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When You Don’t Know Who You Are

My nearly 19-year-old parrot, Pearl, doesn’t struggle with figuring out who he is like I do. While I was typing this post, he was busy singing to (and occasionally nipping at) my fingers as they made that wonderful tap-tap-tap sound he loves!

Have you ever had one of those moments when you suddenly learn something new and shocking about yourself and this makes you think, “Do I even know myself at all?”

I sure do.

In fact, while I used to assume I would gradually get to know myself better and better as I got older and older, as I am actually getting older I am finding – oddly – the reverse seems more true.

The older I get, the stranger I seem to myself. I will do something and then think, “Why did I just do that?” Or I will think something and then wonder, “Why on earth do I think that way?”

Sometimes I lie in bed in the morning or evening and can’t make heads or tails of myself or my life. There are days I think I’m washed up at (nearly) 48. Like, maybe this is it. This is me. This is my personality. This is my body. These are my genes. This is my life. It is set. I’ve tried to change and I just can’t.

And it all seems so mysterious, especially from the gal whose governing motto in life often appears to to be,  “Well, how hard could it be? I’ll just go ahead and try it and see.”

But this really only applies if that opportunity even knocks. Some opportunities – the same ones that frequently appear to come so readily into other people’s lives – have never even passed by my door, let alone taken the time to walk all the way up the front walkway and knock!

And I wonder about that, too. Am I doing something wrong? Am I being someone wrong, that this thing or experience or feeling I so want remains so elusive?

I would have loved to title this blog post, “What to do when you don’t know who you are.” But I have no idea. So I can’t write that blog post – at least not yet.

All I know to do at this point is to keep asking the questions, ad nauseam if I have to, to keep reminding myself not to go outside into comparisons with others but to go inside into conversations with myself, to keep waking up and staying curious and open and interested in getting to know this being inside my skin, the one who is using my name, wearing my clothes and living my life with or without my permission or approval.

For those of you who have been popping in here regularly over the years, you know Don Miguel Ruiz is one of my absolute favorite teachers and mentors. Recently and with great excitement I started reading his newest book. It is called “The Three Questions.”

So far I’ve only read the first chapter and I’ve already had the book for three weeks. This is because that first chapter is so profound I am stuck there, still reading and re-reading his words about how everything – absolutely EVERYTHING – in our life is a story.

In that first chapter, he talks briefly yet at profound depth about how we get so good at crafting and then telling and re-telling the stories of our lives. We get so good at it that we get stuck there, like to the point we should put it on our resume as a marketable skill, because we have honed the stories we tell and how we tell them to a fine art.

And then he talks about how, over time, we start to drink our own Kool-aid, so to speak. We start to truly believe the stories we tell and as we do, over time we begin to tweak and more carefully craft our stories to better reflect our side of what happened, our take on why we are the way that we are, our reasoning for why we do the things we do and our explanation for why and how our lives have unfolded the way they have unfolded.

He talks about how we make those small edits and adjustments as we go along, perhaps dimly aware of our own subtle deletions or additions, but not questioning them too closely in the interests of preserving the greater good feeling they give us.

The night I first opened “The Three Questions” and read that first chapter, I was feeling particularly uncomfortable about something in my life. I don’t remember now what it was, but I know that reading Don Miguel Ruiz’s words instantly eased it. It was like, just before I started reading the book, I had been over-filled with air and was feeling all that pressure and pain and, then after reading that one chapter, in a flash I deflated and descended into total peace. I closed up the book and slept deeply. I awoke feeling hopeful, renewed, inspired.

This, of course, is because the first of Ruiz’s three questions asks, “Who am I?”

Wow. Really? Whew. You mean I’m not the only one who doesn’t know who I am?

He writes:

Asking yourself, “Who am I?” means taking the first step back to authenticity, or truth. Our instinct is to cling to the picture we have of ourselves, which makes any new discoveries impossible. Questioning who we are gives us a chance to bring down a few walls – a few stubborn beliefs – and reconnect with life.”

I will tell you what, it is not often I get an “atta girl!” directly from my hero Don Miguel Ruiz himself, but if ever it were to happen, I think this might have been it.

He goes on to talk about how, growing up, we get descriptions of ourselves from others.

White sheep. Black sheep. Eldest. Youngest. The responsible one. The rebel. More like Mom. More like Dad. Too stubborn. Too weak. Too tall. Too short. Too round. Not round enough. Good at writing. Bad at math. Destined for greatness. Destined for jail.

He says that, when we are young, this input from others initially helps us create a sense of who we are in terms of how we fit in with the world we find around us. (Perhaps this also explains why my Mom tells me I repeatedly asked her if I was adopted all during my early growing up years.)

But then later on, as other people’s opinions get hardened into personal fact, we turn ourselves into a character – a story – sometimes even a caricature. And we turn our story into a classic that could pass for a modern-day fairy tale, albeit not always a flattering one.

Ruiz says that when we start to believe our self-constructed fairy tale and we start to think the starring role we are playing is actually who we are, we might not realize we have set a cagey trap for ourselves that we then keep falling into.

Since I haven’t read any further in his book than this single three-page chapter, I can’t tell you what Ruiz is going to say next. And with nearly 48 years of well-crafted stories to sort through, I suspect it might be awhile before I get to chapter two.

But what I can say is this – for me at least, it is taking not a little but a lot of courage to wade on in. It is very unsettling to wake up and think, “Who the heck AM I anyway? Aren’t I supposed to know “the answer” to this by now?”

To me personally, it feels like getting that singular aha moment – the brilliant “lightbulb-on” insight – the one you’ve been waiting for your whole life – but it is written in another language. I don’t know how to speak that language. If I want to know what it says, I have to take the steps and do the work and learn the new language. And I’ve never been very good at learning new languages.

At the end of chapter one of “The Three Questions,” Ruiz asks:

If we ever read our story out loud, we’d begin to see it all as a work of fiction, a work of art. And we’d realize that even our best stories don’t tell the truth about us. And if that’s the case, then who are we?

Such a good question.

Today’s Takeaway: Have you found a mentor or a path or a school of thought or self-inquiry that has helped you “peel back the layers,” as a friend of mine likes to say, and learn more about who you really are underneath your years of crafting and telling and re-telling your personal stories? If yes, then if you had it to do over again, do you think you would still have have chosen to start this journey of waking up and meeting the real, authentic you? I’d love to hear your thoughts and any favorite mentors you have who help you stay focused on getting to know your true self!

When You Don’t Know Who You Are

Shannon Cutts

Parrot, tortoise & box turtle mama. Writer. Author. Mentor. Champion of all people (and things) recovered and recovering.

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APA Reference
Cutts, S. (2018). When You Don’t Know Who You Are. Psych Central. Retrieved on June 2, 2020, from


Last updated: 29 Nov 2018
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