The Identity Gap

success-a

Identity is a big topic for me in my writing.  Who are you?  Who am I?  How well do we really understand ourselves as a person, and perhaps more importantly, how well do we accept ourselves?

Along this lines, one idea I’ve had rolling around in my head for a while is the idea of an “identity gap”.

To me, an identity gap is the gap between who we ARE and who we WANT TO BE.

 

Related to my post on fantasy, we all have an idealized version of self; this picture of who we wish we were, and how we wish our life looked.  This ideal is related to our dreams, and may be influenced by the things we see around us or the expectations that were placed on us growing up.

 

However this is just an ideal, and I don’t think ANYONE is their idealized version of “self”.  And for that matter, I don’t think anyone ever achieves it.

This concept of an identity gap has huge implications for the level of happiness a person has in their life.  And I think this happiness is directly related to three questions:

  1. How big is the gap between who you want to be and who you are?
  2. Do you accept that your idealized version of self is simply an ideal, and not reality?
  3. What are you doing to improve yourself and close the gap between who you are and who you want to be?

 

What is your Ideal Self?

This is a tough question to answer.  But I guess another way of look at it is, when you were a teenager who did you think you would be?  What did you think it actually meant to be an adult?

This is an area where man oh man, I think a lot of us screw up something fierce.

On one hand, we have all these adults all around us modelling what life as an adult looks like.  So you would think we would actually learn something from that.

On the other hand, we have tv shows, and advertising telling us how amazing we are, and how special we are, and how we “deserve the best”.

I’m not sure about this, but I suspect that even when all the evidence around us is telling us life as an adult is pretty mundane, there’s also a part of that expects life to look like a beer commercial.

 

I don’t think many teenagers/college students take a look at their parents and say “yup, that’s who I’m going to be when I grow up”.

For some reason we think we are different, and special, so of course our life will be different.  We will set goals, and achieve all of our wildest dreams.

 

A few posts back used a line I found:

What screws us up most in life is the picture in our head of how it’s supposed to be.

That line seems simple at first, but it’s also one of the most profound things I’ve ever read.

How things are “supposed to be”.

What life is “supposed” to look like.

What “love” is supposed to look like.

Who we are “supposed” to be.

 

I’m reminder of a scene from movie Boyhood.  It’s kind of a bizarre film, as it doesn’t really follow a traditional mold; but it’s also really powerful.  It was filmed over 12 years, and during the film you actually see the characters age and grow up.

In it Patricia Arquette starts out as a young mother with little education.  And during the 12 years of the film her children grow up, she is married and divorced twice, and gains an education and becomes a college professor (I think).

Late in the film there’s a scene where her son is leaving for college and she breaks down.  She reflects on all the things that have happened in her life, all the things she has done and accomplished.  And then she says:

I just thought there would be more.

 

I just thought there would be more.

Life hasn’t matched up to the picture she had in her head.  There was an identity gap, and when comparing reality to ideal, life ended up being a disappointment.

 

I think this happens often.

For some reason we expect “more”.  And real life isn’t able to measure up.

In our society right now, depression rates are up.  Anxiety rates are up.  People talk about happiness as if it’s this magical thing that they can achieve.  This goal in life that will make everything better.

So how do we make this better?

 

An Ideal is a Dream

I think one of the first things we need to do is accept that our ideal is simply something to strive towards, and not something we are likely to ever achieve.

And that’s alright.

We are all just “regular” people.  We aren’t any better than anyone else, and we do not deserve special treatment.

That’s not to say we shouldn’t have goals – because we should.  We need them, as goals give us something to strive towards.

Instead of just looking at our imaginary end state, we need to be able to set small milestones or goals, and celebrate the little successes we have along the way.

Because sometimes our ideal isn’t actually realistic.

So we shouldn’t measure our success in life against it’s end state.  We need to be able to look at where we are now, and appreciate it each and every day.

 

How are you Trying to Improve?

Let’s say I want to make a fence.  What do I need to do?

Does it help me to wake up everyday, look in my yard and think “man, I wish I had a fence”?

