How You're Holding Yourself Back By Limiting Your Identity
If this article makes you feel uncomfortable, then it's for you:
Imagine you just got a new refrigerator, and now, the cube-shaped cardboard box is taking up a few cubic feet of kitchen real estate. While the fridge is being installed, you decorate the outside of the cardboard box by stapling and gluing various pictures you like onto it.
Pretty soon, every inch of the box is covered and it looks fantastic. It's a collage of all your interests, beliefs and dreams. When the installation man is finished, he turns to you and notices your box. He looks around it on all sides, lifts it up, puts it down and then rips off the picture of a unicorn you stapled on.
“Why would you do that?!” you exclaim. “Don't you have respect for other people? Don't you appreciate what I've created?”
The installation man replies, “Unicorns aren't real though. Who cares?”
“But I worked so hard on this!”
Did you really, though? What you have is a fifth grade art project and while still art, it's bad art because it is expressive, only on the most basic level. It's a vomit of ideas with no cohesion except how you decided to make it stick.
It's a collection of other people's ideas, cut out of their minds and pasted onto who you think you are. There's no message besides, “this is who I think I am because I can't think for myself.” That's a poor message to send because you do not get to entirely decide who you are.
This is a fundamental problem in the way many people think when they are coming of age. And, it's a problem that many adults don't realize is a problem until too late. When someone gets to his or her 30s or 40s and thinks is this all I've done with my life?, it's because there is no substance or weight to his or her life.
The installation man could just as easily have thrown out your entire box, as he did remove part of your identity. So, how do we stop people from changing our identities?
The short answer is you don't. The long answer is that you should let people change you. But, we'll get there. First you must better understand what wearing an identity really does to you.
If we look at the box as the container for your identity, it makes sense that there are only two places you can put things in respect to the box – inside or outside. As in the opening example, it is easy for you to create a beautiful exterior, but it is just as easy for someone to tear down your creation.
A real-life example of this is the notion of being a feminist. What are you doing as a feminist? How has that identity shaped your actions, your thoughts? Are you really a better person for subscribing to this ideology?
When you start labeling yourself as a feminist or a conservative or a Muslim, you are pigeon-holing yourself into that identity and other people will have no choice but to treat you accordingly. You also limit the things you can say, do or think by labeling yourself.
I can't cry because I'm a man. I can't do math because I'm a woman. I can't eat this meal because it goes against my religion. The only person limiting you, is you.
When you limit the experiences and ideas you're allowed to have, conflict with your identity can become a frequent event. Part of this is because you cannot exactly control all of your thoughts and you may learn to hate part of yourself for thinking things you have disallowed.
You can more easily hate other people for liking the things from which you restricted yourself. While you may fit in more easily with a certain group, you are also putting yourself into a hive mind that does not allow you to grow.
“But I don't need to grow! I'm a perfect, unique snowflake! Look at my identity box! It already has the right way to live on it!” you shout.
If you already believe that you are perfect and don't need to change, you are wrong — especially if you are young. Change should be a constant in your life – it's the only way to gain real perspective. You can look at a cube six different ways and think it's a square, but you only need to look at it one other way to know it's not.
When you create labels for yourself and put them on your cardboard box, you can look at any given side and see the same thing in different ways. Then, you can look in from the top and see something different; you can see emptiness.
Once there is recognition of emptiness, it can be changed. Having an empty life at first is not a bad thing, either. It's totally natural. And, this is why you begin by creating a messy collage on the outside. It's easy and it doesn't make the box heavy to carry around.
But, you don't build strength by lifting light weights. You build resilience to life by experiencing it, by facing hardships and learning from them. You fill your box with substance, carry it with you and become stronger for doing so.
This is how you realize you can do things you never thought you could. This is how you find out who you are.
You start by taking a copy of all the things in your collage outside your box and put them inside. Your box still isn't very heavy, but it now has something inside that can't be directly seen and attacked.
This means you can also be less defensive and not feel the need to argue for other people's opinions that you masquerade as your own. Now, to get some weight in your box:
If you have ever tried something and failed, you have already unlocked the key to success. When you go out into the world and try something new, you add that experience to your box. Before, say, trying coffee for the first time, you don't know whether or not you will like it.
