Who am I? Three ways we define ourselves that lead to identity crisis


“Who am I?” is one of the most foundational questions of human existence, and it’s the one that causes some of the greatest anxiety. However, if we get the answer right, it can bring profound comfort and peace.


The problem is that we have been taught that our answers need to look a certain way: job description, income, a list of hobbies and skills, number of children, height, weight, level of attractiveness, sexual orientation, relationship status, religious or political affiliation (funny how those two are often lumped together, right?), ethnicity, nationality, age, number of siblings, etc. The list of things that we use to define who we are goes on and on.


Today I want to look at three ways we have been taught to define ourselves, and how they can each be very dangerous if they aren’t kept under control. In part two, I will talk about what I believe is the solution to our identity crisis epidemic.


Role Identity - What You Do Is Not Who You Are


One of the easiest ways to answer the question, “Who am I?” is to list off the roles that we play. We see this basic assumption reflected in the fact that one of the first questions we ask someone we are trying to get to know is, “What do you do?” I, for example, am a son, a brother, a graduate student, a youth worker, an elementary school teacher, a musician, a worship leader, a writer, etc.

It becomes easy to find ourselves playing the part in different situations, only to end the day lying awake wondering what is the point of it all. When we fail in one role, we might be tempted to think that we are losing part of ourselves. If we view ourselves primarily as a son or daughter, a spouse, or a nurse, we might feel like our whole identity is crumbling when a parent dies, a spouse leaves us, or we get laid off from our job. (Click to share on Twitter)

The combination of these roles, or so I have been taught, makes up who I am. The different roles overlap but also can be distinct. In some situations, such as at a family Christmas party, I will view myself and act primarily as a son and brother, grandson, cousin, etc. But when I’m teaching in my fourth grade class, I’m not acting out the role of academic or musician (although I do plenty of songs with my classes). Some roles are very temporary, but they can have a big impact how we view ourselves. For example, when I’m reading a paper at a conference, I am only a presenter and public speaker for 20 minutes, yet the confidence boost I gain from sharing something I have worked so hard on with a crowd of people listening means that I have added another role to how I think of myself, even if the functionality of that role ends right after the Q&A session.


There is nothing wrong at all with including a list of roles we play as part of who we are, especially when we are first telling a perfect stranger about ourselves. Think of how ridiculous and off-putting it would be to begin a dramatic and detailed retelling of our whole life story when a new acquaintance at a party says, “Tell me a little bit about yourself.” We can’t ignore the roles we play, because they help us function in different parts of our life and they can give others a better grasp of how to get to know us better.


The danger is that defining ourselves as a list of roles we play can lead to major discomfort as we struggle to make sense of how it all fits together. It becomes easy to find ourselves playing the part in different situations, only to end the day lying awake wondering what is the point of it all. When we fail in one role, we might be tempted to think that we are losing part of ourselves. If we view ourselves primarily as a son or daughter, a spouse, or a nurse, we might feel like our whole identity is crumbling when a parent dies, a spouse leaves us, or we get laid off from our job.


Psychological Identity - Your Personality Is Not Who You Are


In an effort to find something more constant and central to who we are that goes beyond the temporary roles we play, we may be tempted to define ourselves by our psychology. The recent explosion of interest in personality type inventories such as Meyers-Briggs (MBTI) and the Enneagram is a great example of this. These can be awesome ways to understand our strengths and weaknesses and to get a better perspective on the way we see the world and the things that matter most to us.


For example, I am a Meyers-Briggs ENFP. This means that I am full of vision and dreams and ideas but can be weak at putting practical steps into action. It means I feel really deeply, so when I get excited about something I am really excited, but when I get upset or frustrated I tend to get really upset; and it means I’m usually vocal about both of those things - and I expect you to feel the same way as me (another ENFP trait). It means my head can be so in the clouds that I can forget simple details. Just ask my friends how many times I leave my jacket, backpack, books, or hat behind; or my mom how many times she’s had to call me to ask if I refilled my prescription; or the number of times I’ve had to run back into the house because I went to start the car and didn’t have my keys. My Meyers-Briggs test results taught me all of this and so much more, and it was one of the best things I ever did to help me become more self-aware, to improve and utilize my strengths and be mindful of my weaknesses.


But I can’t let my personality type define who I am. It’s really great to sit around with friends and say, “Oh, you’re such an INFJ,” or for the Enneagram people, “Dude, you’re being such a five right now.” If a personality type goes beyond informing you and starts defining you, we have a problem.


We might also define ourselves in terms of a psychological diagnosis we have. We might find our first answer to “Who am I?” is clinically depressed, autistic, schizophrenic, obsessive-compulsive, or something else. Personality inventories and psychological conditions do a lot to help explain how we see the world and why we act the way we do, but they do not define who we are.

Just like with role identity, the labels we adopt when we identify with our personalities or psychology are definitely a part of who we are. But there are all kinds of dangers that come along with this:

  1. We can become totally individualistic, defining ourselves in a way that doesn’t really need community or relationships.

  2. We can get trapped in our type or diagnosis, letting them define us rather than inform us.

  3. We lose any real sense of meaning or purpose, past or future, when we identify ourselves purely in terms of our psychology or personality profile.

  4. We can become resistant to change or growth that threatens our self-understanding - for example, things that require us to step outside of our normal personality traits or abandon or change a role that is very important to us. (I struggled this deeply a number of years ago when I had to step down from a position in youth ministry that I had been part of for a very long time. I had allowed it to define who I was, and when I left, I felt like I didn’t really know who I was anymore!)

Experiential Identity - You Are More than Your Experiences


Rather than roles or personality, sometimes we try to identify ourselves as a list of things we have done or accomplished. This can be especially tempting for people who are adventurous, ambitious, like to travel, or have high career goals. I realize this temptation in myself. I have had some really cool experiences in life. I've been to eleven countries, lived in three of them, and been part of three really cool overseas study programs. I've put out a few albums as an independent musician. I live in the Middle East and get the privilege of working with children at risk.

When we define ourselves as a set of experiences, we tend to think that the only way to improve ourselves is to accumulate more experiences. (Click to share on Twitter)

Here's the temptation: I was thinking about how cool this list sounds and how truly grateful I am to have had the opportunity to do all these awesome things and more. I’ve got great stories to tell, and it can be easy for me to put up an image of “who I am” to others and even to myself by putting together a list of the crazy things I’ve done and seen. But those experiences are not who I am, and when I convince myself they are, I find myself very unhappy very quickly.


The problem is that when we detach these experiences from a story of personal growth and maturity, we put our identities in danger. The exact same day that I had this epiphany of how blessed I am to have these experiences, I quickly found myself running over the checklist and wondering how I could add even more things to my resume. I was grateful, but I wasn’t really satisfied. I wanted more. The same thing can happen with those pursuing careers in academics, medicine, science, sales, or corporate America. When we define ourselves as a set of experiences, we tend to think that the only way to improve ourselves is to accumulate more experiences. Usually these lists are fragmented and hard to piece together in a way that helps us be satisfied and content. They can also very easily leave us feeling like we have no real sense of direction.

Of course, all three of these - role identity, psychological identity, and experiential identity - are very important for helping make sense of our lives. But we cannot rest our entire being on them. In the next post, I want to talk about narrative identity - that it is our stories, as individuals in community in history, that define who we are.


-Painting Credit: Pablo Gonzalez-Trejo

©2019 by Corey Farr.