Ummm, no so much.

How about if I buy some wood and some screws, and put them in my yard and just leave them there?

I suppose that gets me a bit closer, but again, it’s not very helpful.

 

Instead, a few things need to happen.

  • First I need to understand where I am today.
  • Next I need to understand where I want to be.
  • Then I need a plan to get from point A to point B.
  • Lastly (and perhaps most importantly) I need initiative. I need to be willing to do something about it.

 

So everything starts with accepting yourself for who you are TODAY.

We all have strengths and weaknesses, good sides and bad sides.  And until we accept ourselves for who we are today (warts and all), we can never move forward or improve.  We are never able to live in the present moment, and able to appreciate the life we DO have.

When people are focused on their identity gap, they are focused on who they are not instead of who they are. And when THAT is the focus?  If someone is focused on what they are missing or who they are not, I don’t think they will ever be happy.  Because it doesn’t matter how much you improve, you can always get better.  And people who are focused on what they are not are unable to live in the moment and appreciate the things they DO have.

So any improvements need to first start with self acceptance.

changeparadox

 

Once you have accepted who you are today, you are now in a position to better understand the gap between where you are and where you want to be.

Ironically, once you have accepted yourself it may not matter as much.

Because although we can always be “more”, when we have accepted ourselves we know we are “enough”.

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The Disease of Me

selfish_header

I’ve been writing about relationships for a number of years now, and during that time I’ve read a lot of books and talked to a lot of people.

One thing I’ve found is, although each person and each relationship is a bit different; people’s problems are largely the same.  There are a lot of couples out there who are struggling with slightly different variations of the same things.  But when you really break down the problems, at their root one of the largest problems is that people frequently choose “me” over “we”.

Put another way, one of the largest problems in relationships is selfishness.

I see being in a relationship as being part of a team.  And the same team “skills” that apply in a work environment or on a sports team also apply in relationships.

 

For years, Pat Riley was widely regarded as one of the top coaches in professional basketball.  He coined the phrase “the disease of me” to describe selfishness, and how runs contrary to the ideas that are required in order for a team to succeed.

The most difficult thing for players to do when they become part of a team is to sacrifice. It is much easier, and much more natural, to be selfish. – Pat Riley

Pat Riley makes a great observation here – it is much more natural to be selfish.  I believe this is very true.

 

As children, our world is about our needs and our fears.  Parents are in our life to provide for us and to shelter us, and I think we see them for the utility that they bring us instead of seeing us as people.

We grow, and develop friendships.  And although we care about those people, it is still mainly about what they do for us.  How much we enjoy being around them, and how they make us feel.

We start romantic relationships, and in the beginning these are COMPLETELY about us.  We have things we want out of life, and things we are looking for in another person.  And we view this potential partner in terms of what WE get out of the relationship, and how WE feel around that person.

This sense of love being about us and our needs is captured well by someone who writes about having an affair:

I wish I’d known what love was. I craved feelings I labeled as love. Feelings that came from having someone I valued value me in return. It made me feel I was all that. In fact, the more I esteemed the other person, the stronger the effect. But, what I really loved was how they made me feel about myself. The reflection of my image in their eyes made me feel amazing. But love isn’t that feeling, rather it’s the grace my wife extended, not when I deserved it, but rather when I least deserved it.

 

This inherent selfishness makes sense.  As a person, I can’t see into someone else’s head – but I am acutely aware of what I feel.  My feelings, my emotions, and how events impact me.  I may be able to tell that I have hurt someone around me, but I’m experiencing that through observation and interpretation of their actions and responses to my own.  I can’t actually FEEL their pain.  So it makes sense that it is less important to me than my own.

So yeah, selfishness may be inherent.  But not being able to grow past it is a sign of emotional immaturity.

Truly caring for others (versus seeing them primarily as a tool for our own needs) is learned.  Empathy is learned.  But the capability to learn these things is a huge part of what makes us human.

We may start by only being able to see the world in terms of how it affects us.  But part of growing up involves understanding that everything isn’t about us.

