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“I don’t know who I am. I’ve shaped my life around other people for so long that I’ve lost sight of myself.” I used to hear some version of that sentiment quite regularly, ten years ago when more of my work involved coaching people. It was especially common among women in the 40-60 age range – women who’d spent years raising children, holding a marriage together, and/or building a career.
These people excelled at shape-shifting to meet the needs and expectations of everyone around them – children, partners, parents, employers, employees, community groups, etc. They’d shape-shifted so often that they’d lost track of who they were, what they needed, what gave them pleasure, and what they most wanted out of life. Most of them were at a loss when it came to making decisions that prioritized themselves rather than the people they cared about.
What many of these people were revealing (and what I, too, have struggled with) is that life had taught them to develop an external locus of identity. They’d become accustomed to defining themselves not by what they saw in themselves but by external factors such as other people’s opinions, societal norms, success measurements inherent in their careers, and their capacity to keep other people happy.
When you have an external locus of identity (or at least primarily lean in that direction on a spectrum), you tend to rely heavily on validation from others and on your ability to meet the standards set by your culture/career/family/religion/etc. Without much capacity for internal validation and self-worth, you feel insecure or inadequate when external factors don’t validate you. You crave the approval of others and the accolades that come with success, and you crumble in the face of criticism or failure.
To locate your sense of self primarily outside of yourself is to live a wobbly and destabilized life. It’s like tossing your anchor into another boat instead of sinking it into solid ground. Whenever the wind changes, or the other boat shifts its position, you’re knocked off your feet.
I struggled with this especially when I got divorced. I’d spent so much time looking after other people’s needs that I had no idea what I needed for myself. As I wrote in my book, Where Tenderness Lives: On healing, liberation, and holding space for oneself, it was only after I finally worked up the courage to choose myself and end an unhealthy marriage that I realized just how codependent I’d been in the marriage. I was so entangled in my former husband’s emotional well-being that I felt completely adrift when that was no longer at the centre of my life.
Why do some of us develop an external locus of identity? It starts in childhood, when we have little choice but to look to adults as our models for how to live. Some of us receive an excess of attention and affirmation from the adults in our lives, and we fail to develop the internal skills needed to affirm ourselves, and some of us receive too little attention and affirmation and are left always hungry for it. In school, we start picking up messages that those who get the best grades receive the most praise from adults, those who excel at sports or performance are popular with their peers, and those who behave well in class receive preferential treatment from teachers. We learn to perform for other people’s expectations so that they’ll love us and care for us.
With adulthood should come individuation and the development of our sense of self and capacity for internal validation, but many of us remain stunted in our emotional growth because of trauma, abuse, social conditioning, or other extenuating circumstances. We’re often held back because of the cultural or family systems we’re part of. If you were raised in a high control group or authoritarian household where you were rarely allowed your own choices (and punished if you made the wrong ones), it can be particularly difficult to, as an adult, learn to trust yourself and claim an identity outside of that system.
Even outside of those more extreme environments, many of us weren’t given the tools or modeling to make good choices on our own behalf, or to see ourselves through any other lens than what the system equipped us with. In a patriarchal system, for example, women are taught to sacrifice our own needs in service to others, and so we develop beliefs that we are selfish if we focus too much on ourselves. Men, on the other hand, are taught that to show emotion is to reveal weakness, and so they often fail to develop skills in self-reflection or emotional maturity. In a religious system, for another example, when a person is told to look to God for all direction in their life and they’re led to believe that they are sinful and worthless without God, it can be difficult to develop independent decision-making skills or a sense of self-worth.
At the core of what we all need in life, from our first day on earth to our last, are three things which are both separate and closely intertwined – safety, belonging, and identity. When those needs are not being met and we feel under threat, we tend to sacrifice our identity so that we can better ensure our access to safety and belonging. When a community or family we’re part of fails to validate a particular part of our identity, we learn to mask that part of ourselves so that we won’t be abandoned. People who are queer, neurodivergent, or disabled often become the most proficient at masking in order to fit in. Many of us lose sight of who we are and become like those boats anchored to other boats instead of the firm ground beneath us, largely because we don’t trust people to fully embrace us otherwise. (I teach more about these primary needs and how they shape us in Know Yourself, Free Yourself.)
