“Human beings are works in progress that mistakenly think they’re finished. The person you are right now is as transient, as fleeting and as temporary as all the people you’re ever been. The one constant in our lives is change.” – Dr. Dan Gilbert, Harvard Psychologist and Author
I remember sitting in my 7th grade Health class listening to my teacher explain how our teenage years are a time to discover who we truly are. This baffled me. Discover who I am? Where do I go to find that out? It seemed like such a strange statement for my 12 year old brain to process. I didn’t even know where to begin or what my “true self” would look like once I found it.
As a culture, we spend a lot of time, energy and money trying to secure a sense of identity. Our search for self fuels our consumer culture and each new product promises to speak to our deepest desires and make us appear more interesting and secure . Ironically, the very objects we use to define us change with the seasons and we scramble each year to reaffirm some stable sense of being in the ever-changing (and often arbitrary) world of fashion.
However, I am not here to begrudge consumerism. My issue, rather, is with the search for a single, stable identity. As with the changing tides of fashion and the seasons they follow, we too are in constant flux. Each new experience alters the way we understand ourselves and the world.
Internal and External Self
There are two essential features of our self: the external and the internal. External features include where we live, our history, race, religion, how we dress, etc. This is how we present ourselves to the world and is a reflection of our internal self in some ways. Our internal self includes our values, motivations, dreams, personality traits, emotions, and so on. The latter is how we usually define our “real self.”
Normally, we are instructed by wise and insightful individuals to chose one over the other, usually the internal over the external. However, I believe both aspects play an important role on how we define ourselves and understand others. A lot of us believe we have to discover who we are as if it were a jewel hidden on some mountain peak in Peru. We search for it in our purchases, hobbies, books, and friends. We chase it as if it were something out there, waiting to be uncovered.
However, by searching for ourselves, we overlook the way we are continually defining ourselves from moment to moment. Each decision, each word, each thought we engage in defines us. Our identity is in a state of constant creation, even as we search for it. So why do we often feel like we are missing something?
Here are 4 Ways to Embrace the Changing Self that have helped ease my own feelings of discontentment in a seemingly never ending search for identity.
1). Don’t find yourself, create yourself. Searching for yourself is like trying to see with your eyes. It’s something we do naturally without having to try. We are constantly creating an identity, or playing a role, if only on a subconscious level. By acknowledging this, we begin to understand the freedom we have in our own self creation. We believe we are limited by our upbringing, our friends and family and environment. While these do play a role in our self definition, we have control over how we react to them.
We each have the ability to chose how we react to negativity, abuse, boredom, and to a future that seems defined for us. We define what is important to us, how we would like to be treated and how we present ourselves to the world. Authenticity is rooted more so in our passion rather than our circumstances. When we are involved in our passion, such as music, writing, basketball, running, or whatever, we act in the moment without having to make a conscious effort. Instead of allowing our environment to define us, we can let our passions express our deepest sense of self.
2). Accept your fears about being the person you would like. Fear is a powerful drug as it distorts our ability to accurately perceive reality. Fear prevents us from pursuing our passions and therefore from creating a satisfying identity. It is important to acknowledge what fears hold us back in order to confront them. In fact, one of the top five regrets people express on their death-bed is that they wish they had lived a life true to themselves and didn’t spend so much energy catering to the expectations of others.
Fear can take the form of a bully, criticism, discomfort, or challenge. If we chose not to face these, then we become defined by them. As I said, we are constantly creating a self by the choices we make. If we consistently chose fear, then we constantly define ourselves as fearful. When we are afraid, we are as brittle as a dried up leaf. However, if we allow ourselves to be forged by our fears, we become as a strong as steel.
3). Find like-minded individuals. You are not alone. We are all insecure about something and in some way searching for stability. With 7+ billion people on the Earth, there is bound to be at least one other person with the same passions and character as you. Take a chance, branch out and explore areas of interest. Read, blog, Skype, write a letter, and travel.
We all yearn to connect with others and part of defining our self is learning from the example of others. What type of person do you look up to? What characters do you identify with? These are telling insights into how we want to be perceived treated and understood.
4). Start right here, right now. Part of the problem with “searching” for a true self is that “self” becomes a goal. We travel the world in order to discover what’s in our own mind. In the end, we miss the point of it all, which is the experience of life as a process.
Instead, begin right now. Let us consider the choices we make, the thoughts we have, and how we spend our time and money. Our life is a collection of individual choices. If we are unhappy with who we are, commit to change. It’s never too early or too late to change our path. Also, if you’re happy with who you are, please, share it with others. Spread your kindness and be brave enough to share your experiences.
Believing we have one true self limits our ability to adapt. If our sense of self is like a rock, it will erode away by the weathering of time. However, if our self is more like a river we are able to bend and flow with the changes of life.
I enjoy the idea of creating a self because it places the responsibility in my own hands. If we are unhappy, it is because of how we respond to the events in our life. Likewise, we have the ability to alter our responses and physically change the way we live. It is an ongoing process and if we free ourselves from the bounds of history and circumstance, we can avoid a life of fatalism and helplessness. It starts with one decision.