We may go into relationships because of what we want, and what we get out of them.  But for that relationship to truly grow and succeed, it HAS to become something more.  We have to come to see the other persons wants and needs as just as important as our own.  And there are times that we have to be willing to sacrifice what WE want for the benefit of the relationship.

If we can’t?

Then what we have isn’t truly a relationship.

Or if it is, it’s a parasitic one instead of a symbiotic one.  If we are there primarily for what we get and we can’t see the value of what we put in, the relationship will never be able to last.

 

In discussing the “disease of me” in the context of a basketball team, Pat Riley came up with the following warning signs:

  1. Feelings of under appreciation (‘woe is me’)
  2. Focusing on personal playing time and stats
  3. Internal cliques within the team
  4. Excessive joy in a personal performance when the team loses
  5. Frustration from lack of playing time when the team wins
  6. Desire to have more recognition than a teammate

 

Although this list has a basketball focus, the basic idea still applies in relationships.  Not feeling appreciated, focusing on what YOU get out of the relationship, not taking pride in or appreciating your partner’s successes, and valuing yourself above your partner.  All of these indicate selfishness.

 

But wait a minute?  What about me?  Am I saying that relationships are all about “us”, and you need to lose the “me” in order to be successful in a relationship?

No, not at all.

You matter.  Your needs and wants in the relationship matter.  You need to be able to maintain the “individual” as part of the relationship.

But your partner matters too.

In a healthy relationship, you have found a balance between me and we.  You accept that you are building something larger than you, and that sometimes you need to sacrifice for the good of the relationship.

Healthy relationships have strong communication, and accept that there are both individual and couple goals.  And they work to find a balance where both can be worked towards.

I think the following quote sums this up well:

selfishness-quotes

 

Everyone has needs and wants, and it’s important to strive towards them.  That’s healthy.

But when you put your needs and wants above those of your partner, and expect them to conform to you; that’s selfish.  And that is VERY bad for relationships.

 

A while back I came up with my three keys to a successful relationship:

 

  1. love each other (actively)
  2. don’t be selfish
  3. communicate

 

Three simple rules that I think can make any relationship better.

Loving each other should be easy.  Communication may not be easy, but it’s a skill that can be improved over time.  The real key is not being selfish.

Selfish people CAN change.  But no one can change them.

They have to be willing to see how much damage their self-absorption has caused to those around them, and then they have to want to change on their own.

And when they can’t, or won’t?  Sometimes the only thing you can do is walk away.  Because often their pursuit of happiness will come at the expense of yours.

selfish_just_you

Living with Guilt

Guilt-Pain

I’m a big believer in personal accountability, and feel it’s often missing today.  Too often people are looking to blame, and while that’s and easy road to take it’s also completely non-productive because blaming doesn’t allow us to grow, or change.

To me, accountability is all about accepting responsibility for those things that you should be/are actually responsible for, and only those things; no more, and no less.

Accountability doesn’t always come easily though, and there are a number of mental processes that we go through before truly accepting responsibility and becoming accountable.

I’ve written about this process before, but for a recap the idea is as follows:

 

Some sort of stressor occurs (an issue, and argument, a disappointment, whatever it is); and when this happens our primal brain kicks in and goes through a series of steps to determine how to deal with this stressor.

This process starts with Denial, and then moves to Blame, Justification, Shame/Obligation, and only after that does it move to Responsibility.

The first three, denial, blame and justification are easy to explain. In these, rather than taking any sort of ownership we are deflecting the issue away from us. In denial there is no problem. In blame the problem is seen, but it’s not “my” problem, it’s someone else’s. And in justification I only partially accept that it’s my problem. I am saying that yes, it’s my problem – but there are a number of reasons as to “why” it happened (and these reasons somehow absolve me of any blame).

What I’m interested in today is the next mode – when we operate out of guilt or obligation.

