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What is an identity? Photo by Flickr user José Luís Agapito (Creative Commons license).

What is an identity? Photo by Flickr user José Luís Agapito (Creative Commons license).

I wrote this last week: “Knowing myself, being myself, even while chaos swirls around me, is my definition of happiness.”

Sounds great, right? A little gooey, maybe, but I was writing about happiness, and how to tell if you’re happy, because I was feeling happy.

But how do you know if you know yourself?

I ask because that very same day, I had a conversation with someone versed in these issues. This person asked me if I had a strong sense of who I was. I said yes, without hesitation. This person asked me to elaborate, and pointedly asked, “So, who are you?” 

Me: I’m a writer and a mother.

X: That’s something you do, and a role that is contingent upon someone else. Who are you?

Me: An artist. A communicator. A creator. Someone who tries to figure out and show what things mean. A protector and teacher.

X: What does that mean?

Me: Um. Ummmmm.

X: Ok. What else? Who are you?

Me: I’m passionate and loyal. I love the things I love loudly, proudly, and forever.

X: Good. What else?

Me: Um. I love food. I love music. I love being outside–

X: I’m going to interrupt you because you are now just listing likes and dislikes, and those are preferences, not traits.

Me: Ok, so I’m someone who doesn’t follow directions?

We laughed. This person laughed harder than I did.

Hi, I’m Stacia, and I tell self-deprecating jokes when I’m profoundly uncomfortable because someone has matter-of-factly pointed out that what I thought I knew about myself, I might not really know at all, and I’m possibly in the throes of a full-fledged, trauma-induced identity crisis.

Honest to goddess, this really shook me. I’ve walked around my whole life with the swagger of someone who knows who she is, but the more reading on identity/sense of self I’ve done, the more I’m realizing the huge difference between the public persona and, well, the soul. Who you are when no one’s looking or listening. Who you are if you could see the true patterns of your psychology, your actions and reactions, and how they are influenced by external factors and your own self-consciousness. Who you are if you were stripped of your relationships and career, or all the external things that you THINK make up who you are, the way I thought that a love of music, among other things, somehow defined me.

What are my values–not the ones I want to have, but the ones I DO have? What are the values of my family of origin? Am I suppressing or controlling traits that do not fit my idea of who I am or want to be? How do I handle it when things don’t go the way I want them to? Can I even attempt to answer the question: How do I know and experience my inner self? (I can’t. Yet. I am so much more brand-new than I thought I was.)

I don’t have many answers here. I’ve only just arrived at the asking. I do have a few ideas about myself that I didn’t have last week, at least not as they pertain to comprising my inner, “real” identity:

I am a survivor. I persevere even while I despair. I have been through a lot, so I know I can live through a lot.

I over-analyze and worry a great deal, mostly about things that are not within my control, and I would like to stop doing that. The grand exception is that I worry deeply about every syllable that comes out of my mouth–and I’m, in theory, very much in control of that.

I have a deep appreciation for beauty, and a broad definition of the word.

I hate lying and liars and am bad at it myself, so I don’t do it. I value honesty, even brutal honesty, because I think we can find a compassionate and kind way to share even the most brutal truths.

I set my own pace. I don’t like to be rushed to decisions by others, and I don’t like to be told what to do (because that rushes the process by which I figure it out myself). I respect the process of learning and discovery. I ask lots of questions because part of my learning style is having a clear “big picture.” Further, I am ritualistic in my work. I never realized (in so many words) how grounding a practice it is to light the same candle every evening, or to wrap myself in the same throw when reading, or to read the same Audre Lorde quote above my writing desk every time I sit down: “When I dare to be powerful, to use my strength in the service of my vision, then it becomes less and less important whether I am afraid.”

There’s more, but I have this thing about being too naked on the internet…

I would love to read some quotes or thoughts on outward vs. inner personas, identity, and sense of self. Please share some recommendations or words of wisdom that have helped you. What a huge, heady topic.