Erik Erikson proposed that during adolescence, we seek to find and develop our identity. We try out different roles, experiment with different activities, all in order to find who it is we are.
But one key aspect that does not seem to be as emphasized by Erikson, or by most texts I’ve read in my classes, is how we assert that identity once we “find” it… especially in the face of a society that pushes all of us to be a certain way, or adhere to a social construct of “normal.” Because when we don’t fit the mold of “normal,” we are criticized harshly, told to change ourselves, to modify our identities because it is simply “wrong.” We end up feeling the enormous pressure of having to change what may be true to our real selves, so that we can be loved and accepted by others. What a painful dilemma, that is.
People have argued to me that sometimes other people just know better, and it sucks to be rejected or not loved. True, it does suck when someone doesn’t like who we are. In an ideal world, we can be our true selves and have everyone who encounters us likd us. But it’s not a realistic expectation. Not everyone will like who we are… but that’s okay. Because it is just as painful, if not more, to live a life that is not yours. And I would argue to the death that sometimes people DON’T know better. That you know you better than anyone else. Only you have the power to define who you are and who you want to become, what your values are, what drives you, what you choose to make up you. In the same vein, you also have the power to give the reins of that control over your identity to someone else, or to society at large, if you so choose.
Personally, I grew up being bullied most of my childhood. People called me many, many names; I’ve experienced racial slurs to attacks on my physical attractiveness. I’ve had rocks thrown at me in 5th grade, and eggs in 7th. If I choose to give the reins of my identity to others, then I would be defined as an ugly, unattractive, loser girl, who no boy ever, in his right mind, would want to date. I would be on the bottom of the totem pole, invisible, unimportant, unworthy, not good enough, stupid, in need of a diet, deserving of a stoning… the list goes on. For a long time, I did live and think this way. And I suffered with depression for nine years as a result. If I continued to believe what everyone told me I was and took their words as indisputable truth, I wouldn’t be alive today. My demons are very ugly and dark, and I’m certain I would have killed myself by now. Because an ugly shit like me who is unimportant and not good enough doesn’t deserve to live.
But we always have a choice. I cannot stress this enough. We have the choice to either define ourselves by the mountain of shit people throw at us, or to take the wheel and create who it is we are. And in the latter, there is so much power in that. We can take control. No one has power to define our identity except for us. I know who I am, and surround myself with those who see that. And whenever someone tries to define or place a label on me, I respectfully reject their opinion, while in my head I think, “Fuck that shit.” Because I control what goes in, and what goes out… and I don’t need others’ opinions to define me anymore.
I think Friedrich Nietzsche said it best: The individual has always had to struggle to keep from being overwhelmed by the tribe. If you try it, you will be lonely often, and sometimes frightened. But no price is too high to pay for the privilege of owning yourself.“