 

Operating out of Guilt

In many ways acting from a state of shame or obligation is worse than denial, blame or justification. When you do any of those, you are deflecting an issue away from yourself.  With shame or obligation though, you are doing something but you feel as though you are being compelled to do it by some external force.

It’s almost as though your choice to do something is being made under duress.  You aren’t doing it because you want to, or because you believe it’s the right thing to do.  You are doing it because of a fear of consequence.

With guilt and obligation the consequence we are trying to escape is usually other people’s perception.  Saying I need to do this because so and so expects me to is really saying I need to do this or I will disappoint so and so.  And really, that’s a crappy reason to do something.

When this happens you are liable to build up resentment that you “have to” do something, and you are also liable to build up resentment for the person that you are trying to not disappoint.

Doing something from a state of shame or obligation is fine when done occasionally, but if it is a common state for you then are liable to give up or quit.

 

Guilt and Shame

Brene Brown (a prominent writer who has researched shame and guilt) says:

I believe that guilt is adaptive and helpful – it’s holding something we’ve done or failed to do up against our values and feeling psychological discomfort.

I define shame as the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging – something we’ve experienced, done, or failed to do makes us unworthy of connection.

I don’t believe shame is helpful or productive. In fact, I think shame is much more likely to be the source of destructive, hurtful behavior than the solution or cure. I think the fear of disconnection can make us dangerous.

Brene Brown

 

According to her guilt is positive, and is a way of telling yourself “I have done something bad”.  Shame is negative, because instead of just believing we have done something bad, we start to believe that we are bad as a result.

With shame, it’s like we have internalized the action and believe it comes to represent who we are.  So shame starts to touch on self worth, and feelings of adequacy.

 

I think I understand what she’s saying about guilt and shame, but there is one problem with the idea that guilt is positive.

If guilt occurs when you are doing something that you know is wrong, then it’s dependent on what you have been taught.

Unfortunately, right and wrong aren’t that straightforward.

 

The Problems with Guilt

There are some “big” things I suspect most will agree on.  Killing others is bad.  Stealing from others is bad.  Hurting other people is bad (though we seems to have a lot less of an issue with hurting people emotionally than we do physically).  Those are fairly obvious.

Guilt is tied to morals though, and morals can get very murky.

LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) rights are in the news a lot these days, and many LGBT people struggle a lot in their early years because they are taught that the way they feel is not normal.  There is a lot of guilt and shame that has to be overcome in order to accept who they are.

Going beyond LGBT issues, anything to do with sexuality is often a HUGE source of guilt and shame for people, and most of us struggle with feelings of embarrassment when the topic comes up.  Why?  It’s a natural act, and none of us would even be here today without sex.  But we are taught that it is “adult stuff”, and therefore taboo; so many people struggle with accepting that they are sexual beings.

 

Another area where people struggle with what they have been taught is emotions.

Men are often looked as emotional Neanderthals, and sadly we often are.  To me, this is an example of misdirected guilt.

Little boys (and girls, but more commonly boys) are often taught they are supposed to be “strong”, and that crying is for “sissies”.  This causes them to try and hold negative emotions in, and over time feelings of sadness will make boys feel guilty.  Holding things in can lead to suppressing emotions, and can cause people to start to disassociate themselves from emotions in general.

Emotions are natural responses to external stimuli.  Yet they are often suppressed, or associated with guilt – simply because of what someone has been taught.

 

An additional problem with guilt is that it is often rooted in comparison, or perception instead of in reality.  Often guilt is related to not wanting to disappoint another person.  Yet the feelings of guilt are based on our own interpretation of how the other person would feel about us; and that interpretation is often completely flawed.  It’s something that WE project.  So it really comes from us more than from the other person.

 

Lastly there is the subjective side of guilt.  Look at some of the areas that are often considered major conflict areas in relationships:

  • Money
  • Sex
  • Work
  • Children and Parenting
  • Chores

In each of these areas, conflicts are usually because each person has different ideas about what is right and what is wrong.  The problem is, there IS no right way or wrong way to deal with any of those topics.  It’s easy to believe that our way is the right way – after all, it’s what we know.  But when we insist on things being our way (because it’s better), we are saying that our partners approach is inferior to ours.  And that can cause feelings of guilt (and shame) in our partner.

