In the last three posts, we discussed the possibility that you may have interpreted normal experiences as being negative characteristics about yourself and accepted characteristics attributed to you by others, when in fact those characteristics may not be true.
When you are told who you are by others, and given characteristics that aren’t accurate, the process of developing your own identity may be stopped or interrupted. You may even become afraid of knowing yourself or experience such shame about who you think you are that it is painful to consider your identity.
Children rarely set out to find their identity. They develop a sense of who they are by noticing over time what they enjoy doing and what they are good at – what has meaning to them. They learn characteristics about themselves through their interactions with others who reflect an accurate view and validate the child’s internal experience.
If you didn’t have that experience as a child, you can still work on building and repairing an inaccurate sense of self. Identity isn’t fixed forever; it changes through time and experiences. Finding people who are capable of accepting you as you are and reflecting an accurate view back to you will be helpful. If anyone blames, invalidates, or attributes your behaviors to undesirable personality characteristics then they are not helpful and can add to the problem.
We all have strengths and weaknesses and that’s just part of being human, not something to be blamed for.
The Jigsaw of Identity
Identity is made up of components, like a jigsaw puzzle. Each piece fits into the whole. For some their identity is solid and the pieces fit together tightly. For others their identity may be more separate, as if the pieces have space between them. For example, they may be outgoing at times and shy at other times and sometimes maybe a mixture of the two characteristics.
Discovering your identity is like finding pieces of the puzzle that fit, and discovering where they fit as well as discovering pieces that don’t fit; pieces that aren’t really you. Identity doesn’t come to you wholly developed, you find it by experiencing and being mindful of your experiences over time. Identity is developed through putting together lots of small pieces rather than something coming to you as a whole, fully integrated.
Part of your identity will be the roles that you have, such as sister or mother or husband. Your occupation might be a part of your identity, particularly if you do something you love and/or that reflects a skill that you have. Your hobbies and leisure activities could reflect a part of what you value or what gives you joy. Maybe you have strong characteristics like a good sense of humor or wittiness.
Discovering what you value, what you’re good at, what gives you joy, your weaknesses and strengths and what characteristics others appreciate requires focusing your attention on your experience. This means being mindful of your experiences and not numbing your feelings. Your feelings are a part of who you are and one of the ways you learn about yourself. Only by being aware of your feelings can you know what you like and dislike. No one else knows that and you can’t be wrong. It’s just your experience.
Try an experiment. Do an activity. Go to the park, take a walk, or take a bath. Or go to a flower shop. Do it like you are doing it for the first time. Be mindful of what you see and feel. Being mindful means being completely in touch with and aware of the present moment and not thinking about anything other than what is happening in the moment. When your mind wanders as it naturally does, gently bring it back to what you are doing. What do you enjoy? Do you notice colors more than smells ?Consider writing about your experience, maybe keep an identity journal.
Each day for a week try to be mindful of your preferences and your emotions about situations and places. Just notice them. You may need to let go of being focused on other people’s reactions in order to be more aware of your own.
When someone suggests a restaurant for lunch, pay attention to what you enjoy and don’t enjoy about the restaurant and the food. You might want to slow your eating, paying careful attention to the flavor of the food. You may wish to participate in PsychCentral’s slow eating challenge as a part of your discovering what you enjoy about food.
Over time you’ll learn your preferences. By doing mindful eating I learned I don’t really like potato chips. I enjoyed a handful because of the salt and crunchiness. When I ate just one and paid attention, I found I didn’t really like the actual taste. You may be surprised by what you learn about your relationship with food.
Being mindful throughout your day, as often as you can, will allow you to learn about yourself. We’ll consider more about developing your identity in the next post.
Note to Readers: My sincere thanks to everyone who has completed our second survey. If you haven’t participated, please consider answering the questions on our new survey about being emotionally sensitive. Results will be given in a future post.
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Last reviewed: 5 May 2012