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Your Identity vs. Your True Self

Healing work is all about becoming more of who you really are. Of peeling back the mental, physical, spiritual, and emotional layers hiding your true self. But what is your “true self?” How do you know what is your authentic self and what are layers of beliefs, experiences, and culture layered on top of who you really are?

Girl looking at her face in mirror.

When you think of your most authentic self you think of that core of you that is made up of particular passions, talents, and interests that support your life purpose. How far down do you have to drill to find this core essence of yourself? I’m not really sure. Maybe at its simplest, your true self is simply a creative being with a preference to create in certain ways. Maybe it’s more complicated than that.

What we do know is that this fundamental core never changes. Elizabeth Archibong at Minted Creative talks about the true self being different from emotions, thoughts, habits, and choices. All this other stuff shifts constantly. Even your identity changes throughout life. It’s like identity, habits, and emotions are costumes you put on to try and express the consistent true self nestled inside. You know that deep down you have a particular quality and you spend your whole life figuring out different ways to express it.

Culture puts a lot of emphasis on knowing yourself which usually refers to your identity. There is nothing wrong with this. It is good to know yourself so you can understand your motivations and challenges. However, your identity is fluid and flexible, forming and reforming as you grow older, meet new people, change jobs, and explore new ways to express yourself. You are always rediscovering yourself because your identity is always changing.

Woman holding library books.

For example, I spent sixteen years as an elementary school librarian. I was very wrapped up in the identities of teacher and librarian. Many of my friends were teachers and librarians. I introduced myself to others as a teacher/librarian because those terms conveyed some of who I was. I had actual clothing that declared to the world who I was. But when I quit my teaching job in 2019, I had to drop those identities. I suddenly became a former teacher/librarian. What did that make me? Who was I without those identities?

Part of what I had to do in my transition away from my teaching career is identify my true self that was nestled inside my teacher/librarian identity. I realized that I like to learn (mostly through reading), I love to teach, I enjoy supporting people as they connect with things they want to learn, I like to solve challenging problems, and I like to help people succeed. These qualities are all part of my true self that fit very well inside the identity of teacher/librarian, but these qualities also fit with other kinds of identities as well. I can express them as a small business owner with an energy/coaching business. I can teach all kinds of things other than elementary topics. I can support people exploring their interests in many ways. In giving up my old identity, I didn’t give up my true self, I simply changed the way I express it.

If I hadn’t been able to take off that old identity of teacher/librarian and find new ways to express who I really was, I would have either been stuck in a job I hated or stuck in an identity crisis I couldn’t get out of. I think that’s how so many people get lost in the journey of life. They get attached to a particular identity (understandably) and have a hard time shifting into a new one.

Here are some other things that make up your identity but aren’t necessarily part of your true self. See if you can spot anything surprising:

  • Likes and dislikes

  • Allergies

  • Medical diagnoses

  • Sensitivities

  • Family

  • Beliefs

  • Religious associations

  • Political affiliations

  • Personality

  • Relationships

  • Job or profession

  • Fears

  • Cultural background

Are you feeling shocked? I know that some of these things seem like integral parts of your identity and changing them would be utterly destructive. However, whether or not you WANT to change them, most of them CAN be changed. They aren’t immutable and they aren’t necessarily part of your core self.

We can quibble over some of the things on this list. For example, you may want to argue that you can’t change your family. I would suggest, though, that even if you can’t change your family of origin, you can change who your family is now. You don’t have to allow your family of origin to remain part of your current identity if there is a particularly good reason to let them go. The same goes for religion, culture, and other things on this list you may think are static. People leave their families and cultures to start over again. They switch religions or drop them all together. They examine their personalities and work to change or shift the things they don’t like. None of this is locked in. You may not be able to remove these elements from your past, but none of them have to remain part of your present identity.

Let’s think again about identity as the clothes you put on over the true core of who you are. Maybe your true self is someone who believes in the inherent humanity of all the people and their right to good medical care. You may explore this in many ways throughout life with different identities. Maybe you pursue medicine or work for a nonprofit or get involved in politics. Maybe you do all three at different times in your life. There is no one way to express this aspect of your true self. You simply try different things on and see how they fit.

Three women walking away dressed up in bright pink wigs.

Again, I want to emphasize that there’s nothing wrong with this. It’s good to try on new things and explore yourself in new ways. You may find a piece of identity you really like and want to hang on to it. You may find another piece of identity that doesn’t fit and want to switch that one out.

Where I see many people get stuck is that they are handed or create an identity that they don’t like but think they have to keep. I’ve been diagnosed with ___ and I’ll live with that forever. I’m a teacher. I hate going to parties. I’m a 3 on the Enneagram. I’m afraid of flying. In my family we never do ____. I'm married/a parent/a daughter. These may certainly all be part of your background and your current identity, but if you view them as static and unchanging, then they essentially become limiting beliefs.

