Who are we when we don't know who we are?
Updated: Feb 5
Back when dinosaurs roamed the earth and I was an undergrad, on the very first day of Introductory Psych I introduced myself to the student sitting next to me using an English accent. It was a massive class of about 400 students, held in a lecture hall the size of the Coliseum, so I suppose some part of my brain decided I’d never see this particular woman again.
Boy, was I wrong.
So alluring was my accent that the next week she flagged me down, waving me over and pointing at the seat next to her which, of course, she’d saved. The same thing happened the next week. And the next. When I tried to dodge her she found me and asked the person sitting next to me to move so we could be together. I was stuck. For an entire year I sat with this woman every single week and gave myself no choice but to keep the deception going.
What a waste. She was a lovely, bright young woman. She was funny, self-assured, and smart. She had impeccable note-taking skills which I both admired and coveted. She also had a cute hairstyle and good taste in clothes. Had I not chosen falsehood over authenticity I could have made a meaningful connection with her. We could have studied together, eaten lunch together, shared fashion tips, become friends. But on day one of our acquaintance I made sure that couldn’t happen and was forced to live with the consequences.
Who are we when we don’t know who we are?
Because that’s what this story is about. I was a twenty-year-old woman with no sense of my own innate value, no love of self, and no appreciation of what other people could bring into my life through authentic relationship.
I'm happy to report over the subsequent forty years I’ve invested heavily in figuring out who I am. I’ve come to love my quirks and imperfections. I’ve learned to embrace my unique gifts and abilities. I’ve forgiven my many missteps and healed my inner brokenness. And I’ve developed the kind of resilience that's needed when our roles change and we’re asked (often not in polite ways) to give up what was in exchange for what is.
And from this still evolving but infinitely more grounded perspective, I look around and see people struggling in much the same way I did back when I didn’t know who I was. They may not be affecting English accents, but just as my 20-year-old self was acting on the belief that the unembellished version of me was unacceptable to the world, I see people grasping at counterfeit identities shaped by social media, mob mentality, and un-critiqued group-think.
And what saddens me most is this: Unless our sense of self is rooted in the hard and messy work of journeying inward, the person we think we are is a sham. There’s no such thing as plug and play identity, y’all.
I recently heard an interview with Joshua Johnson of NPR’s The 1A and Brené Brown. It was the rebroadcast of a show first aired a couple of years earlier, but in light of what I’ve been thinking about lately and the writing of this blog, the timing was exquisite. (And Brené Brown was her usual brilliant, compassionate, and funny self, so it's definitely worth a listen).
In the interview, Dr. Brown speaks about the difference between fitting in and connection and how easy it is to confuse the vast inter-connectedness of the virtual world with authentic intimacy, a critical component in the development of a strong sense of self. And she talks about how knowing who we truly are sometimes means we stand alone against the tide of popular opinion. And what a courageous act this is.
And while I like to think Brené Brown is one of my people, she’d be the first to say she’s no substitute for face-to-face connection. For deep introspection in the quest for self-acceptance. For time spent in communion with the Divine, probing the reason for my being.
Which, as it happens, sounds a lot like Engaging in authentic connections, one of the foundational practices of The Recovered Life.
Just as the rest of the foundational practices factor into the task of claiming or reclaiming our true identities (which is no coincidence – they’re called foundational for a reason):
Seeing my life through the lens of clarifying honesty. The ongoing process of coming to know who we truly are, warts and all.
Exercising radical acceptance. Our ability to fully receive and embrace ourselves in all of our complexity, imperfection, and outright awesomeness.
Taking ownership of my stuff and letting go of other people’s stuff. Our willingness to cultivate the gifts we’ve been given, refine our own rough edges, and minimize the impact people and/or forces outside of our selves and our authentic community have on our ongoing development.
Being willing to take risks. Committing to the journey of unpacking the truth about ourselves is a huge risk. And a necessary one.
How about you? Is identity something you’d like to explore? If so, I’d love to share that journey with you. Message me to learn more about what this might look like.
In closing, to Trish from Introductory Psych: If you’re out there, thank-you for playing a part in the beautiful dance that now defines my sense of self. I’m sorry I missed out on being your true friend.