised.
Claiming your true identity is easier than it might seem. Love and joy are pure, instinctual emotions. Regardless of life experiences, your impulse to care for something and to feel enormous pleasure are emotions that come up at will and entirely unbidden. When you build your identity around the external expression and sharing of these core authentic traits you begin creating a life in alignment with your deepest self.
Four simple steps can immediately help you set your intention for self-discovery:
- Identify what you love – You are your most pure self in a state of love. Think back over your life, from the time you were a child until today: What people, things or activities have inspired deep love in you?
- Discover what brings you joy – You are your most true self in a state of delight. What makes you laugh, smile or feel giddy is pure reflex and comes from a deep part of you. Think back over your life, from the time you were a child until today: What people, things or activities have inspired an enormous feeling of pleasure in you?
- Incorporate love and joy into your daily life – When you identify what inspires love and joy in you, the next natural step is experiencing those things as often as possible. Doing this will connect you to that core authentic self on a regular basis. From there, you can begin to assess what changes and what new things in your life would create an environment for you to operate from your true self all the time.
- Share your love and joy with others – Living in alignment with your core self means living in the outward expression of who you are. Consider now, how you can include others in the experience or benefits of what brings you love and joy.
In my work with Jim he discovered that what he really loves is how creative he feels when he develops and launches a new business. What brings him joy: hiking in the mountains of North Carolina, which are close to where he lives. Jim’s plan for discovering himself included getting involved in more entrepreneurial projects with a core group of businessmen he admires, plus hiking every week with friends, family and other active hiking groups. The more Jim accessed these two key elements, the more they led him to develop and explore himself in new and unexpected ways. All of this led Jim to construct a dynamic, self-created identity in alignment with his core values and self. Now, if you ask Jim to answer the question, “Who am I?”, he’s got a lot to say.
Discovering that you have no clear vision of who you are, or that you’ve lost the connection to yourself that seemed so certain, can be frightening and disturbing. The idea of (re)creating your identity can seem overwhelming and chaotic. However, this is actually a time to celebrate who you are. The process of (re)claiming your identity is an adventure, a gift and a journey that will create not only a more alive version of you, but also a life that is much more rich and satisfying than you ever dreamed possible.
Michele Rosenthal, author of Before the World Intruded: Conquering the Past and Creating the Future, is a trauma survivor who struggled with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) for over 25 years. Today, Michele joyfully lives 100% free of PTSD symptoms. The host of “Your Life After Trauma” on Seaview Radio, Michele is a mental health advocate, public speaker, award-winning blogger, writer, workshop/seminar leader and Post-Trauma Identity Coach. You can follow Michele on Facebook and Twitter, or read more about her work at her website.