Thank you, Jessica, for welcoming me as a guest poster on your inspirational blog! I am so honored to have the opportunity to share my voice with your readers.
My name is Tammy Schauf, and I have been authoring the blog, “Defining Wellness” (http://definingwellnessblog.com) for a little over a year now. Though I started my blog to share how I overcame my 15-year struggle with disordered eating, this past year I’ve realized the importance of developing an identity that is separate from my disorder and recovery. Developing an identity as an adult can be challenging and confusing . . . and what better to blog about than something that’s challenging and confusing! Enjoy!
Rediscovering Your Identity In Your 20s And Beyond
When we’re little, we proudly proclaim our favorite Disney princess, crayon color and ice cream flavor. We show off our unique musical abilities and gymnastics skills in our elementary school talent show. We tote our favorite toys along with us to school for show-n-tell. We make it known to our family, friends, teachers and pet turtles that “This is who I am, this is what I’m good at, and this is what I like.”
Our family members and teachers pat us on the back and chuckle at our cuteness. Our friends gape at our new slap bracelets or Silly Bandz with wide and envious eyes. Our pet turtles try to escape our grimy little fingers but are forced to be our audience.
When we are little, it is cute that we are trying to define ourselves and make our presence known.
When we are teens, it is expected that we will forge our own paths, haphazardly and emotionally bulldozing our way through the adolescent wilderness.
When we are adults, however, trying to find ourselves isn’t so cute anymore. Emotional rollercoasters are no longer expected of us, and when we’re anything less than stable, we’re ushered off to the nearest psychotherapist or encouraged to try the latest anti-anxiety medication or antidepressant.
But with the explosion of blogs, social networking Web sites and Twitter accounts, the need for adults to find and express themselves is as obviously commonplace as Starbucks.
Why do we feel so lost sometimes? How do we find ourselves without seeming like egocentric children or angst-ridden teenagers? And why do we need to define ourselves anyway?
When we are children and teens, certain expectations are set for us. Whether we accept those expectations or rebel against them, our actions often blaze the course for the years ahead.
For example, throughout my grade school years, I studied my tuchus off and earned straight A’s. I didn’t feel particularly intelligent; I just had a visual memory, good study habits, and a knack for test-taking. But once I started earning the high marks, it was expected that I continue to do so. I was placed in honors classes and Advanced Placement classes and expected to participate in every club and sport and excel at it all. I graduated from high school number one in my class, completely exhausted, burnt out, stressed and with absolutely no idea about what I actually LIKED. It was only recently, at age 27, that I realized how much I actually love to learn. If I could do it over again, I’d focus on the subjects I enjoy and allow myself the freedom to earn a grade less than an A.
This isn’t to say, “Poor me. Look at what a great education I got.” I simply share this example because, as an adult, I’ve struggled to understand what I actually enjoy. Just because I’m capable of accomplishing something doesn’t mean I want to take on the task . . . and in fact, when I push myself to do things at which I’m not particularly skilled, I’m not as efficient as someone who possesses those natural abilities.
By forcing ourselves to meet expectations (whether set by others or ourselves), we strip ourselves of the time and energy that we could devote to more suitable pursuits.
As we mature, we constantly learn new things about ourselves. Maybe we realize we’re suddenly interested in history or pilates or being a stay-at-home parent. Rather than desperately clinging on to the expectations of our past, why not embrace the changes before us?
Perhaps we are afraid of change, of losing ourselves. But if we allow ourselves to be defined by expectations, of course we will feel lost. We are not living authentic lives.
You can find yourself. Yes you. It doesn’t matter if you’re 25 or 105, it’s never too late to develop your identity.
Identity development isn’t just a need of children and teens. Adults want to understand themselves, too . . . and it can be done responsibly, without throwing a temper tantrum or staying out past curfew:
- Identify YOUR values . . . not your friend’s, not your mom’s . . . YOURS. No matter how you may be changing, having a core set of values will provide you with a sense of stability and comfort. For example, I value time spent with my husband and our pets, family, love and kindness, making time for exercise, taking care of things around the house, and writing. As long as I’m living my life in accordance with those values, I can feel ok with whatever other changes I might be experiencing.
- Be willing to try new things and accept changes in your interests. Just because you always wanted to be a doctor when you were in high school doesn’t mean you can’t change your mind. Just because you’ve been in your job for 10 years doesn’t mean you can’t explore other options.
- While you’re finding yourself, why not do something for others? If you like animals, volunteer at your local animal shelter. If you want to explore a career path, see if you can assist someone already in the occupation.
- Learn from the past without becoming immobilized by it. It’s easy to get caught up in your failures and think about them ad nauseam. What did I do wrong? Why didn’t I do it differently? Instead, do your best to learn from the situation and get involved in activities that make you feel confident.
- When the ways you’ve defined yourself in the past prevent you from moving forward, explore other parts of yourself. For years and years, I defined myself first by my eating disorder, and then by my triumph over it. I either “had an eating disorder,” or was “in recovery from an eating disorder,” or had my sights set on being an eating disorders counselor. I found myself so stuck on this one aspect of my life that I didn’t allow my other strengths to flourish. When I began embracing other interests, I became much more proactive and well-rounded.
You’re not a child. You’re not a teenager. You’re an adult. And a sense of self is just as important for you as it is for your younger counterparts.
There is absolutely no shame in wanting to proclaim YOUR favorite Disney princess, crayon color, and ice cream flavor. After all, as the song says, “When the dog bites, when the bee stings, when I’m feeling sad, I simply remember my favorite things, and then I don’t feel so bad.”
As adults, knowing who we are gives us a sense of stability and comfort. Having a theme to our lives gives us a sense of direction, guides us in setting goals for ourselves. We want to know that what we have to offer to the world matters. We want to belong, and at the same time, we want to maintain our uniqueness.
And we can accomplish all of these things if we are simply true to ourselves. I asked one of the most self-assured people I know, my husband, what gives him a sense of identity and purpose in his life. I don’t know why I was so surprised when he answered, simply, “You.”
My husband is a successful career man, a brilliant mathematician, a kind and loving human being. He loves baseball, golf, reading and cooking. So when I asked him what gives him a sense of identity in his life, he could have said, “My career,” or “my intellect,” or “my hobbies.” But he didn’t. He finds his identity in me.
And while probably every self-help book you’d ever read would advise you NOT to find your identity in someone else, my husband stays true to his values. “I value your happiness,” he said, “and it makes me happy to make you happy.”
From my perspective, I can say that my husband has changed my life . . . he was pivotal in helping me to defeat my eating disorder, to learn the true meaning of unconditional love, to becoming the person I wanted to be. He knows what matters to him, even if it flies in the face of every expectation set forth for him. And if the way you find yourself is through giving another person the gift of happiness, well, all the expectations in the world can’t match the honor in that.