So this is going to be a bit hard to articulate since I have a migraine and vertigo at the moment. Sort of a tornado of cognitive impairment.
I have had a difficult time with my self-identity for decades. My sense of self has had to drastically change. It started when I was too ill to go for my Ph.D. and I had such a hard time getting through my Masters’. I did it. And my grades were decent. But I expended a lot of effort to get grades that were not good enough for me. And I knew I was getting worse, not better. I went into the workforce instead. And I struggled immensely for a decade or more trying to sustain a career and full-time work. And I failed. I had to go on numerous leaves and ended up part-time in a different role. And then on another leave with this vertigo on top of the pain.
So the struggle with self-identity is two-fold for me:
- I put a lot of who I was in what I did for a living. I was an academic student on my way to becoming a professor. Then I was a banker. Then I was just a teller. My sense of who I was was constantly in flux and diminishing. Till it was ‘can I even hold a job part-time’. That was my new goal. And when I couldn’t do that… what am I then? If we are defined by what we do… what can I say about being disabled?
- I said ‘I failed’ when I wasn’t able to physically or mentally do things. Just as I did in my explanation. So… it was me that was failing. I was a failure. And I didn’t acknowledge that my chronic illnesses, mental illness, and chronic pain were a barrier to achieving what I wanted. That it was my actual physical and mental limitations I couldn’t exceed without consequences. Not me, personally, as a failure.
- And I lost those sense of traits I valued in myself. My intelligence with the cognitive impairments. My reliability with working made me ‘unreliable’. My strong sense of work ethic was no longer a thing I could say with so much absenteeism and presenteeism. All these things I considered important to my sense of self-hood were no longer my defining characteristics. To the point when a psychologist asked me to name 10 positive traits in myself… I struggled. Because this lose of self was also a loss of self-worth.
So what do you do when your self-identity needs to change?
- It is difficult. I was defining myself by what I Can’t do and not what I Can do. Because nothing I can do seems worthy to me. But truly our self-identity is so much more than what we can and cannot do. But the things I can do have value to me.
- I had to stop seeing these changes in my life due to health as ‘failures’ as a person. Because this crashed my self-worth. And I have to now work to build it back up. I am not failing at anything. I am determining what my limits are and how to live within them.
- I had to find traits about myself that I do love: I am still intelligent, I am creative, I am funny/goofy, I am introverted, I am very polite and respectful, I am non-judgemental. I am many things I can value in myself.
I want you right now to make a list of the roles you have in your self-identity:
- I am a daughter
- I am a spouse
- I am a friend
- I am a writer
- I am a blogger
And all those roles in your life make up part of your self-identity.
And I want you to list 10 traits of your self-hood
- I am still intelligent
- I am creative
- I am funny/goofy
- I am introverted
- I am very polite and respectful
- I am non-judgemental.
- I am very loyal as a friend
- And this is where I get stuck. But I try this once and a while and maybe as my self-worth is bolstered I will come up with ten
And these traits are also part of your self-identity.
Add in your accomplishments and you have your sense of self.
And yes, after dramatic changes we struggle with this sense of self. And we have to remember 2 things
- Your identity is not defined by work. It is one role of many that make up who we are.
- Self-identity is fluid through our lives. We think once we become an adult it is static. But it evolves, changes, shifts, and adapts through every single person’s life. It is flexible. Who we feel we are now, is different than who we felt we were twenty years ago and who we will feel we are twenty years in the future. It grows with us and isn’t dependant on one thing we can’t do anymore. And it is going to keep growing depending on how we nourish it.
Your self-identity is a rich and complex understanding of your core self. Nothing can diminish it but ourselves. We need to nourish our sense of self and by doing so nourish our self-worth.