Trying to Figure out Who I Really Am

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Reader’s Question

I am 56 years old, an orphan, and ever since I can remember I have always pretended to be someone else. Am I crazy? I’ve just recently come to terms with the question, “who am I really?” I want to find myself. It’s sad that it’s taken so long, but like they say, “better late than never.”

Psychologist’s Reply

Your letter, though brief, raises some big questions in psychology. For example, what do we mean by “the self” and “self-identity?” How do each of us develop them? Are some self-identities more genuine or accurate than others? Why do these issues even seem so important to us?

Psychologists generally agree that the development of the self is a process, beginning very early in life. As young children, we seem to be less concerned with “who” we are than with the consequences of our behavior. Are we loved and rewarded, and if so, unconditionally or only when we act in particular ways?

That last question is an important one, because some people learn early on that they have to “be” a particular way to be accepted and to win approval. All children have to learn which behaviors are safe and acceptable and which are not, but here we’re talking about more core examples of having to portray a particular identity for the sake of what the important adults in the child’s life seem to want. “It’s not acceptable to be who I am ‘naturally,’ so I have to ‘be’ someone else.”

When we grow up trying to meet other peoples’ expectations, we may reach adulthood feeling alienated and unsure just who the “real” us is. Of course there is no one “real” self, as each of us is comprised of various characteristics and facets to those characteristics. The particular aspects of ourselves that we show others depends on the situation and audience. Still, most people feel as though there is a core identity that includes all these various aspects of self, and that remains consistent across time and situations.

Developing that core sense of self takes time, varied experience, and non-judgmental introspection. That is, developing a self-identity that is closest to how we tend to feel and react “naturally” requires trying on various behaviors and paying attention to how we feel. As we do this, we begin to abstract or deduce what “type” of person we must be, based on what we like and dislike, what we seem to be good at, what feels comfortable and natural, and so forth. These notions of the kind of person we are then helps us set goals and make decisions about future behavior.

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For most people the process I’m describing here occurs during the process of growing up; to a large extent, figuring out who we are and what we want to do with our lives is the process of growing up. Of course this isn’t always the case, and we may find that we either missed opportunities for this process, or strayed too far from our core preferences and tendencies. In those cases, the remedy is the same now as it was then. The best attitude under those circumstances is summed up with what you said: “It’s better late than never.”

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