When you ask yourself the question, “who am I”, usually you’re struggling with the meaning and purpose behind your life. You might be trying to find yourself, or figure out how you matter.
When does the “who am I” question come up?
Sometimes going through something tough, like growing up or facing your own mortality prompts the “who am I?” question. Or maybe it’s a big change like a divorce or breakup, a new job or merely moving through the different phases of life. Perhaps you’re just a thinker and you can’t help questioning and doubting everything. If you’re anything like me, you’re probably asking that question all the time – as you struggle with questions of identity and purpose.
How many times have you asked yourself this question?
How many times have you questioned why you’re on this earth?
How many times have you questioned your very existence?
And the question itself prompts even more questions: Is it possible to even know who I am? Why do I need to know who I am? Would any answer ever really answer this question?
In these moments, life can feel like it’s spinning out of control and you might feel overwhelmed. It could also feel like you are stuck and fighting your way through quicksand, and you can’t seem to get through and make something of your life.
When the “who am I” question overwhelmed me, I read the words of Indian sage Ramana Maharshi:
“The question, ‘who am I?’ is not meant to get an answer. The question ‘who am I?’ is meant to dissolve the questioner.”
Wait. Dissolve the questioner?
Think about that for a second. If I had no ego, would I be tied to my identity?
Naturally, I’m going to use the Blue-footed Booby as an example. Like any animal, boobies have no sense of identity. They know how to just ‘be’. They simply exist from moment to moment, doing what they do when they need to.
Identity is a construct. A human one.
Who am I = identity
(a) a set of physical, psychological, and interpersonal characteristics that is not wholly shared with any other person
(b) a range of affiliations (e.g., ethnicity) and social roles.
Identity involves a sense of continuity or the feeling that one is the same person today that one was yesterday or last year (despite physical or other changes). Such a sense is derived from one’s body sensations; one’s body image; and the feeling that one’s memories, goals, values, expectations, and beliefs belong to the self.”
It’s what makes you, you, at least in your mind.
Identity is an important component of who you are. It gives you a picture of who you are because it makes up the ‘self’. But we’re more than one thing. We’re a whole smorgasbord of ideas and experiences.
Why we need identity
As humans, we search for and find comfort in our identity. It roots us, gives us confidence, and affects every single thing in our lives. It influences the choices we make and the values we live by.
Identity can be seen as your avatar for the values and tenets you hold. It’s a reflection of what you believe, do and value. So, can we choose it? If we can choose it, can we change it? To what extent is your identity your own?
Your identity isn’t your own
Your identity can be compromised by external factors. According to Psychology Today, “few people choose their identities. Instead, they simply internalize the values of their parents or the dominant cultures (e.g., the pursuit of materialism, power, and appearance). Sadly, these values may not be aligned with one’s authentic self and create an unfulfilling life.”
If you inherit our identity or try to live up to this prescribed identity, you feel stressed.
Because your identity isn’t actually yours. It’s false. It’s been inherited or forced upon you.
The problem is that you don’t know what your real identity is.
And that’s why you ask, “who am I?”
The role of social media
Social media has created even more false identities. Everyone is playing different roles to impress their friends, families, or clients. Many influencers or the people you admire are just posing or pretending. It’s exhausting, not just for them to maintain the façade, but for you, if you’re trying to mimic their façade. It’s a vicious cycle of fakeness on top of fakeness.
Then there are the roles we’re playing in our daily lives, creating multiple identities as daughter, parent, friend, role model/influencer, neighbour etc.
Do you sometimes feel like you’re splitting yourself into different versions of yourself for different people at different moments?
It’s the norm to split and compartmentalize your identity into “roles.” And you perform these “roles” in different circumstances.
I recently came across this quote that’s been viral on social media, which I’ve paraphrased below:
A different version of you exists in the minds of everyone who has ever known you. The person you think of as ‘yourself’ exists only for you, and even you don’t really know who that is. Every person you meet, have a relationship with, work with, or even who vaguely knows you as an acquaintance creates a version of you in their heads. You’re not the same person to your parents, your siblings, as you are to your partner, coworkers, neighbours or friends. There are a thousand different versions of you out there, in others’ minds.
In the book, the main character has an epiphany: Inside the imagination of every person he comes across exists a different version of himself—a version that doesn’t match his own self-image. He realizes “he” was only “him” to himself. Everyone around him had created their own version of him in their minds.
The identity struggle
When you perform these roles or act according to how others perceive you (or how you want to be perceived by them), you internalize them as if they were your real identities. But they’re not real.
This conflict (aka the identity struggle) combined with the need to find our authentic self, is the cause of much unhappiness.
We might escape with drugs, shopping, gaming, gambling, or compulsively watching series to feel alive or connected and to stave off feelings of depression and meaninglessness.
People who have successfully found their authentic selves are usually happier and more content. They live their life true to their values and pursue meaningful goals.
But how can you figure out who you are?
How can you separate your identity from the one shaped by your family or society?
No matter what phase of life you are in or whether you feel lost for so long that there’s no point, these 5 questions will help you start to figure out who you are and how to find some meaning.
Blue-footed Booby Success Formula: How to answer the ‘who am I?” question
- Think about how you would describe yourself.
- Write down everything you can think of, from your looks to your personality to your values and character. How would your friends describe you? Think of anything positive and anything negative, but don’t be too critical or overanalytical.
- Now write down how you want to describe yourself. Write down everything as if you are describing your ideal (or higher) self. In this process, you are identifying who you want to become. Who is this ideal/dream person you’d love to be?
- Now compare the two to find out what is different. Do you think there are steps you could take to get to your dream version of you?
If you really put the work in, this exercise will take some time. It’s also just the first part of a series of exercises to help you figure out who you are. And before you get overwhelmed and start FML’ing and shouting TMI, just remember that finding out who you are is a process. A journey – not a destination.
Who finds you the most fascinating? You do. I know it, you know it, everyone around you knows it. You love talking about yourself, analysing yourself, and wondering what makes you tick. So, go on and explore who you are with an adventurer’s mindset. It’s going to be a fun journey of exploration and growth.
Best of all, I’ve broken up the “Who am I?” question into a series of articles, with four more exercises that will help you delve even deeper into who you really are.
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And don’t forget to join the blue-foot flock! We’re always looking for thinkers and dreamers like you to be part of our little clan. Blue-footed, left-handed, foot stompers, truth seekers and anyone in between.