Who am I? Is my identity based on external phenomena I identified with?
A client of mine is a very successful professional. However, she tends to see herself as inferior to others all along. Due to her humble family background and experience of being abused by her parents, she has intense shame inside her. It is difficult for her to accept her background and her parents. She tended to suppress her feelings inside and focused herself on her career. Deep down inside, she felt depressed and anxious. She felt helpless in her longstanding depressive mood and anxiety despite her success in her career. She did not understand why she cannot feel peace inside her despite she already achieved what she wanted to achieve.
Similar to many people in this world, this client of mine identified herself with her profession and her childhood background and trauma. People usually identify themselves with external phenomena that ones belong to. For instance, it is common to for many people to introduce themselves, “I am a lawyer, I am an Asian, I am a vegetarian, or I am a Buddhist”. In fact, some of these are choices we made in our lives for a group identity. There are also some that are imposed by others in our lives. For example, a traditional family might imposed an identity that a daughter-in-law as inferior and treated her differently. The father-in-law might only ask the daughter-in-law to do tedious chores for the family and never ask his son to take the duties. If this daughter-in-law identified with this role imposed on her, she would feel inferior without knowing the reasons behind. Sometimes, people also identified with what the people in their environment told them who they are. For instance, a man has a longstanding self-esteem issues because his father frequently scolded him as “stupid” in his childhood.
My client above identified herself with her abusive family background. This makes her chronically feel shameful and depressed, given her career success. On the contrary, some people may identify with their favourable family background and successful achievement. This makes them feel so good about themselves to the extent that they become quite narcissistic. They may look down upon other people and think they are more superior than others. This may also cause interpersonal problems sometimes. Since we are so used to identifying ourselves with these external phenomena, we may think these really reflect who we are. However, is this really who we are?
How about if we consider the notion of “there is no good or bad identity” and “there is no healthy or unhealthy identity”? What if, our identity is the whole of all of our experiences up the present? Despite that we are not separated from our external phenomena, such as our occupation, our family of origin, our race or our lifestyle, our interpretation of these external phenomena is within ourselves. In fact, it is our internal processing of these experiences that defines who we are. For example, my client above was frequently scolded by her father as being stupid in her childhood. If she did not identify this imposed description of her as her identity and interpreted this just as her experienced of being abused. She would feel upset and painful for her abusive childhood, but she can choose not to identify with this description. In this sense, she has an identity of being a competent professional as well as someone who was abused in her childhood. As a result, this does not mean she is inferior than others and she can see herself in a more holistic way.
Through our unique experiences in our lives, each of us has a unique identity and it is the accumulation of experiences. These experiences define us as who we are, including all the good or bad. In this way, no one is superior or inferior than others. Let us be more mindful and experience our lives in a way so that we can appreciate our true nature.