Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

The Danger of Letting Others Define You

We're all more complex than anyone's definition of us.

For the longest time, I thought I was a depressive. Never mind that, actually, I was probably having more fun—and was less frightened of the world—than almost anyone else I knew. But because I felt intense sadness at times, and thought a lot about deep things, and wrote and talked about those things, including about the dark stuff as well as the light, I never felt like I was "happy" enough. People told me I was depressed. I even pigeonholed myself, to an extent, becoming someone who writes about depression. And yes, I have been depressed, even been on antidepressants twice. But does that define me solely as a person with depression? Or does that make me someone who is sensitive, thinks deeply, seeks help when things get bad, and isn't afraid of talking about the darkness?

I've accepted this definition for almost my whole life. It's taken 40 or so years to realize that this isn't necessarily so.

Recently, as I've begun to understand more about what happiness is, I realized that in many ways I'm probably one of the happiest people I know. If happiness is, as a friend and I were discussing today, the fact of living a life in keeping with one's values, of feeling like you're living the life that you're meant to live, than I'm doing really well. Even despite - or possibly because of - the fact that I listen deeply to what my soul and psyche are telling me, and I talk about it.

So how can it be that I'm both very happy and have sought help for depression?

It's true because we—all of us—are infinitely complex beings. We aren't our mental health diagnosis, our jobs, our roles, or actions we've taken or not taken. We're so much more than that.

It's important that we take the time to define ourselves in a realistic, expansive way, and that we see clearly when others are trying to define us in their own terms or in relation to what they want us to be. In my life, I've had people close to me tell me that I'm depressive and unhappy, even despite the laughing, happy, creative times we've spent together, because I tend to be honest about the times when I'm feeling down, as honest as I am when I'm feeling good. To those people, being honest about difficult emotions means that I'm a depressive. To me, it just means I'm bravely human.

We all categorize the people in our lives to a certain degree, but it's when we need to define someone (or ourselves), to put them into a category such as "crazy," "slut," "jerk," "flake," or even "housewife," "businessman," or "straight-A student," and refuse to acknowledge or even see the times when they don't conform to that definition, that it becomes a problem.

When we feel that we only fit into one definition—when we believe how others define us or when we define ourselves narrowly—we lose parts of ourselves or feel that we can't give voice to parts that don't fit with that definition. How often have you said—or heard others say—that you "can't draw" or you're "not creative"? This is, of course, ridiculous, because everyone is creative in some way, and everyone can draw. Whether or not they draw they way they want to or think they should is another matter, but everyone can put some lines on a page in a pleasing way. But if we define ourselves—or let others define us—as someone who isn't creative, we'll live our whole lives believing that we are devoid of creativity, rather than taking advantage of opportunities to be creative and perhaps discovering a new talent or hobby, or even having a good time learning something new. We limit ourselves when we believe we are only as complex as one definition.

Defining others can even be abusive, at times, if a partner or family member continually insists that someone is flawed in some way: "lazy," "stupid," "slut," "good-for-nothing." And it can even be a problem when the definition is supposedly positive: "You're my muse," "You're the only thing that keeps me alive," "You're such a helpful and good daughter." Then, when we don't comply with that fantasy image, it can be an excuse to verbally, emotionally, or even physically assault us.

How about you? How do you define yourself? How do others define you? And what are the parts of you that don't fit into any definition?