Who am I? Do I define myself by external realities?

Through socialization, we learned to define ourselves basing on our external realities.  For instance, one of my clients identified herself as a “bad daughter-in-law” due to her poor relationship with her mother-in-law.  As her mother-in-law treated her badly since she married her son, she could not relate with her normally.  In fact, her mother-in-law criticized her unreasonably even when she tried her best to accommodate her requests.  During Chinese New Year, my client visited her mother-in-law to show her respect.  As my client thought dressing nicely was a way to show respect to her mother-in-law, she chose a colorful dress for the gathering.  She also thought dressing colorfully also signified good fortune in the Chinese culture in Chinese New Year.  When her mother-in-law saw her in the visit, she immediately criticized her for dressing too colorful.  She showed contempt to my client and commented that she was too self-aggrandizing for dressing in colorful clothes.  My client felt very shameful for being criticized by her mother-in-law.  She identified herself as being “narcissistic” as she sometimes dressed in colorful clothes.  Of course, this example is a bit extreme.  In fact, it showed a common phenomenon that we tended to externally identify ourselves with how others perceived us.  With second thought, is it necessary for us to answer the question, “who am I?” by identifying our external realities?

When being asked “who am I?”, we tended to define ourselves by our context.  For instance, we tended to identify with our family.  For instance, if we come from a humble family background, we tended to define ourselves as more inferior or more unresourceful.  Sometimes, we also define ourselves basing on how others label us.  We tended to identify with the attributions and expectations from our parents, our teachers, or our peers.  For example, a lesbian girl tended to identify herself as defective as her sexual orientation was not accepted and being criticized by her teachers in a Catholic school.  In other instances, we may also identify with the categories we thought we belonged to.  For instance, someone identified himself as his profession of being a lawyer and may adopt a system of thinking and practice one’s life as a lawyer.  The question is, do we answer the question, “who am I?” basing on these external realities?

The answer to the above question is “no”.  In fact, we need to answer the question, “who am I?” by looking into our internal world.  We can only find who we really are by looking into our experience of being alive.  It is beyond dispute that we also refer our external realities to define ourselves, but the key point is that our relationship with these external realities depends on our internal world.  That is, our interpretation of the external realities is within ourselves.  It is our internal processing of our external world that is of any value of saying who am I.  For example, if the lesbian girl above was traumatized by her parents and her previous bullying experiences at school, she may interpret her teachers’ criticism as facts and tended to see herself as defective.  On the contrary, if the lesbian girl came from a validating family environment and has a mother who can nurture her as who she really is without imposing any external expectations on her, she may interpret her teachers’ criticism as their biased thinking due to their religious beliefs and still being able to see herself as a worthy and valuable human being.

In this sense, to answer the question, “who am I”, we need to explore and feel within our physical and psychological self.  We need to include all our good and bad experiences.  We also need to embrace our experiences, even those that we wanted to deny.  For instance, our failure, our mistakes or our wrong doings.  We need to feel within our body and experience ourselves in the here-and-now.  As a result, the answer to this question is modified every seconds due to our personal growth and change within ourselves.  We can only find ourselves from within.

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