 

Letting Go of Guilt

The way I see it, guilt does have some value.  As Brene Brown has said, guilt provides us with psychological discomfort when we do something that goes against our values.  Essentially it’s our conscience saying “hey, should you really be doing this” or “c’mon, you KNOW you shouldn’t have done that”.  That side of guilt can be helpful, as it can help guide us to make better choices in the future.

It’s important though to remember our understanding of right and wrong is based on what we have been taught, and due to this I think it’s always valuable to question our beliefs and be willing to adjust them as needed.

So a huge element of guilt is really about identity, and self-acceptance.  If you accept yourself, love yourself and believe in yourself then it really doesn’t matter what other people think.  If you KNOW you are making good decisions, and are doing the right thing then what is there to feel guilty about?

Are you worries about disappointing parents?  Disappointing your partner?  Realistically, if you can honestly say you accept yourself, and try to do the right thing (balancing your needs with the needs of others) than any disappointment on their part is their issue – not yours.

 

I don’t understand doing things out of guilt or obligation.  If you REALLY don’t want to do something, then don’t do it.

Don’t get me wrong, we all have times that we need to do things we don’t really want to do.  That’s part of life, and part of being an adult.  But doing something you don’t want really want to because it needs to be done is doing it from a position of responsibility.

If someone finds themselves continually doing things out of guilt or obligation, then it seems there is at least some part of a person that believes they should be doing this.  Either that or they have been taught to believe something they don’t truly agree with.

So question things.

Accept yourself.

Accept that “your” way isn’t necessarily the “right” way.

Accept that others won’t always agree with you, and that’s alright.

 

When you do that, if you accept that sometimes things have to be done (even though you don’t want to) then approach them from a position of responsibility.  If you determine that it’s not something you should have to do, then don’t do it.

If you do that knowing you have done the right thing for you, then you can let go of guilt.

This Is Just Who I Am

baby

Recently I was looking at my kids’ baby pictures (nah, not my kid up top), and it got me thinking about growth and maturation.

It’s amazing how much children change in those early years.

In one year they went from toothless chubby little babies who did little more than sleep, eat and poop; to little people who started to expand their world, learning to walk on unsteady little legs and exploring everything around them (often by trying to eat whatever it is).

Their photo albums are a window in time, showing milestones and transitions as the years go by.  They became toilet trained, learned to talk, went off to school, learned to ride a bike, gained friends and went on vacations.

With the turn of pages I saw them change, and grow.

Look at my kids, the changes in the past 10 years are significant and impossible to miss.  They have gone from babies to pre-teens.

Thing is, it wasn’t just my kids that were changing during this time.

In the pictures there are others.  I see myself, my wife, parents, siblings, cousins, friends, grandparents, etc.  We’ve all changed, and some of those people are now even gone.

When I look at pictures of me, the changes aren’t as readily apparent as the changes in my kids.  I’m definitely a bit older, with a bit more grey in my hair, and a few pounds heavier.  But I look largely the same.

 

Growing Up

At a subconscious level, I think there is a notion that most of our growing is done in our early years.  As children, we are in the process of becoming adults – with everything that means.

We finish high school, and probably go to university.  These post high-school years are very important, as we are young adults and the world is a blank slate.  We have a few years to figure out “who we want to be”, and decide on our future path.

By around our mid-twenties, we usually have this figured out.  School is done and we are starting careers, and often families.

We’re adults now, and we’ve made it!!!

We’re on a path (whatever it may be); and we are a finished product – or at least pretty close.  At this point who “we” are internally is seen as set.  We have established our identity, and any changes from here on are incremental and largely superficial, more the result of age than of any real growth.

I’m not sure if most people have really thought through this idea that our identities are established by our mid-twenties, but I think at some level most of us believe this (I know I did).

And I think this idea is totally wrong.

 

Who Am I?

