‘I don’t know who I am anymore’: Losing my identity
This week I have been thinking a lot about the significance of identity. Identity is a grouping of attributes, qualities and values that define how we view ourselves, and perhaps how we think other people see us. Identity can be formed from the labels we place upon ourselves, the roles we undertake, the activities we complete. I might see myself as a woman, a girl, a wife, a mother, an employee - but my identity is shaped from much, much more. My identity helps me to connect with others, my sense of self, my 'core', the sense of who I am.
How do you ‘lose’ your identity?
Losing your identity can be a long process over a period of months or years, but can also happen suddenly following a major life event or trauma. Loss of identity may follow all sorts of change; changes in the workplace, loss of a job or profession, loss of a role that once defined us, as a child, as a parent, as a spouse. This leaves a gap, an abyss, an empty space. Such loss of identity can result in increased levels of generalised anxiety, low self-esteem, depression, a loss of self-confidence, social anxiety, isolation, chronic loneliness, all of which threaten our ability to connect with other people.
You can also lose your identity through the gradual merging in a relationship. A healthy relationship should be reciprocal in encouraging and maintaining an individual sense of self. After all, that surely should be what attracted partners to each other in the first place? We may lose some identity, even in the most healthy of relationships, as we accommodate, adjust our behaviours, and support our partners, and there may be some change in our level of independence, as a small level of co-dependency may set in. However, in some relationships, particularly abusive ones, this could be more marked, resulting in a virtual annihilation of independence, and a total loss of who you are.
When we lose our identity and sense of self, we are likely to seek our sense of self-worth from others. It suddenly becomes very important how others view us, as our sense of value and self-worth, our feelings of confidence, are dependent on external factors such as our physical appearance, success, status, money, and even fame. As a result, we seek reassurance and praise from others to feel OK about ourselves - but in reality, our emotional well-being depends on how we feel about ourselves.
Our sense of self – our 'identity' – should not come from what others think about us, how we look, or how we behave, yet we worry about being judged or measured by others (and falling short of their requirements), and so put on an act, a facade, a mask. We all do it at times – present the 'best-self' out there, when inside, we may be feeling very different to the real 'me' hiding underneath, but when this is happening all the time – this could be a problem.
Such dependency on external validation prevents the real 'you' from being out there, and impacts on personal growth, as well as the opportunity for happiness. Low self-esteem can be linked to issues from the past, from childhood and parental neglect, from abuse and trauma, from childhood bullying, and this often shapes how we view ourselves and then how we interact with others. These feelings can be re-triggered by major life events or a change in life circumstances. There can be a longing for social acceptance and reassurance from others; to be noticed, to be loved, to be wanted and needed, to be cared about. If you have low self-esteem, you may not like yourself very much, and there is a tendency to seek your self-worth from external sources and relationships that become increasingly important and sometimes unhealthy, in order to make us happy.
Therapy, counselling and rediscovering your identity
The most important relationship you will ever have is with yourself. Your emotional well-being depends on how you feel about you, as a result of the relationship you have within yourself.
Awareness that you have 'lost' your identity is one of the first steps towards finding it again. Psychotherapy and counselling can help you to answer the 'who am I?' question. Through therapy and counselling, you have the opportunity to explore who you are, what has made you into 'you', define your own qualities and attributes, and no longer rely on the external validation of others. This can help you to lose the labels that you have hung around your neck, halt your pursuit of external recognition and find your true identity.
Will the real 'you' please stand up.
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About Anne-Marie Alger
Anne-Marie is an integrative psychotherapist providing individual and relationship counselling. Based in Bolton, offering face-to-face and on-line counselling sessions.