I’ve been doing a lot of work lately with folks who have gotten caught up in an identity crisis. It’s a crisis that I suspect a lot of people struggle with. In fact, it’s something I’ve wrestled with myself. It’s the crisis of “I am”.
I am tired. I am hungry. I am angry. I am sleepy. I am sick. I am depressed. I am happy. I am sad. I am over it. I am anxious. I am busy. I am all over the shop. I am stressed. I am scared.
Have you ever muttered one of the above to yourself? Or pronounced it aloud to someone? Have you ever thought it?
Self-talk – quite literally referring to the way we “talk” to ourselves, overtly or covertly – is a relatively recent term, but the concept has been around for thousands of years. One of my favourite proverbs is “as a man [or woman, natch] thinks in his heart, so is he”. Socratic method – based on Socrate’s own documentation of his internal reasoning (a.k.a. self-talk) is still used widely in a number of psychological therapies. In short, what we say and think to ourselves is important. We’ve long known it. It is the message that we send ourselves, which triggers emotional, physical and behavioural responses; many of which we aren’t even aware of!
But today, I want to take the concept of self-talk a little bit further, and I want to link it in with identity; because who we are is… well… it’s who we tell ourselves we are! And if you’ve been telling yourself any of the statements I’ve listed above, the chances are, that at some level in yourself you’re having an identity crisis.
So: I am…? Fill in the blanks for yourself. What have you been telling yourself you are?
When it comes down to it, I’ve found that we often confuse two very important concepts: our state, and our traits. A state is defined as “the particular condition that someone, or something, is in at a specific time”*, whereas a trait is “a distinguishing quality or characteristic, typically one belonging to a person”*.
Now, this might not sound like a serious issue on the surface, but when we align our identity with our state, which is incredibly changeable, it can erode our confidence. It can erode our very sense of self! I find this particularly poignant, when counselling someone who is experiencing significant depression. “I am depressed”, they will often say, “and I am no good to anyone because of it”. Because if you are your state, and your state is pretty poorly, what else are you likely to think?
One of my favourite exercises to work on with clients is to draw up a table with two columns. The first I label State, the second, Trait. And I ask my clients to tell me about themselves. I ask them what kind of character they have – are they compassionate, thoughtful, kind, understanding, courageous, funny, adventurous, sarcastic, eccentric? We label these ‘Trait’. And then I ask them some of the emotions they’ve experienced in the past few weeks – have they felt happy, sad, depressed, anxious, grumpy, irritated, exuberant? We label these ‘State’.
And then we practice this language: I feel [state] instead of ‘I am’; and I watch as their faces reflect some hope. If I am depressed, well there’s no way out of it, is there? But if I feel depressed, then it’s something that’s happening now, but isn’t necessarily going to happen forever. I’ve rarely had a client say that their emotional state has not changed AT ALL over a few weeks, even if it’s only changed from irritated to angry or sad to depressed – it still shows that one’s state is changeable (and sometimes from second to second).
As for traits – well, it’s true that they’re not always entirely stable either. Are you always kind, loving or adventurous? Perhaps not. But our traits are what form our character – positive and negative – and they’re aligned with our values and our personality; and, I think they come with an inherent choice.
I challenge you to go through life and NEVER feel angry. When it comes to emotion, I don’t know that we have a great deal of choice in what we feel (it’s chemical, really!), but we DO have a choice about how we use those feelings. You can feel angry, but you may not choose to hurt someone because of it, because your character is driven by compassion or patience or love. Our character helps us to define our choices. And it’s nice to have choices! So we practice this language too: I choose to be courageous. I choose to be compassionate.
So, who am I?
Well, Ralph Waldo Emerson once said “make the most of yourself, for that is all there is of you”.
I am whatever I choose to be.