One of my recurring themes in these pages is identity, and the question “who am I?”

I think this is a really important question, with far reaching implications on our lives.  But at the same time it’s a question for which there aren’t any easy answers.

What exactly are we?  Are we just a collection of the different roles we play?  Are we a combination of interests and hobbies?  Of habits?

All of these things make up components of who we are, and if we strip those away then what is left?

Our personality?  Our moral core?

Even these things don’t really seem “fixed”.  Sometimes peoples personalities have dramatic changes due to traumatic experience.

While trying to understand what we are, it truly seems to me that much of what we are is learned.  In fact I often think of people as the sum of their experiences.  We are shaped by everything we go through, and if our experiences had been different we likely wouldn’t be the same person we are today.

And our experiences never stop, no matter what age we are.  So although it may feel like we’ve stopped changing and growing when we became an adult, that’s not true.

We’re still changing all the time, sometimes in big ways and other times in small ones.  The changes just aren’t as easy to see as when we are kids.  We may no longer have noticeable physical changes, but the changes inside of us are always happening.

 

Relationships and Change

This idea of change as adults can have adverse impacts on relationships.

Sometimes couples get into a spot where they wake up one day and feel they no longer recognize the other person, and you hear things like “He/she isn’t the person I married.”

If you feel that way guess what, you’re right.  And guess what, you aren’t either.

As the years go by, you each experience things that change you.  Hopefully you are able to change and grow together, and hold onto the love and bond that brought you together.  But it’s also possible for you to change in ways that pull you apart.

Change is going to happen. 

To stay together you need to find ways to continue to learn each other, and continue to fall in love with each “new version” of your partner as the years go by.  You may not like everything, and you don’t have to.  But you need to accept that they are growing, not expect them to always be the exact same person they were when you first met.

Paradoxically, although we are always changing we have a tendency to get “stuck” in routines and patterns that are unhealthy for relationships.  And once in these routines, it often feels like things are hopeless and things will never be able to change for the better.  We get into these downward spirals where it can feel like the only choice left is to leave the relationship.

Often this is because we feel like the issues are due to fundamental differences between people.  Things that are “just the way they are”, or “just the way WE are”.

 

 

Embracing Change

Change is a funny thing, because it can threaten us if someone has changed too much or in ways we don’t like.  But it can also restrict us, as we can feel stuck in situations where change doesn’t seem possible, and where there is no hope of improvement.

Part of us wants stability.  We have visions on what we want things to look like, and we want it to be that way forever.

But really, the one constant in life is change so we need to accept it.

And when situations feel hopeless, we have to recognize that change CAN always happen.

Much of what we “are” is learned, and that means it can be unlearned and new paths can be found.

Change is hard though so often it won’t happen until we have real reason for it to happen, because someone has to WANT it to happen.

 

In relationships, much of how we act and interact is actually skills that we have developed subconsciously over time.  But instead of thinking of them as skills, we think of them as personal characteristics or traits.

How we communicate, how we deal with conflict, how we cope with stress.  These things aren’t inherent.  They aren’t who we are.  They are “part” of who we are, and they are part of who we have been.  Additionally, after many years these learned behaviors can be difficult to change.

 

Is This REALLY Who I Am?

To anyone who says “this is just who/how I am,” I say no – this is who you are today.  Tomorrow has yet to happen.  It’s a blank slate, and it’s up to you to decide how you want it to look.

Anything can change, and anything can get better.

If we feel stuck, our relationships can improve, and we can also improve.

We shouldn’t have to change for someone else, but that shouldn’t be how we look at change.  If we take a hard look at ourselves and are able to identify attitudes or aspects of our personality that are causing us problems, why would we want to improve?

Shouldn’t we always strive to be the best possible version of ourselves?  And if those improvements also help reduce conflict in our relationships, all the better.

 

We aren’t a constant – we are always growing and always becoming.  Being an adult doesn’t mean our growth and development is done.  It never stops, it just slows down a bit and becomes harder to see.

So instead of saying “this is just who I am” ask yourself, who do you want to become?