It's only after you try that you will know. The same is true for anything else in your life. This is where your perception of your identity hurts you. By having many labels and restrictions, you are actually not allowing self-discovery to happen in all aspects of your life and you will permanently stunt yourself in some ways.
Instead of gaining perspective through experience, you are rejecting the opportunity to learn because you decided you are not allowed. And, that is exactly what it is: a decision. If you decide your identity, then you are not deciding who you are. You are deciding who you can never be and that could mean you may never let yourself be a truly happy person.
You will also not be a wise person if you reject experience. Wisdom is merely the lesson learned from failure and if you never fail, you will never become wise. When you put labels on yourself, you replace eventual wisdom and accomplishment with someone else's ideas and you will have no weight of experience to back up any of those ideas.
This isn't to say they are not good ideas — they are just not your ideas. When you go out into the world and let yourself experience it fully, you naturally start come up with your own ideas about the world. You question the structures around you and the people who made them.
You see that the world isn't an argument on Reddit — it's actually important when you're a part of it. It's comfortable to remain hidden behind a computer screen and that's precisely why it isn't important.
Your comfort zones are areas of success and while it is nice to come back to them now and again to gain your bearings, they are places that will stunt your growth if you stay too long. You can fill your box with a hundred copies of the same thing, but that won't make you a better person, just someone who is grounded in an idea.
For many 18-year-olds, the biggest instance of moving from their comfort zones is moving out of their childhood homes. It is a tremendously scary realization that you will have to take care of yourself to a greater degree, and it happens almost instantaneously. For most people, this becomes an opportunity to change habits.
With a change of action comes a natural change in the way you think. All of a sudden, you are a different person. This is a good thing, though, and for many reasons. The first of which is that a static brain can only think certain thoughts.
If you only exist in one room, reading the same opinions, eating the same food and generally living every day the same way, it will come as no surprise that you will also think the same thoughts. Your brain is a very complex machine, but a machine nonetheless, and if you do not expose it to different inputs, it will always produce the same outputs.
It is unfair to you to hold an opinion that you cannot back up from experience. Doing so is but a mere guess of the output of a machine you do not fully understand.
Instead, you have to open yourself up to new inputs – new experiences, new people and most importantly, you have to recognize that your response to these stimuli may be different than you expected.
Your emotions drive your actions and you can let them guide new actions. Any feeling – good or bad – is an indication for action. It can be just as important to try things you fear or are uncomfortable with as to try things you think you will enjoy.
In fact, it is more important to move outside your comfort zone, because that is the only place where you will really grow as a person. Tearing down an identity — even just an outer identity — is a painful and uncomfortable experience, but a critical one if you plan to make it through life successfully.
Being able to damage your cardboard box and then patch it back up is a crucial life skill. This is because of a key life truth that I mentioned earlier: Other people are part of your life and you can't really stop that. One day, someone will come into your life and will destroy your cardboard box.
This person will tear apart the foundations of the box, ravage what you have inside and graffiti over your identity collage. You'll be left with is a mess and if you don't have any experience fixing up your box, you will have a hard time trying to do it this time.
Everything in this world comes with risk, so go take some risks and know that when you fail, you'll have an opportunity to reinvent yourself in some way. What you'll have at the end of your life may be damaged goods, but it will be something totally unique that you actually built.
Other people can also be forces for good in your life. Just as someone can try to tear you down, someone else can help you mend your box. You have to be willing to let people leave their marks on you, both inside and out.
Your life, whether you like it or not, is a semi-public space — a collaborative effort. Even if you aren't letting people in your life, they still have the power to affect your life. Getting fresh input and new experiences is always a good thing for your identity.
All the best years of your life should be spent filling your box with experience. This is to say that you should spend all of your years gaining perspective. If you aren't growing as a person and seeking to understand yourself better, you are losing ground to others who are.
Spend time filling your box now, and in time, you will have your own original ideas to present on the outside instead of merely displaying the things in which you think you believe.
Photo Courtesy: We Heart It
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