I have always had a very strong sense of self. Admittedly, it has sometimes become somewhat buried under expectations or confusion or trauma, but even in the hard times, I have known on some essential level who I am.
But it wasn’t until a bit later in life that I realized not everyone has this same confidence in who they are. And once I did understand this to be true, this question both worried and fascinated me: Why? Why do I know who I am? What is it that forms that core sense of self that I am able to fall back on in times of stress and trouble?
And how can I be so very certain of who I am when I also believe myself to be constantly changing, when I enjoy learning and challenging myself? How do I know myself when sometimes my behavior changes, or my environment changes, or my interests change, or my opinions change?
I don’t know that I have a complete answer to this question, but this is what I’ve got so far:
My basic stories about myself are simple. We all tell stories about ourselves, and we start this at a young age. Someone does well on a certain art assignment at school, and then he has a story that he is an artist. Someone wins a competition, and the story of winning can come to define her. We tell stories about our physical and mental attributes, our personalities, our families, our love lives, our careers. And this is perfectly normal.
But I’ve always been clear on my basic story, and my basic story tells both who I want to be, and, because these stories can end up being self-fulfilling prophecies, who I am. I become who I want to be–not all the time, but quite often.
So what are my fundamental stories?
I love the world. I love being alive. I’m curious. I’m determined. I care a lot about resilience, and kindness, and joy.
Does this mean I am always resilient or kind or joyful or happy about what’s going on? No, not at all. But I always care about those traits, and I always come back to the sense of feeling lucky to be alive. Perhaps this is temperament, or a basic value system, I’m not sure. But these things have never changed for me, not over the long term.
I recognize my experience as part of my identity.
For many years, I taught music as a profession. So one of my identities was musician. Now I only do music for fun, and when I get busy, my practice falls by the wayside, sometimes for months at a time.
But being a musician has been folded into who I am. I spent over fifteen years putting huge amounts of time and effort into music. My skills, without so much constant practice, are no longer at their peak. But my thousands of hours as a musician shaped who I am today. How could it not have?
Experience matters. And just because it changes over time does not mean it automatically becomes lost. Experience ripples into the present, in both predictable and surprising ways.
I don’t define myself by comparing myself to others. I have never thought of myself as being the pretty one, or so-and-so’s girlfriend, or the geek girl, or the smart one. I can be all of those things, sure, but that’s not who I think I am, not in the essentials. In fact, when I was voted Most Intelligent in high school, I was completely shocked. And not because of modesty, but because it simply hadn’t occurred to me that being intelligent was the way my classmates defined me.
Who I am is not determined by others. I’m not in some kind of competition with the rest of the human race so I can define myself by whatever traits or skills of mine are better than average, or get more recognition. I’m not merely what other people see in me. And if I meet someone who is better at me at something that is important to me, that doesn’t change anything about me.
I determine for myself who I am.