Many of us are wandering the earth, accomplished in many ways, capable of fulfilment at points, but with a fundamental wound that stops us from becoming who we might be: we don’t quite know who we are.
It isn’t, of course, that we can’t remember the basics of our biographies. We’re unsure around two things in particular: we don’t have a stable sense of what we are worth, and we don’t have a secure hold on our own values or judgements.
Without knowing who we are, we tend to have particular trouble coping with either denigration or adulation. If others decide that we are worthless or bad, there will be nothing inside us to prevent us from swallowing their verdicts in their entirety, however wrong-headed, extreme or unkind they may be. We will be helpless before the court of public opinion. We’ll always be asking others what we deserve before seeking inside for an answer. Lacking an independent verdict, we also stand to be unnaturally hungry for external praise: the clapping of an audience will matter more than would ever be wise. We’ll be prey to rushing towards whatever idea or activity the crowd happen to love. We will laugh at jokes that aren’t funny, uncritically accept undeserving concepts that are in vogue and neglect our truer talents for easy popular wins. We’ll trail public opinion slavishly, constantly checking the world’s whims rather than consulting an inner barometer in order to know what we should want, feel and value.
We need to be kind on ourselves. No one is born with an independent ability to know who they are. We learn to have an identity because, if we are blessed, in our early years, someone else takes the trouble to study us with immense fairness, attention and kindness and then plays us back to us in a way that makes sense and that we can later emulate. They give us the beginning of a true portrait of our identity which we take on and enrich over the years and use as a defence against the distorting verdicts from hurried or ill-intentioned others. Knowing who one is is really the legacy of having been known properly by someone else at the start.
This early identity-building tends to unfold with apparently innocuous life-saving small steps. ‘It must really have hurt,’ a parent might say in response to an upset, thereby validating an infant’s own feelings. Or: ‘it’s OK not to feel happy on your birthday,’ the parent might say another point, delicately upholding an infant’s less typical response to certain events.
Ideally, the child isn’t just known, he or she is also interpreted as likeable. A good parent offers generous interpretations; they are on the side of the child and are always ready to put the best possible gloss on moments of ill-temper or of failure – which forms the basis upon which resilient self-esteem can then later emerge.
That is the ideal, but it can of course go very wrong – and often does. A parent may offer mirroring that is out of synch with the reality of the child. ‘Look who is such a happy little boy/girl,’ a parent might insist when the opposite is the case, badly scrambling the child’s ability to connect with their own emotions. Or the parent might only lend the child a very punitive way of interpreting itself, repeatedly suggesting that it is ill-intentioned and no good. Or the parent may simply not show very much interest in the child, focusing themselves elsewhere, so that the child grows up with a sense that not only is it not worth cherishing, but also – because it has not been adequately seen and mirrored – that it doesn’t quite exist. A feeling of unreality is the direct consequence of emotional neglect.
Realising that we lack a stable identity is a sobering realisation. But we can, with a fair wind, start to correct the problem at any point. We need to seek out the help of a wise and kindly other person, perhaps a good psychotherapist, who can study us closely, mirror us properly and then validate what they see. Through their eyes, we can learn to study, perhaps for the first time, how we really feel and take seriously what we actually want. We can, by being witnessed generously, more often take our own sides and feel increasingly solid inside, trusting ourselves more than the crowd, feeling that we might be able to say no, not always swaying in the wind and feeling that we are in possession of some of the ultimate truths about us.
Having come to know ourselves like this, we will be a little less hungry for praise, a little less worried by opposition – and much more original in our thinking. We will have learnt the vital art of both knowing and befriending who we really are.