About eight or nine years ago I was in a group therapy session with 10 other women when the doctor had us go around the room and do a seemingly simple exercise: tell the group about ourselves.
Now keep in mind the setting—it was a hospital and not a wine bar—but one by one we went around the room. In the span of 10 minutes I learned among other things that one woman had severe depression, one was bipolar, one was struggling with bulimia and self-harm while another was checked in for a suicide attempt after a brutal sexual assault.
The doctor sat back with this look on her face and was quiet for a minute before she looked around the group and said, “You know what I find interesting? I see something entirely different.
“I know that you are a retired opera singer,” she continued as she shifted her gaze over the group. “That you graduated from dental school with honors, that you are a nationally published writer and that you have three children under the age of five. I don’t see your circumstances. I don’t let them define you.”
That really stuck with me.
It’s natural to identify ourselves using our circumstances, our struggles or how others perceive us. There’s an odd sense of comfort in being able to fall back on those things—more as a justification than an excuse—but none of those things are truly who we are. And the problem with latching onto these identities is, in addition to limiting our growth, we start to let them define us.
Why so serious?
I hate the “Who am I?” question myself, in part because it’s something I’ve struggled with now for years. It’s been a decade of survival, of retreating into intellectualizing everything and just being a quiet observer of life rather than fully immersing myself in it at times.
The problem is that through all my searching, I never found that “one” answer I needed, but rather the answers for somebody else.
It’s not so much that I don’t know who I am—I think I’m actually quite self-aware—but that I don’t know how to align where I am with where I want to go and how I want to live my life. And as much as I wish someone would just tell me what to do and how to get to that point, I also know it’s a journey.
Identity is constantly changing, and authenticity can’t be intellectualized or wrapped up in a neat little bow and printed on high-gloss business cards. But I’ve learned that it’s vital to be more concerned with how my life feels, rather than how my life looks. This is much easier said than done at times, but most valuable things often are.
So in response to Noa, I would have to say that among other things, I am a writer, a daughter and a loyal friend. I’m funny and grateful for humor, but introspective and complex as well. I’m someone who struggles, but I’m doing the best that I can and am unapologetically myself.
I am not my circumstances, but rather a survivor.
I am a constant work in progress.
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How would you answer the question?