A single text message from my brother nearly sent me into an identity crisis. He was trying to persuade me to sign up for an extreme sports event which includes running up steep hills, wading through mud, scaling walls…getting mildly electrocuted. If you haven’t heard of this and think I’m describing something out of Abu Ghraib, it’s actually a popular event these days. But I haven’t been all that sporty in a while (and I’ve never been electrocuted on purpose).
So why the identity crisis? Why would anyone, let alone a sensitive therapist lady, even consider such a mud bath? Well, people are complicated. I have a self who gets really tired. Who’s always worried I’m dying from something. Who’s often experiencing some kind of ache or pain. She’s also pretty freaked out by this other person inside of me who used to do triathlons, play softball, climb trees, run in the rain…these two selves have been at odds for years. Sometimes sporty Lily comes out if the right tree presents itself but she’s been mostly out of commission for a while. And she hates being locked away.
Which one is the real me? Both. Actually, neither, if I’m going to be Buddhist about it but I don’t think I’m ready for that. To be clear, this isn’t multiple personalities in the clinical sense. We all have complex, seemingly contradictory pieces which contribute to our sense of identity. Or identities. You might be a no-nonsense, tough negotiator at work and a soft, plush teddy bear with your spouse. You might spend a weekend at a yoga retreat and then chain smoke a pack of cigarettes on your way home while singing “Born in the USA” at the top of your lungs (please don’t though). You’re weak. You’re strong. You’re shy. You’re rambunctious. You’re a math geek. You’re a painter. You’re a biker. You’re a concert pianist.
In high school I was frustrated that I couldn’t find the time to play sports and do theater productions. I was always encouraged towards the arts and away from sports growing up so the decision was kind of easy, but there was still a loss. So, I did my best to make the most of P.E. class. I distinctly remember a girl looking at me with confusion and anger during a particularly competitive basketball scrimmage. She spitefully asked, “why are you so into sports? I thought you did drama.” High school is a great example of the excruciating process of identity formation and our relationship to culture and peer groups. It’s really confusing to people when you don’t just fit in. Doesn’t matter where, as long as you fit in. In that moment I remember feeling embarrassed and ashamed that I didn’t quite fit perfectly anywhere. But neither did she because NO ONE DOES.
Going back to adult land, you know that annoying question we all ask or have been asked when trying to break the ice with someone new: “What do you do?” Behind that question is likely the question, “who are you?”. We answer with shame, or pride, or ambivalence knowing that others will define us based on a small fraction of what makes us who we are. “I’m a therapist” is my answer but I always hesitate. Not because I’m ashamed of what I do, but because it seems so overly simplistic and limiting. What about the rest of me?
The same is true internally. When we are rigidly defined (by family, culture, or ourselves) using narrow categories–work, family, religion, mental health diagnosis, addiction, good/bad–we have to shut a lot of ourselves out. This makes it really hard to be flexible enough to adapt to the ever-changing world around us and to have more access to joy and aliveness. We become reluctant (aka terrified) to step outside of our comfort zone because we are overly-identified with it. Instead we say things like, “I’m just not athletic” or “I’m just not artistic.”
So, who do you think you are? To further dive into this question, try journaling about it. Write a list of some of your identities. List out ways you feel limited by how you or others have defined you. Describe some lesser known selves you’ve been wanting to bring out more. Oh, you aren’t a “journaler”? Really? Try it anyway. You might be surprised.
Why therapy? As a therapist, I help clients unpack rigidly held beliefs about themselves so they might begin opening up to new possibilities–to find a sense of self that’s more complex and transcends strict categories. This process can lead to healing and reconciliation between identities so we can more fluidly move in and out of our different parts and consciously choose the selves various circumstances call for. We can learn to be casting director to the host of players living inside of us–not so we can hide behind a mask, but so we can find our most authentic expression.
At some point this year, my most authentic expression will include mild electrocution. No big deal.
Inspirations in writing this article:
The Gifts of Imperfection by Brene Brown, PhD, LMSW
Psychotherapy without the self: A Buddhist Perspective by Mark Epstein, M.D. (specifically chapter XII: The Structure of No Structure)
That horrible event one of my selves is really looking forward to: Tough Mudder