When I was in college, one of my classes offered extra credit for participating in the research projects for some of the graduate students in the psychology department. I decided to participate in a few. From what I remember, most were simple questionnaires that I could do on my own time, asking about my attitudes about a variety of topics: religion, race, sexual orientation. I do remember, however, one extra credit opportunity that invited me to participate at a specific, scheduled time and location. The invitation asked for a written prompt about potential traumatic experiences I had, so I replied with a story about Hurricane Katrina and my mom's health. When I arrived at the time and place, I was given instructions to enter a room, where a camera would be waiting, and simply talk about myself. Immediately I felt on edge; what was I going to say? I got about two sentences out before I looked into the camera and said "I don't know what to say," and then left the room.
When I reflect back on this event, I realize that I had so much trouble discussing myself because I had spent so much time trying to go unnoticed by others. I was the person in a group of friends who nodded, laughed, and agreed, but never shared much about my thoughts and opinions simply because I didn't really know what they were. I later received similar feedback from my graduate school professors - they said I needed to speak up and participate more in class so they could get to know me and help me learn. I fumbled through the process of trying to feel comfortable with other people and articulating what I wanted in relationships for a long time before I finally realized that I didn't really know who I was. I could tell someone simple facts about my life, but not much more than that and really nothing to show people my true self.
Numerous talented researches and authors have devoted their lives to exploring the concepts of true self and core identity in an effort to learn more about character, personalities, values, eclectic energies, auras, and so forth. And if your interest lies in knowing your Myers-Briggs (INFJ here!) or what Hogwarts House you belong to (Slytherin here!), then I want you to take those quizzes and assessments and learn more about your traits and personality ticks. I believe any time we spend trying to get to know ourselves a little more deeply is time well spent, even if we conclude that we don't agree with the results. Ultimately, understanding why we don't agree is knowledge gained! But for a lot of us, this isn't enough to help us feel connected with our identity.
To begin gaining clarity on who you are, you'll need to spend some quality time exploring a few key ideas and for people who have experienced trauma and chaos, emotional healing is part of that journey as well. For those of you who are interested in starting to understand who you are, I encourage you to make yourself comfortable and explore the following ideas and questions:
Values are what make life worthwhile for us and they help give us meaning. We receive values from society, our family and culture, and from within. Our values are also fluid, meaning they occasionally change. Some of the values we hold feel monumental and some may be more frivolous but both are important! Sometimes our personal values don't align with the values that society or our culture has given us and that's okay too. When this happens, it's important to acknowledge these differing value systems and decide if and how we want to make space for both in our own lives. We have specific values related to our career, health, relationships, spirituality, etc. and it's important that we know and articulate each of these, and I encourage you to dig deeper than just identifying communication as a value in romantic relationships, specifically. What about communication is important to you in relationships? What does good communication look like in a relationship and what will it mean for your relationships?
What are the hobbies or activities that you have passion for and feel energized by? If you're unsure then now is a great time to start trying out new things. Surely there's something you've thought is interesting but haven't yet tried. Spend some time with new or old activities and see which ones you like best. The neat thing about personal interests is that we don't necessarily have to be skilled to enjoy something! I have a couple of recommendations on interests: make sure you have solo interests that aren't something you do with or because of another person, and don't let the fact that you're not skilled at something interfere with it being an integral part of your interests. For example, I enjoy creative activities but it's not something that comes naturally to me and I'll never be recognized as a leader in the art community, but it doesn't stop me from drawing, coloring, and practicing lettering.
What are you good at? What comes naturally to you and not everyone else? Skills can include mental capabilities, use of our hands, and mastery with certain concepts, just to name a few. Our skills and interests sometimes align and that's cool but sometimes they don't align and that can be confusing at first but also perfectly okay. Similar to interests, understanding our own personal skills may require some trial and error and a bit of creativity if we haven't spent much time thinking about them. If you're unsure of what skills you have, ask people who watched you grow up and some of your close family or friends. What areas did you excel at in school, extracurricular activities, jobs, and relationships? Get to know these areas and articulate why you were successful in them.
What do you know about how your body responds to different parts of the day? Are you a morning person or a night owl? When are you most productive and have the most energy? What about when you're least productive and have the least amount of energy? Do you optimize your most productive times with top priority activities? Are you a morning person but find that you've been trying to have serious relationship talks with your partner late at night? Each one of us have an internal clock that gives us important information on how to use our time and when to rest, and ignoring this rhythm will likely result in confusion and chaos.
Often times we're much better at identifying the things we lack or the things we need to improve, meaning that it can feel overwhelming to articulate our strengths. Luckily, if you've taken some time to reflect upon some of the earlier topics, your brain may be more willing to metaphorically pat you on the back. Of course, our strengths can include things we're good at, but more often than not there is a mountain of character strength that's hiding somewhere inside of us, such as creativity or honesty. In considering your own character strengths, I encourage you to ask yourself this question: What kind of person am I? If you're still struggling to identify your personal strengths take a look at this link where some really smart researchers put a lot of energy into helping us find our strengths.
Temperament and personality
When I think about the ideas of temperament and personality, I think of all the fun quizzes on the internet designed to put us into boxes with colorful ideas, like discovering our spirit animal or our color of the universe. These can be entertaining but they don't necessarily give us huge insights into our own personalities. Temperament is commonly recognized as a collection of inborn traits that remain fairly stable throughout life, and personality is built from that temperament and also other life experiences. For the sake of time, they're quite similar and intermingled. Understanding your temperament means knowing where you feel most energized in life: is that surrounded by a group of people or going on a solo activity? What activities help you feel calm, relaxed, and in your element? Knowing your personality means understanding your unique mannerisms in both how you experience the world, events, and other people. Luckily some smart researchers have spent a lot of time trying to better understand personality and have developed a free assessment to help people get to know themselves. This assessment focuses on five major areas of personality: Openness (to new experiences), Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism. Of course, you can think on your own about these areas or you can learn more by clicking here. If you have concerns about what you'll discover, please take caution and meet with a professional counselor about this.
Our beliefs are the truths we hold about ourselves, others, and the world. In return, these beliefs drive our thoughts and actions. For instance, if I believe that the world is a good place and people are inherently good, then I'm likely to demonstrate my trust in others easily: by the way I treat them and in how I think about them. Often times our core beliefs do not announce themselves proudly and so we have to do some digging to find them. Discovering them is empowering, though, and can help us understand ourselves more, regardless of whether or not we want to change these potentially hurtful core beliefs. Another example: if I realize that deep down I don't believe I'm good enough to be loved, then this belief will tangle itself in my every thought and action, likely leaving me with relationship problems. To better know your own core beliefs, and bring them to the surface, look for patterns in your thinking and behavior and ask yourself: what's that about?
Is it just me or was it so much easier to talk about future plans as a kid in elementary school? I think that's just because, as adults, we get consumed by the monotony of everyday life. At some point we have to stop and remember that this life is for living and building it how we want. Ask yourself whether or not you're satisfied with the direction your life is headed. What do you want to accomplish in the next few months? Within in the next year? Ten years? What legacy do you want to leave when you're no longer alive? How do you want people to remember you? What fears are keeping you from doing that thing you've always wanted to do?
Once you've spent some time answering and reflecting on these ideas, it's important to adjust your life to begin living with integrity and decrease the dissonance in your life. Also, make room for some flexibility because a lot of these topics are fluid and represent who we are today, not necessarily who we'll be five years from now. A value driven life is an intentionally lived life which usually makes for a happy life.