I’m not saying that your identity is unimportant, it is just that your identity is also fluid. If you aren’t willing to continually explore and change who you are, then you’ll get stuck somewhere. I believe that every day is a new chance to create the life you really want. You can only do that if you are willing to create a new identity to go along with that life. You may not need to throw out all the pieces of yourself, but there are probably some things you will have to shift in order to create the transformation you wish to see.

If you think that you are your job, your marital status, or your religious affiliation, then you will never be able to be anything else. If you think your illness, your beliefs, your family background, or your habits are fundamental parts of who you are, then you will never try to change them. Then when you get stuck in a life you don’t want or a job you hate, you won’t be able to figure out what went wrong or how to move on.

Exploring your identity can be very powerful and can be a source of much healing. Remember earlier when I said that healing is essentially becoming more like your true self every day? Exploring identity, the fluid representation of your true self, can help you understand what you are trying to create in your life and allow you to make adjustments to create a better life that fulfills your purpose.

Woman sitting down taking a personality test.

Let me give you an example. People love personality tests. Whether it is the Enneagram, Myers-Briggs, the 16 Personality Factor, or any other, these tests are a fun way to uncover the underlying motivation behind your weirdest quirks. They can help you discover things about yourself that you never understood before. The problem is that some people take these tests and then settle into those identities they have discovered. Someone may label themselves as a 1 on the Enneagram and learn that their fatal flaw is their belief that they are defective.

If this person thinks this identity is static, they may notice how their belief that they are defective influences their lives, but they may never try to heal it. They will never be able to see themselves any other way. You may think that isn’t a big deal, but what if that one belief is the thing holding them back from discovering their most authentic life and creating their best self? Will they never be able to change simply because they believe a personality test told them they can’t? What if that person took the information from the Enneagram and used it to identify their true self trying to emerge while also highlighting the areas in which they still need healing? It would help them move closer to the person they are supposed to be.

I’m not criticizing the many ways we explore our identities and learn about ourselves. I am just concerned with the ways people want to put labels on themselves and then let those be the limits of their identity. Diagnoses, personality tests, family history, and religious backgrounds are important ways we form identity and learn about ourselves. At some point, though, we need to step through them and into a less defined and more fluid definition of ourselves. We need to make decisions about what we are going to keep and what we are going to let go.

We don’t just do this with personality tests, but with all kinds of things. Some people are allergic to different things and have adjusted their lives and habits to accommodate that allergy. Or maybe it's an illness or a phobia that defines who they are and what they do. There isn’t anything wrong with this. I spent over a decade creating a life that centered on how to feel half decent despite all my serious food sensitivities. That’s how you cope with limitations. The problem is that if you think that is an integral part of your identity, you will never question whether there is a way to live any differently. You will never try things to see if you can heal. I finally decided I didn’t want to live with the identity that had emerged due to my food limitations and I wanted to find out if I could be someone different. That sent me on a long journey to find healing for my food sensitivities. Along the way I had to drop a lot of surprising things that had been part of my identity but were in the way of the change I wanted to create.

It’s a little terrifying to think that our identities can be so flexible, but also a little freeing as well. Take a close look at yourself. Is there anything about your current identity that you wish were different? Have you ever considered that you might be able to change it? That even though it will always be a part of your past, that it might not have to stay a part of your present? What would you change about yourself if you thought you could?

Transforming your life starts with believing you can. The next step is being willing to let go of aspects of your identity that are holding you back. This doesn’t mean that who you are is bad, it just means that it’s time to make a change and experience your true self in a new way. If you are trying to change careers, leave a relationship, heal an old wound, learn to be more independent, create a life with more adventure, walk out of a culture or religion that isn’t supporting you, or recover from an illness, then you need to let go of the aspects of your identity holding you in that place.

Is it really possible to fully know your true self? I’m not sure. I think life is partly the eternal discovery of who you really are deep down. I don’t think we are simple beings at our core. I think our life is spent trying on different costumes and exploring different identities so that we can experience our true selves in many different ways. Along the way you find healing and learn to fulfill your purpose in this life. This is important because we need you to be who you are supposed to be so we can create a better world for everyone.

This isn’t easy work. It takes soul-searching and willingness to see outside the paradigm you’ve lived in. You’ll have to go out on a limb and try some new things and experiment with stuff you never thought you’d try. But you can do it. You can take this identity you think is static and transform it into something new that is closer to your true self. You can create a life that fits that new identity better. If you want to explore this idea more, check out my post Remember Who You Are.

Part of my true self is supporting others as they heal and become more themselves. I use energy work to help you release the limiting beliefs holding you back. I have many coaching tools that teach you the skills you need to change the beliefs, habits, and patterns keeping you stuck in an old identity that doesn’t fit any more. I can support you as you heal and become more yourself. If you want to learn more about what I do, check out my blog and website.

You can also contact me to ask questions or set up a time to talk. I’d love to hear from you and learn more about the change you are trying to create in your life! Send me a message today!

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