More On Identity

Yesterday I wrote about values and how that’s important to identity.  It’s the obvious thing people think about when they discuss the idea of identity.  I’ve been thinking lately of another aspect of identity that is often overlooked because it doesn’t apply to everyone, but one that can be very, very important to the people that it does apply to.

Disability.  Mental illness.

Those aren’t things that people often think about when they think about identity, but they’re important.  Here’s why.

When I was younger, I struggled with many things (you can read about one of them here, but I also had other difficulties with social skills, motor coordination etc.).  I’ve been called all kinds of things.  ‘Lazy’, ‘stupid’, ‘stubborn’…  But in the sixth grade (after a learning specialist at my school suggested it for the second time), my parents took me to an educational psychologist who gave me a provisional diagnosis of ADHD.  Although I do not actually believe I have ADHD, the label was and is so important to me, because for the first time, I allowed myself to consider the possibility that I might actually not be broken or weird.  That I might just be a different kind of normal.  That there might be others out there who struggle the same way I do (which there are… I’ve found a few, although at the time I felt really alone).

It’s so easy to say “don’t let [diagnosis] define you/your child”.  It’s so easy to think that nobody wants to have labels like ADHD, autism, depression, anxiety, schizophrenia…  That’s not really true, or at least it isn’t true for me.  I’d rather have a word to describe my struggles, because it lends validation to the very real challenges I face in my life.  Because ‘anxiety’ is always a better label than ‘overreacting’ and if I had ADHD, that would be a better label than ‘lazy’ or ‘stubborn’.  [I read an excellent post about how labels are great as long as they’re the right label, but I can’t remember for the life of me which post it was or even where I saw it.   This post was heavily influenced by that one and I’d love to credit the author.  I will edit to include a link if I can remember.]

Having depression as an identity to validate the fact that certain things are harder for me than they are for people who don’t struggle with depression is really different from using my depression identity as an excuse to not make an effort to minimise the impact depression has on my life.  I try not to do too much of the excuse-making.  In fact, if someday I’m lucky enough to recover from depression, I’m (hopefully) not going to give up on recovery because I’m afraid of losing the identity.  But for now, I do have depression, and having that identity is better than being called lazy on those days when I simply cannot do something because getting up out of bed in the morning is the hardest and bravest thing I can manage for that day.

Frozen

At my brother’s request, I recently watched the new Disney movie, Frozen, with him.  It was a good movie, but there were some really sad scenes in it that left me pondering the question: what if being yourself meant disappointing everyone you ever cared about?

Don’t let them in, don’t let them see
Be the good girl you always have to be
Conceal, don’t feel, don’t let them know

This isn’t a new idea. It’s been explored in other movies.  But it’s something many of us struggle with.

I think most of us have at some point or another had our parents say “why can’t you be more like ____?”  I know I have.

I had a classmate who was very focused on what she wanted to do in her future and was very proactive about doing the things she needed to do to get where she wanted.  My parents saw her at a university fair approaching and talking to a university representative and later said to me “Why can’t you be more proactive like S?  She’s not a nice person, but she knows what she wants and she’s aggressive enough to go out there and get it.  If you want to get anywhere in life, you have to be aggressive and manipulative.”  (For the record, S is actually a very nice girl, this is just my parents’ impression of her from that one event).  Up to that point (and to some extent even now), I had been proud of the fact that I was what I considered to be a nice person.  I was proud of not being manipulative, of not being too pushy, of not only being focused on what I wanted to achieve without regard for other people.  After a lengthy discussion with my parents, I realised that they didn’t appreciate those qualities.  Because of their experiences in life, they both believe that in order for me to succeed, I need to stop trying to be a nice person and start to be more aggressive and more ruthless in going out and getting what I want.  While I can see where they’re coming from, I realise that that isn’t who I am.

That was just one example of my parents wanting me to change to be someone I’m not, and more importantly, someone I’ve made a conscious decision not to be.  And honestly, the pressure to be a certain way isn’t really just coming from my parents.  In many ways, my teachers, my peers and some of the people I look up to have wanted me to change in a way that ran counter to my values, beliefs and character.

Now, I often wonder whether I should give in and change or whether I should remain true to myself.  I wonder what if being myself means disappointing everyone I have ever cared about?

Sleeping Beauty

In Sleeping Beauty (or at least the Disney version), three fairies give gifts to the infant Aurora.  Flora gives beauty, Fauna gives song, and Merryweather was going to give happiness, but ends up using her gift to weaken Malificent’s curse.

Beauty, song and happiness.  It is my understanding that as a fairy godmother, they could give almost anything as a gift, and yet they chose beauty, song and happiness.  Why?

Beauty and song.  These are very Disney-princess-esque.  Although I would like to be beautiful or be a great singer, I’ve found that I can actually manage just fine without those things.

What about happiness?  At first glance, I think happiness does seem like a really good gift to give someone.  After all, who wouldn’t want a child to grow up happy?  But I think giving the gift of happiness is still not the best.  There is value in sadness.  Not the numb sadness that is part of my life with depression, not the kind of sadness that drags on and on and on, not the kind of sadness that leaves you unable to do anything.  But a healthy, normal kind of sadness has value.  It forces you to take a step back and reflect.  It makes you stronger, better.  It makes your life more 3 dimensional.  And that’s not a bad thing at all.

So if I were a fairy godmother, I would not give someone the gift of beauty, or the gift of song, or the gift of happiness.  Things like safety, intelligence, character, bravery…these are more useful gifts.  But if I had to choose one gift to give to someone, I’d give them the gift of self confidence.

In Disney movies, many (most?) of the villains are vain.  One Direction has a song that goes “you don’t know you’re beautiful, that’s what makes you beautiful”.  Our culture very much pushes the idea that people, especially women, should not be confident, or that they’ll be more attractive if they aren’t confident.   All of this despite numerous studies that actually show that confident individuals are generally found more attractive than individuals who lack confidence.

In a world where beauty, song and happiness are all considered more important than self confidence, we need to reevaluate what it is that really matters.  Beauty and song are meaningless without self confidence, because no matter how beautiful you are, or how lovely your singing voice, if you don’t believe it, you can’t be happy about it.  Self confidence isn’t something to fear, it’s not arrogance, it’s not thinking you’re the best that ever walked the planet in every single area.  It is simply believing that you are enough.  No more, no less.  That you have strengths that make up for your weaknesses.  That you are not undeserving of love, success, happiness and anything else that people strive for.  And that, is worth so much more than society gives it credit for.