I am going to oversimplify an enormous and valuable idea here to offer you something useful. Your identity is mostly a series of stories you tell yourself and others. We treat our identity as if it is some static, fixed, and unchangeable entity, something beyond our ability to transform.
While it’s true we can become attached to the stories and the identity we portray to others, it is also true that eliminating or reframing your stories can provide a different identity, a better identity, and one with more power. Your identity has greater plasticity than you might believe.
What Do You Do?
Let’s start with something easy, like the work you do. The first question grown-ups ask each other is “What do you do,” as if work is your primary identity. A long time ago, I would have described myself as a dishwasher. After that I was a floor guard and disc jockey, and occasionally the SkateOSaurus (where I performed the hokey-pokey for grade school children on roller skates while dressed in a giant dinosaur costume, true story).
Not too long after that I was the lead singer and front man for a rock ‘n roll band. How could you tell that I was the lead singer for a rock ‘n roll band? I would tell you that’s what I was, and by looking at my outward appearance, the long hair, the earrings, and the clothes, it was easy to see what I believed I was. It was the appearance of a story.
One day you are one thing, and the next you are another. Think about your education. One day you’re a student, the next day you’re a graduate. We have a ceremony to help you make this transformation. What you were, you are no more. It was only necessary so that you could become what you now are. One story ends, and another begins.
The Story That Defines You
Many of the stories we use to define ourselves are not quite as easy to break free from. There are people who define themselves by the negative events that have occurred in their lives. They believe that they are, “the product of their parent’s divorce.” Some believe that they are the “victim of some event.” Some believe that their identity is limited by decisions or events of their past, like “I never went to college.”
We start telling these stories as a way to explain something that we are doing—or not doing, as the case may be. We absolve ourselves of our responsibility by pointing to a set of stories that explain away our behavior or our current state. In doing so, we limit what might become, removing possibilities for another identity.
In order to be what you might become you must give up the stories that prevent that transformation.
Any story based on some event of the past can be eliminated completely by understanding that it is not responsible for who you are now or can be reframed in the positive. Your interpretation of a story can keep you locked in an identity that’s too small for you or it can unlock your greater potential. It is possible to interpret every negative event or circumstance of your life as “the adversity that made me strong enough to be what I became.”
Your identity is fluid, not fixed. To become the person that comes after the person you are now, you have to let go of the stories that keep you fixed in place.