Whether consciously or unconsciously, we all acquire numerous identities throughout our lives that accumulate and either build upon or contrast one another within our overall concept of ourselves.
This process often happens “behind the scenes” and goes unnoticed—most of us don’t remember the precise moment we last played with a toy as a child or exactly when going out to a restaurant became more appealing than nightclub drinks at 2 a.m.
In fact, we often don’t pay much attention to the former iterations of our identities unless one of them contrasts with our current perception of ourselves to such a degree that we’re sitting awake in the middle of the night thinking, “I don’t know who I am anymore!”
We generally have a propensity to assume that questioning ourselves or having some kind of crisis of identity means that we, in the current moment, are doing something wrong. This can cause us to judge ourselves critically, perpetuate limiting beliefs, and exacerbate negative self-talk.
Typically, when one of these “I don’t know who I am anymore” moments occurs, something in our lives or perspectives has shifted without us noticing it, leaving us mentally aligned with a former identity that no longer fits in with how we’re thinking about and approaching life in the current moment. When something happens that brings our awareness to this disconnect, we feel like we are losing a part of ourselves that we have, in reality, already moved on from, at least in part.
It’s important in these moments to fully consider where we are and where we arrived at our current location from so as to pick through the parts of that former identity we’re clinging on to and let go of the aspects that are no longer serving us.
This is not as complex as it sounds. I’ll give you an example.
I recently competed in a figure skating competition, something I have done many times before, and absolutely tanked it. I sucked. And I’m not saying that because I’m being hard on myself—I’m being honest. I almost stopped in the middle of my program because I hadn’t practiced it enough to know where I was supposed to be going.
I knew, both before getting on the ice and after, as I sat in my hotel room hoping that not too many people saw me “skate,” that I hadn’t practiced this routine enough to compete it. I barely knew it and thought I could improvise if necessary. I could not. Why? Because I had hardly practiced skating at all in the preceding months, never mind that specific program. As I realized this, I looked back on the previous five years, thinking about how I’d never entered a competition unprepared before or neglected to put in sufficient hours on the ice to improve, and that feeling of “who am I?” surfaced in my brain.
Knowing what that meant, instead of berating myself for not practicing or thinking that I must be doing something wrong, I took a step back and evaluated who I am now and who I was when I was skating upward of 15 hours a week.
And this is what I figured out:
1. When I started skating, I had just finished an extremely stressful PhD program and was working in a research job that I hated, slowly coming to accept that I didn’t like research at all and wondering whether I had just wasted several years of my life training for a job I didn’t want. Research consumed my entire life in and out of the lab, and because I wasn’t invested in it or fulfilled by it, life was pretty unsatisfying…until I found skating. Skating gave me something else to focus on, and I became hooked on it, spending every possible minute I could squeeze into my days on the ice.
2. Now, I am no longer a researcher and have found work that not only allows me to use my training (it wasn’t a waste!) but feel fulfilled and motivated in the process; work is no longer consuming any of my free time, and as a consequence of being less stressed overall, I have been able to engage in a broader range of activities and pursue new endeavors because I have the mental energy to do so now. I take courses, write, make jewelry, draw, spend more time with friends, and go for walks. I’m not practicing skating as much because I have less available time, and I have less available time because I am happier and my life is fuller.
3. I was not wrong to have not practiced because I wasn’t avoiding practicing; I was simply busy with other things. Previously, I was using skating as an escape mechanism. All the time I spent on the ice wasn’t motivated by wanting to be on the ice. It was motivated by not wanting to be in the mindset I was in whenever I wasn’t on the ice. I didn’t love skating so much as I loved what skating allowed me to avoid. Now, I do love skating, but I don’t love it enough to sacrifice any of the other things I currently do to make time to practice it more.
4. Creating new goals for skating, such as skating for exercise or purely for enjoyment instead of trying to be competitive, allows me to keep this activity that I genuinely love in my life without turning it into something that puts pressure on me. I started skating to alleviate pressure; having it become a source of pressure is not the goal.
In this shift from my former identity as a stressed-out scientist using figure skating as an escape mechanism to a generally relaxed and fulfilled science-adjacent person who likes to skate sometimes, I have to leave behind any notion that I “should be” skating hours and hours each week and accept that I’m likely not going to be particularly competitive anymore. I can then move forward with the goal of skating as and when it fits in with the rest of my life to give myself that ice time that I love without it having to represent a huge chunk of my current identity. I was a skater; now I’m a person who skates.
Letting go of that identity was not the easiest task as I did feel like I was losing something in doing it; however, the alternative would be to push myself into goals I am not motivated to meet, and that would negatively affect other aspects of my life that I like. Four years ago, skating less would have negatively impacted my life, whereas now, skating less is positive.
It doesn’t matter that I sucked at the competition because it means I’m spending less time escaping from life. I no longer have anything I feel the need to escape from. When we find ourselves losing interest in activities or not spending as much time on them as we used to, this can be a good thing as it can indicate that our lives are growing and improving in ways that mean we don’t need to escape anymore, and it’s always good to need to escape less.
Conversely, if we reach that “I don’t know who I am anymore” crossroads and realize that something we’re doing now is an escape mechanism or that the “now” is in some other way the root cause of the problem, this evaluation process can help us identify why we are questioning ourselves, what aspect of our identity is causing the questioning, and what actions we can take to integrate the former and current identities in a beneficial way. This can be an uncomfortable process, but it’s impossible to change for the better if we do not have awareness and the ability to recognize and accept the things within us that we would benefit from changing.
So, next time something arises that causes one of those “I don’t know who I am anymore” thoughts, here’s a quick process to identify the root cause and how best to move forward.
1. What aspect of my sense of self am I questioning or feeling at odds with?
2. How is my life different now from what it was at a time when I didn’t feel at odds with this aspect of myself? How did that aspect of my identity serve me then? How was it detrimental?
3. What aspect of this part of my identity serves me now? What aspect is detrimental to me now, and why?
4. What, if any, aspect of this part of my identity do I want to take forward with me as part of my current self? What do I need to leave behind? Why?
5. What actionable goals can I set today that will help me move forward?
Now, write a summary of what you determined and put it somewhere you can refer to it as and when you need a reminder.
Above all, it’s important to remember that we do not need to remain attached to the parts of ourselves we create or the parts that develop within us at all times in our lives. We change. Changing doesn’t take anything away from who we used to be, and who we used to be doesn’t define who we are now.
If a vegetarian starts eating meat again, that doesn’t mean they can’t say they were a vegetarian; they also cannot now be described as a vegetarian. A current truth that is in contrast with a past truth does not make the past truth any less true when viewed from the time at which it was true.
The less attached we are to keeping identities that no longer serve us as part of our current selves, the more adaptable we become to changes within ourselves, and the easier it is to let go whenever something in our lives is no longer in alignment with how we’re living.
The closer we can become to aligning our lives with our feelings and purpose in any given moment, the more fulfilled and content we can be.