If you had to describe your identity in one word, what would you use? I did a bit of an experiment and most people used a noun rather than an adjective. E.g. I’m a mother or I’m a teacher. Which got me thinking, what’s my identity?
I’m not a mother, I’m not a typical wife. I’m not a student. I’m not part of a particular religion enough that I can say that’s my identity. I’m not a teacher or musician anymore and I can’t say I’m a sportsperson. I suppose I could call myself a knitter. There’s lots of things I’m not, but what am I? It reminds me of the game ‘Guess Who?’ where I’m flipping down the people, working out what I’m not, so hopefully it’ll reveal who I am. Hopefully not some bald, old guy with glasses! 😉
Identity is important, it’s what you associate yourself to be. It gives you purpose and makes you feel like you belong. Most people choose their identity to an extent, but my identities and my future ones have currently been taken away from me. People change and identities evolve but most people can shape them into an identity that suits them, or they move from one identity to another e.g. from being a student to a profession. It’s different having something forced on you, like through illness or something like redundancy, or indeed if you feel like you can’t ‘get out’ of a perceived negative identity e.g. Drug dealer.
I refuse to have my identity as a ‘person with a chronic illness’, which is where a lot of other people seem to want to ‘put’ me identity-wise. Mostly because I don’t like to be told I’m ‘inspirational’ because I got out of bed that day (which has happened). That’s not inspirational, by all means call me inspirational, but for something that’s actually inspiring! Not just because I exist with a chronic illness- my charming and cheery disposition while being admitted to a&e, for example (it’s a line from Mary Poppins, before anyone thinks I’m being big headed 😉 ). There’s lots of memes that say ‘don’t let your illness define you’ and equally there’s a lot of people who say that they’re proud to have their chronic illness define them because it’s a big part of their life. I have a chronic illness, but that’s not my identity. I want to be known for other things as well as it. I see it the same as saying ‘I’m female’ or ‘I’m nearly 30’- it’s a fact, the nature of it impacts on my life in the same way other factual things do, but it’s not a characteristic of me, even if it takes up a lot of my time.
I think that’s the point lots of people miss when it comes to identity, me included- characteristics or traits. Our identity is culturally something that we can constantly identify with. So someone is always considered a mother, or a teacher even if they’re not physically in that role at the time. Which is weird that we want to demonstrate our identity with a noun, when we could choose an adjective instead. People might not be consistently the same adjective, but then they weren’t when they were labelling themselves as ‘a something’ either. This works better for people like me, who can’t ‘be something’ in the same way as everyone else.
So what am I? I like to think of myself as kind, empathetic, resilient, creative, friendly and enthusiastic. I might not be all of those things all of the time, I’m most definitely moody, stubborn and grumpy a lot too! But my identity isn’t then linked to my career or ‘purpose’ in life, it’s driven by the type of person I want to be. It allows me to think that I can choose what characteristics I can be. I’m not supposed to act in a certain way because ‘other teachers do’ (or whatever). I can change or add in new ‘identities’ as and when things change. You can identify yourself as a doctor or a performer, but it’s the qualities of the individual which make up the profession, not the other way around. I can’t identify with a profession, but I can choose what characteristics I want to nurture in me and make my identity that way. I can (and do) choose a positive identity, rather than a twisted, evil, or bitter one.
A noun seems quite fixed in terms of identity. An adjective seems a bit more free and unpredictable. Life isn’t predictable so I don’t see why something as important as identity should be seen as something so permanent or why people should feel the need to conform to one. There’s a great bit in the Jungle Book that I love, where Mowgli is fighting the tiger and Bagheera says to him ‘why are you trying to fight him like a wolf? You’re not a wolf, you’re a man, fight him like a man’. Mowgli had tried to fit in as a wolf all of his life, but it was human skills which saved them, despite the fact he’d tried really hard to develop his identity as a wolf. I might become ‘a something’ again at some point in the future, but for now I’m going to cultivate skills and attributes I want to have as part of my identity rather than trying to find the closest noun/profession/person which vaguely fits.