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Who Defines You?

I was listening to a podcast where Adam Grant, the author and Professor of Organizational Psychology was being interviewed by Brene Brown about his latest book.

During the interview Adam said a number of interesting things but there was one quote that really stuck with me.

“If you’re a non-conformist, you are still letting other people dictate your identity”

Which makes a lot of sense, if you have dedicated yourself to not being fashionable, trendy, or fitting in, then your identify will, by necessity, change as the current trends change. The thing you do to not fit in today, might actually be what people do to fit in 5 years from now, and in your dedication to never fitting in, you’ll be constantly rearranging your own identify just to remain not fitting in.

Now, what does that have to do with the topic of this blog?

That’s a reasonable question. Maybe it doesn’t, but maybe it does. I know, as a child of an alcoholic, and an abuse survivor, that one of the my first instincts in adulthood was to not be like the alcoholic father I grew up with,  and to distance myself in every way possible from the person who sexually abused me. This would seem like a fairly reasonable thing to do, I’d even guess that it’s a normal response. Certainly, there’s a lot to be said for trying to not be like someone who damages other people.

On the other hand, I also have to acknowledge why I had to move beyond just doing that. That moment when my therapist asked me, point blank, what kind of life I wanted to live, and I had no idea, was a real turning point for me, partly because at almost 30 years of age, that was the first time I truly realized that I had a say in this, but also because up until that moment, I only defined myself by what I didn’t want to be. I didn’t want to be like the people who had hurt me, and that’s an OK goal, but it wasn’t enough for me to actually define what I wanted to be.

Like the non-conformist, I had no base. I was designing my whole life around responding to my abuse. My identity wasn’t something I was an active participant in developing, I was simply reacting instead.

I have written, quite often, about the fallacy of healing being getting back to the person I was before the abuse. I do believe that is simply impossible. That’s not the way humans work. We continually integrate our experiences into who we are, and how we life. You can’t go back to the person who existed before abuse, because that person didn’t know about the abuse.

However, the more I think about this question of what defines me, I am starting to think that it’s not quite that simple either. Yes, I can’t go back to being a child again like I was before the abuse, and none of us can turn back time and do that. That shouldn’t be our definition of “healing”. But, maybe our definition of healing should include having a base, a life, or an identity, that is grounded in what we want from life, as opposed to just rearranging our identify in response to abuse.

Maybe what “healed” looks like is having a life grounded in who we are, and what we want to be. Maybe that’s the goal we should be striving for?

And, that would make “unhealed” existing in a constant state of victim-hood, constantly having to rearrange ourselves in response to the abuse, or perceived dangers, instead of being able to live with intention, based on our own definition of life.

Also, we should recognize that we will all ping-pong back and forth between those two things on any given day. None of us will live perfectly with intention everyday, and as we heal, we won’t create live every day as a victim. I do believe that is normal too.

What does your life look like? Can you live with intention, or is your life controlled by something that happened long ago instead? How can you start to move toward intention instead?

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