When a problem becomes your identity
Everybody has problems. It is impossible to get through life without something happening to you that impacts on who you are as a person and how you see the world, whether you realise it or not. We live by experience, good and bad. But when we are living with something that has a significant bearing on our lives and who we are, it can become part of our identity. This makes trying to resolve whatever the problem is really difficult, because it can be frightening to think about who we are without it.
A person’s identity is complex and involves many overlapping aspects. Beliefs, values, personality, memories and experiences all form part of our identity. Even the name we are given forms part of our identity. A clearer definition of what identity is though is the idea that there is continuity that someone is the same person today as they were yesterday.
However, this is problematic, as it implies that we are always the same person, which just isn’t true. People change. If you think about yourself today in comparison to 10 years ago, chances are you would see yourself as rather different. This is important when it comes to a problem we may be living with. If we and those around us see the problem as part of our identity, it can make changing who we are so that we do not identify with the problem anymore very difficult. We become stuck.
We hear it in the language of others and even in our own language. “You know, he’s the bulimic”; “I’m depressed”; “I’ve always been anxious”; “She’s the sensitive type”; “They’ve never been very confident”. These phrases communicate in such an everyday manner that we ARE an illness, a problem, or a certain way. The more we hear it said by others or say it to ourselves in our minds, the more it becomes part of our identity. It becomes a defining factor of who we are.
Is this helpful? It can be. For example, it can be freeing to be diagnosed with an illness that you’ve been struggling with and have the validation that there is something wrong. It can help us to gain a better understanding of what’s going on and how best to manage it. However, it can also be troublesome.
A label sticks. It can even become useful. Many mental health issues can be like a safety net that keep us in a comfort zone, even though they simultaneously cause a lot of suffering and destruction. This is particularly true if the issue has been a part of a person’s life for a long time. Imagining not having this issue in their lives anymore can be terrifying. How will they cope without it? Who are they without it? How will people understand them or relate to them without it? What will people think if they suddenly change?
Living by others’ expectations is rarely of benefit. It stops someone from being themselves and living their life as they want to. It can be easier to put on a mask and face the world as you think others want or expect to see you, but this can be incredibly damaging. You end up living a lie rather than a genuine life of your own.
What we are talking about here could be viewed from the perspective of an identity crisis, which is a term coined by psychologist Erik Erikson. He believed that an identity crisis typically happens during the teenage years when there is a struggle with finding a sense of personal identity. However, an identity crisis may occur at various stages in our lives, especially during times of significant change or stress, such as the breakdown of a relationship or experiencing a traumatic event. We can be left with the question: Who am I?
Realising that an issue you are living with has taken over your identity can be a huge wake-up call. It can be a big decision to seek help through therapy to work out what the issue is doing for you and discover who you are without it. It can be extremely difficult and confusing for people to try to stray from external expectation to internal reality. It can be uncomfortable and unnerving to face things about ourselves that we’ve shunned away from. Yet, it can also be powerfully freeing. It is about discovering and accepting who you really are, how to be comfortable facing the world as your true self and being free from the issues that kept the real you hidden away.