Sadly, social media has been an exacerbating factor for those who already struggle with an external locus of identity. While those with the most likes, comments, and shares develop the most social capital and clout (and make the most money), the rest of us are tempted to measure our own worth by their standards. These measuring sticks and popularity contests are in front of us every single day and that can mess with even the most grounded among us. In a podcast I listened to recently, researchers talked about how, despite evidence that their platforms are designed in such a way that negatively impacts people’s self-esteem (especially youth), social media companies refuse to change anything. They have learned to monetize our low self-esteem and attachment to other people’s opinions, so why should they do it differently? Those of us already inclined toward an external locus of identity are further destabilized by the algorithms of social media.
Capitalism (often working hand-in-hand with social media) is also an exacerbating factor. Even those most grounded in a solid sense of self sometimes find themselves knocked off centre when they struggle to make a decent living and can’t pay the bills or buy the things that give their families comfort. If you’re not valued in a capitalist system – if what you produce or the ways that you serve the public are not paid well, or if you are unable to contribute to capitalism because of disability, mental health or family demands – it’s hard to keep holding your head up and finding your inherent value apart from that system.
I’ve recognized this in myself recently as I’ve been marketing my new book, Where Tenderness Lives: On healing, liberation, and holding space for oneself. The book is all about learning to love myself and my body; to ground myself in joy and surround myself with tenderness; to detach myself from external expectations, value judgements, and cultural pressures; and to move toward personal and collective liberation. AND… in order to get that book into people’s hands, I have to be out in the public (especially social media) promoting it in what feels so often like a plea of “like me, PLEASE like me… and like my book and buy it and tell people about it and rate it favourably with those five little stars and PLEASE make me worthy of measuring up according to capitalism’s measuring stick!”
It’s a slippery thing, trying to sink our anchors into solid ground – trying to root our identities in a healthy sense of self instead of other people’s opinions or pocketbooks – when so many forces seem to be working against us. And yet… I believe that that is where our liberation lies. We only become free when we unhook our anchors from other people’s boats (and the systems those boats are connected to) and start looking for the solid ground beneath us. (Note: this doesn’t mean we stop being interdependent with other people – just that we don’t attach our value and identity to their opinions, needs, or expectations.)
The unhooking can feel cataclysmic though, so I don’t offer this reflection lightly. As I found when I finally ended my marriage, after five years of considering it, it can take a lot of self-reflection followed by a life-shattering moment (or in the reverse order) for us to wake up and recognize the ways in which we’ve been shaped and lost sight of ourselves. Sometimes it can take years to fully unravel the old programming and to learn to make courageous choices that allow us to chart new paths.
Before I end this, there is one more thing that’s worth mentioning… identity itself is a slippery thing, and that makes this even more tricky. I don’t believe it’s wise to imagine that we might some day know exactly who we are and that whatever conclusion we come to will become our fixed identity for time immemorial. I think we are meant to be evolving humans who keep learning new things about ourselves and keep being open to the surprise of our own unfolding. (I may write about that more in a future post.) And I think we are meant to be shaped by our relationships, even if we shouldn’t anchor our identities in the whims of the people we’re in relationship with. That might offer further clues as to why we’re sometimes tempted to place the locus of our identity outside of ourselves, though – because we become confused by our own evolution, and we do need other people (we are social creatures, after all), and sometimes it feels safer and more comfortable to be defined by a person who sees us from the outside.
While other people’s perceptions of us can be enlightening and can offer us insights beyond what we can see in ourselves (at least when those people have our best interests at heart), ultimately, though, we are best to hold those insights and perceptions with healthy non-attachment so that we don’t slip into the trap of trying to live up to their expectations of us and therefore abandoning ourselves.
In conclusion, I would suggest that while reclaiming our right to define and shape our own identities (rather than allowing them to live outside of us), the goal is not to claim solid, immoveable identities, but to claim the right to each have an evolving identity. Perhaps the goal in life is to simply be pilgrims on life-long quests for what sets us free and brings us joy. I imagine us dancing together down the path, finding discoveries as we go and sharing them with each other in delight (without judging each other or trying to hold anyone back).
I have lots of thoughts about how to untangle oneself from an external locus of identity and how to be such a pilgrim. I have thoughts about finding practices that help keep us grounded, unraveling the messages we’ve received in the past, healing trauma, building secure attachments, and making hard choices. I teach about them in the upcoming course, Know Yourself, Free Yourself (which starts March 5th), and I’ve written about my own pilgrimage in new book, Where Tenderness Lives: On healing, liberation, and holding space for oneself..
If you are waking up to a realization that you have a primarily external locus of identity, take heart. You are not alone and you are in the right place. This realization is the start to a long pilgrimage, and if you’re willing to take it, you won’t ever regret it. I’ll meet you on the path.