We have all identified who we are and what our world is, whether we are aware of it or not. While our identity may seem static, objective, and given -- in truth it is fluid, subjective, and chosen.
In every moment we can rediscover and recreate ourselves. From an Existential-Humanistic perspective, this change takes place when we discover that who we are in the moment is not congruent with how we have identified ourselves. We then have the opportunity to redefine ourselves in order to align with what is most true in the present. To do so, we may need to reinterpret what cannot be denied from our past (George Kelly, Ph.D.). We may also begin to re-envision who we want to be in the future in a more congruent way as we shift this part of our identity into what is authentic in the present.
This is an ongoing process because our authentic identity changes throughout our life in response to the impact of our life experiences.
For example, Bill views himself as someone who is nice and has a positive attitude. He sees the best in people and overlooks anything that is contrary to that view. Bill is good at pleasing people and he takes pride in that. No one’s feelings are going to get hurt on his watch. This is the identity he created as a result of a childhood in a chaotic family where there was too much mean-spiritedness, invalidation, and negativity. Bill was going to be different. This served him well as he grew up because it allowed him to feel more positive about his life.
However, he is also aware of feeling exhausted and depressed at times, and is not sure why. He decides to see a therapist even though the idea is an uncomfortable one. He is a kind and positive person, so what is there to complain about?
The Existential-Humanistic therapist facilitates Bill to explore all that goes on inside of him around his tiredness and depression right here, right now.
Bill discovers how draining it is to be nice to everyone and to always be positive. He realizes that he actually feels one of his close friends is extremely narrow-minded. As a result, Bill considers whether he wants to talk to his friend about it or ignore it. He also becomes aware he has an impulse to tell his wife how much her family hurts him at family gatherings because they ignore him.
These are awarenesses he hasn’t acknowledged. It shakes up his world. He questions whether he is a nice and positive person after all. He comes to the realization that he has choices.
If he denies the awarenesses, he will keep the identity he has established intact, for it feels too scary for him to challenge it. This identity has allowed him to feel okay about himself, yet the price he pays for it is exhaustion and depression.
If he accepts the awarenesses, he can be with the shakiness of these new found awarenesses and what they mean to him. He realizes he is not as nice and positive as he thought he was. In this realization, there is also relief. He doesn’t need to expend so much energy forcing himself to be nice and positive if he doesn’t feel that way. In being more genuine, both his exhaustion and depression will ease.
He has changed his identity to one that fits him more now. He acknowledges that he is often a nice and positive person. Also, sometimes, he won’t be, and that is okay. He realizes having a range of feelings is part of being human. Being open to his range of feelings allows him to be engaged in more authentic relationships. He can choose to talk to his friend about his concerns and he no longer has to hide the fact that his wife’s family has hurt his feelings. While at times it is challenging, Bill much prefers this new way of being.
Thus, the dance for all of us is our engagement with who we thought we were and the discovery of who we are now in the moment. This will allow us to modify our old identity to a more authentic identity. This wonderful and courageous process will hopefully continue throughout our lives.