Shifting Identities: Why Your Experiences Don’t Define You

people emerging from shadowsRachel Dolezal, a Caucasian woman, has dominated recent news with her assertion that she identifies as black. Like many people, I was initially perplexed about why someone would choose to identify with an oppressed culture. What benefit is there to choosing to belong to a group of people who have been marginalized?

When people have difficult and character-forming experiences, they generally want them to be witnessed, honored, and respected. People with visible identities, as race typically is, naturally have this validating experience. For many people, parts of their identities and the way they understand themselves come from the struggles and challenges they have endured.

Poverty is a prime example. Though we may not consciously consider poverty an identity, for many people it is one. Many people who experience poverty have a shared experience of not having enough, being judged, and being marginalized. Poverty informs how people experience and interpret the world.

I worked with a 48-year-old woman—I’ll call her Nina—who consistently spoke of “being poor.” For most of her childhood, her family struggled financially and did not have their basic needs of food, shelter, and clothing met on a regular basis. When she was 14, her family’s situation changed. Her mother got a well-paying job, they bought a home, and they had financial security, as is true to this day.

As a grown woman, Nina continued to refer to herself as poor, though she factually had not experienced poverty for 34 years. Nina’s earlier experience of living in poverty was so defining that it became part of her identity.

This phenomenon is also true for internal experiences. Consider people who have experienced, say, addiction or depression. “I’m an addict” and “I’m a depressed person” are phrases that I have heard many times. People often define their entire being by a challenging part of themselves, when in reality it is one of many aspects and identities that comprise who they are.

As human beings, we are wired to connect to others and to be recognized and understood by others. Tightly gripping an “old” identity is a way to keep that part of you visible—to keep the struggle of addiction or depression or trauma or poverty as a real and acknowledged part of your existence.

Being depressed is not all of a person. It is an experience, albeit it an unpleasant one. People who are depressed are also parents and friends and colleagues. There are many other pieces to who they are in addition to their depression. However, unlike depression, being a parent is visible. Being a colleague is visible. People see and understand these roles and identities and, in turn, validate them.

What happens when life circumstances shift and their current experiences no longer fit their description of themselves? Though Nina no longer lives in poverty and has not for more time than she has, she still very strongly identifies with being “poor.” When someone is no longer depressed, does he or she still say, “I’m a depressed person”? Many people do. They become so used to understanding themselves one way that it becomes the dominant narrative of their life, even when it no longer fits the circumstances.

As human beings, we are wired to connect to others and to be recognized and understood by others. Tightly gripping an “old” identity is a way to keep that part of you visible—to keep the struggle of addiction or depression or trauma or poverty as a real and acknowledged part of your existence.

But you can release parts and identities that no longer fit while still having them as part of you and your story.

Narrative therapy is a technique that allows people to share and tell the stories of their lives. It makes visible what is invisible. The struggles, challenges, and resilience that you have developed during your lifetime are part of your story. The ways we self-identify at one point in our lives may be different than at another point, and both identities can be true. Narrative therapy helps to weave together these many different aspects of life into a multifaceted story. It gives us the richness and fullness of our experiences as people rather than limiting us to one way of being. It helps us understand that we are not only our race or gender or depression or addiction. Instead, those aspects are pieces of a changing, evolving, and larger picture of who we are.

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  • Taylor

    Taylor

    June 19th, 2015 at 11:40 AM

    Don’t you think that overall there is a lot more fluidity in who we are and how we identify and have the ability to identify than there was say even five or ten years ago?

    So if society is a lot more willing to accept this then shouldn’t we on an individual level be willing to accept that too?

  • Thora

    Thora

    June 19th, 2015 at 2:33 PM

    While I will readily admit that I am an addict and that I always will be, I want everyone to know that there is more to me than just this one thing. I have a problem with alcohol and I know that this is something that likely I will always struggle against, and I do that every day by doing my steps and the things that I have to do to stay clean. End of discussion. There is a whole other part of me who likes books and history and films and shopping and a whole host of other things. I do not choose to define myself in only one way and I ask that others kindly do the same.

  • dell

    dell

    June 20th, 2015 at 5:38 AM

    You can’t help but wonder though why there are some people who wear these labels like some kind of badge of honor. They WAnT someone to think that there is something that is wrong with them so that they can then wear that like a martyr.

  • Zachariah

    Zachariah

    June 20th, 2015 at 12:24 PM

    So you can’t let your experiences define you. They can shape you, but they don’t have to be your sole identity.

  • Tara

    Tara

    June 21st, 2015 at 5:06 AM

    It is never any good to let that one thing be who you are. You are the sum of your parts, and of course there are going to be certain things that make up more of you then other little things but that by no means should mean that the other stuff must be ignored or that it plays no part in who you are.

  • Donald

    Donald

    June 22nd, 2015 at 9:08 AM

    I have very much struggled with this same issue since losing weight.
    I used to be the fat guy and even though on the outside i don’t reflect that anymore that is still the person I see when I think of myself.

  • William

    William

    June 23rd, 2015 at 8:01 AM

    Now I would never say let these things overwhelm you but you also have to take a moment to process what could actually be learned from these experiences and taken away into something positive.
    They do not have to define you nor should they do so per se; but at the same time there is always a pretty good life lesson in anything that we experience and live through, and you can always find a place within yourself for that.

  • Calista

    Calista

    June 24th, 2015 at 2:54 PM

    Shouldn’t labels like you are this or you are that be over with anyway?

  • Carlos

    Carlos

    June 25th, 2015 at 3:07 PM

    You brought up the example of poverty as one of those cycles and identities that people have a hard time breaking free of. Do you know why? I think that for many of us because this is how we have been viewed by others we automatically think about ourselves this way even when we have grown past it and are doing well. That is just always a part of society that we can really identify with because we know how hard it is how and difficult it is to break free from those stereotypes that have been created of you.

  • Tia

    Tia

    June 26th, 2015 at 7:22 AM

    It is the people who choose to not be identified by those experiences who are hiding the essence of their true selves.

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