Roles and Identities: Remembering Who You Were Before the World Got its Hands on You

“Finding yourself is not really how it works. You aren’t a 10-dollar bill in last winter’s coat pocket. You are also not lost. Your true self is right here, buried under cultural conditioning, other people’s opinions, and inaccurate conclusions you drew as a kid that became your beliefs about who you are. ‘Finding yourself’ is actually returning to yourself. An unlearning, an excavation, a remembering who you were before the world got its hands on you.”  Emily McDowell

If You Prefer to Listen

One of the reasons we practice mindfulness is to become aware of the baggage we carry with us.  Included in that baggage is our roles and identities we hold on to whether they serve us or not. Some roles are positive creating joy or making us productive citizens.  Others create dependence, anxiety, inauthenticity or suffering. We tend to take each identity to be who we are, but in truth we are not limited by the roles and identities we hold on to. We are much more than the roles and identities we use to define ourselves. They are only little pieces of ourselves. Today we will be exploring the question: Who was I before the world got its hands on me?

Between the ages of 2 and 7, children use pretend play to try on roles in attempt to see what fits. My granddaughters, until they were around 4 or 5 narrated their play with continual commentary.  Everything that came into their minds came out of their mouths. Once they reached kindergarten, the verbalizing of the stories was significantly reduced.  Then the stories were mainly in their heads.  When we become adults, pretty much the whole story is in our head. When our stories occur in our heads, we may not be aware of them, yet they influence our behavior.

Most of the stories we create about our identities were shaped by the perceptions of parents, teachers and significant others. The more often we heard the story, the stronger we tend to cling to it. As we moved into adulthood, these personal narratives became part of the fabric of who we are and how we inhabit the world.

Often, we cling to our old identities and stories even when they are painful and cause us suffering. The addict says I am an addict, the smoker says I am a smoker.  And they hold onto it. In prison I see people holding on to the image I am tough, even though it landed me in prison and has not served me well in life. We hold on to identities because we think It is too difficult to change old ways.  We feel safer with the devil we know than the devil we don’t. Change requires us to let go.  Letting go takes a lot of courage.  We need to release our old identity, and reorganize our perception of who we are. That is scary work. I have been working on this for the last couple of years.  It’s hard work because you feel like you have to give something up.  And you don’t know what will replace it.

But, Jack Kornfield says, “In practice, we don’t have to change or get rid of anything. We merely learn to see through the false ideas of our self. We discover that we can let go of the limited sense of self, that grasping and identification are optional.”

My journey to understanding my roles and identities started over ten years ago when I began meditating.  At this point I did not even know I was on this journey.  For the first six or eight years, I was simply sitting with my breath, learning to become aware of all the thoughts and feelings that would pop up when I was meditating.  Thoughts that I was unconscious of prior to that.

Let’s look at some of the roles I was exploring. Growing up in a family with 9 girls, I was a Green girl.  And I did what Green girls did. Right out of college, I did what all the Green girls did after college, I got married.  Then I became Chuck’s wife.  Then I had kids and became Derek, Ryan and Callie’s mom. I had all these roles that I was supposed to play and play well.  The roles themselves were not the problem, it was my perception of the roles which was very limiting. For example, my perception of the good wife was doing all the cooking, cleaning and taking care of the kids while working full time, which left me virtually no time for my husband, who is now my ex. My identity of being a hard worker had me giving 150% at work, prioritizing getting tasks completed over developing relationships with co-workers. I even did work that was not really mine to do and wondered why the people whose work I did didn’t appreciate me. Finally, as an empty nester, I had time to look at who I am and what I want to be.  I saw roles like mom, grandma, sister.  And I saw identities like hard worker, smart, shy. None of these roles or identities are necessarily negative.  But my perception of what I had to do because of that role or identity did not necessarily serve me.

By practicing mindfulness, I became more familiar with myself. Judy Lief says, “The benefit of sitting practice is that the more we stay with our experience, without overthinking it or trying to fix anything, the clearer we become about our strengths and weaknesses, our accomplishments and failures, our obstacles and our breakthroughs.“ So sitting helps us to get to know ourselves.

When I meditated, I caught a glimpse of something trustworthy and good deep down inside of me.  Covered up by lots of stuff. This gave me the confidence to watch my emotions and my thoughts instead of sweeping them under the carpet.  I learned to become more accepting of the way things were. This did not happen overnight.  Over the past few years, I have begun to become familiar with what I will call my mistaken self.  The one who had to know everything and do everything in order to be good enough. The one who felt like she was never doing enough to be OK. Those are identities I’d like to let go of, but I was holding on pretty tightly. The more I meditated, I was able to look underneath this mistaken self, and I would see a glimpse of my inner goodness. That I am OK even when I don’t perform.

I believe that before the world got its hands on us, we were innate goodness.  This goodness gets covered up with the roles and identities that we cling to.  Even our positive roles limit us from reaching our true potential, mainly because of our perception of the boundaries of that role.  But we cling to our roles and identities because we think that without them, we are nothing.

I am very busy, so I must be important.  I work really hard, so I must be worthy. I am a good student, so I must be okay. I have a lot of success, so I must be special. But even with these thoughts, we still have feelings of hollowness that don’t go away. So, we try to fill it up with more busyness, more hard work, more success.  And that doesn’t fill the hole either.

In the Path for Freedom class I took we did an exercise called Who Am I?.  We listed 5 roles or identities and ranked them based on the impact they had on our life.  Starting with the least impactful, we looked at the role (as we defined it) or the identity to see what benefits or limitations it brought to our life.  After sitting with it, we folded the paper and put it aside.  Then we sat with what it would be like if that perception of role or that identity wasn’t there.   Note: We are not giving up the role of being a sister, we are giving up the definition we have been using for the role of sister.

No surprise, I felt good when I let the negative ones go.  But what really surprised me was that when I let the positive ones go, I did not feel diminished. I did not feel that I was less than, that I was not worthy. Before this exercise, I had the feeling that without my roles, I had little value. I found that each role or identity covered up my worth because I was trying to fit with a narrow definition of that role.  But, without my roles and identities, I am just innate goodness.  The same innate goodness that you are and that everyone in the world is before the world got their hands on us and covered it up. When we let go of the rigid structure of our identity, we see our natural goodness. The practice has allowed me to loosen my very tight grip on identifying with the unique essence of who I am. I thought it was very important to have a unique essence of who I am, that was what gave me value. But what it really did was make me different and separate from people.  When you feel separate from people you kind of feel like maybe there is something wrong with you. And you always have to be improving.  I still have my unique combination of roles and identities, but without the self-centered grasping and fear. My identity is becoming more fluid.  I see the value of letting roles arise when they are useful and letting them fade away when they no longer serve my true self. I am trying to hold them lightly, using them for the good. Sometimes the attachment is a strong as it ever was.  But I know with practice I can let go again. 

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