You Didn’t Create Your Identity But This Is How You Can Change It
“In the social jungle of human existence, there is no feeling of being alive without a sense of identity.”-Erik Erikson
I used to identify myself as someone who was illiterate, didn’t fit in and had a learning disability. Now I identify as a self-taught polymath who reads every day and can fit into almost any social group. I’m going to tell you how I made that shift so you don’t have to waste years believing in a self-identity that does not serve you.
Creating My Identity
I’ve never been good at school. When I started kindergarten I didn’t speak English. I remember walking to school on my first day with my Grandma, I begged her not to make me go but it was no use. Frustrated and knowing that I wasn’t going to be able to get out of it, I told her “You’re wasting your time taking me. I’m not going to learn anything anyways.”
I walked into the classroom and looked around, I didn’t see a single person that looked like me. My teacher was white, the students were white and only one of them spoke any Spanish. When my Grandma walked out, I broke down in tears. My teacher opened her arms and gave me a huge blanketing hug. I will never forget that hug. I felt better but I still felt alone.
By the second half of first grade, I still didn’t know my alphabet. My teacher told my mom I had a learning disability. She didn’t know what else to do but accept that as part of my identity.
I had another major challenge in school, my parents were migrant workers. This meant that they moved to where the work was with the seasons. Cold months were spent in Southern California and the warm months were spent in Northern California near the Bay Area.
Every time we moved, I went to a new school and had to adjust to a whole new set of students. We eventually moved to Arizona but my parents were still used to changing their environment every six months, so I continued to move schools. I was forever the “new kid” and never felt like I fit in.
I Have a Learning Disability
I had horrible grades in school. In high school, I failed half of my classes and got C’s and D’s on the other half. I even got a C in Spanish, and I’m a fluent speaker. My senior year of high school, when all of my peers were taking half day schedules or graduating early, I had a full schedule with an extra class before school and work after.
I saw that I was in real danger of not graduating high school so I decided to stop blaming the school, my teachers and my brain. I realized that if I wanted to learn something, I was going to have to teach myself.
I took my education into my own hands and stopped identifying myself as someone with a learning disability. I realized that I didn’t learn like most people and took in concepts differently. I taught myself the material that we needed to learn and started identifying as a self-learner.
With all of that extra workload I was still able to graduate and managed to get straight A’s my senior year. I’ve also taught myself web design, computer programming, game development, behavior psychology and more. I don’t have a learning disability, I am a self-learner and a polymath.
I Don’t Fit In
As a result of switching schools every 6 months, I never really felt like I fit in. My first day at a new school I would sit back and assess the other students.
There were always the kids who didn’t like the new kid, asked mean questions and made passive-aggressive insults.
Then there were the kids who wanted to hang out with the new kid, show me around and be my friend.
There were also the bullies who picked on the new kid, made fun of me and threw rocks at my head when I would get off the bus. When I watched the movie Wonder I completely related to Auggie on his first day in school.
The feeling of not fitting in stayed with me outside of school. I had a hard time making friends or relating to the friends I did have. I identified myself as someone who just didn’t “fit in”.
It wasn’t until after I graduated that my then-girlfriend (now wife) commented :
“I always thought you were popular. You didn’t just have one group of kids that you stuck with, you were friends with almost every group at the school. You were friends with the white kids, the black kids, the Mexican kids, the nerds, and the football players. Even the way you talked to teachers was like you were friends with them. You had a good relationship with the Principle and even the lunch workers.”
“Never forget what you are, for surely the world will not. Make it your strength. Then it can never be your weakness. Armour yourself in it, and it will never be used to hurt you.” — George R. R. Martin, A Game of Thrones
I had never, EVER, considered myself “popular”. I always thought I was the least popular kid, the one who was out of place and didn’t fit in. After she pointed that out, I stopped identifying myself as someone who didn’t fit in. I realized that my experience switching schools so often gave me the gift of being able to relate and fit in anywhere. I started identifying myself as someone who can relate to and fit into almost any social group.
I am Illiterate
Growing up I loved books — I would go to the library and spend the whole time looking at book after book. Even now, when I walk into a book store or library, I find myself looking left, then looking right and marveling at all of the books. My mom would buy me books and I would look at the picture wishing I could understand the words. I was illiterate.
I didn’t read a whole book by myself until my senior year of high school (that book was Man’s Search For Meaning by Victor Frankl). Even then I struggled. I couldn’t focus, I had to read and reread sentences and paragraphs over and over again. I couldn’t understand what I had just read. Eventually, I was able to focus more by listening to classical music in my headphones while I read. The music would block out my constant background thinking and help me focus.
Now I read every day and understand what I’ve read the first time. Last year I read a book a month, which was the most I had read in a single year. This year I’ve set a goal to read a book a week and I’m well on track to achieving that goal.
I didn’t become a reader over night, it took me years, but I was able to identify myself as someone who reads everyday. All I had to do to fit this identity was take time to read every single day. At first it was just 15 minutes a day, then 30 minutes and eventually 1+ hour a day. I’m not illiterate, I am a daily reader.
How I Look At Identity
“There is no gate, no lock, no bolt that you can set upon the freedom of my mind.”-Virginia Woolf
Right now, I identify myself as a writer. I write every day and publish once a week. That fulfills my expectations of being able to call myself a writer. This expectation is very personal to me and I don’t let anyone else dictate what gives me the right to call myself a writer.
Someone else may be comfortable identifying themselves as a writer after writing once a week and publishing once a month, or maybe they write less often and never publish, but when they write they truly feel like a writer.
What matters is how you feel inside. Not what you tell yourself to feel, but the feelings that are born from within.
Our identity is a label based on a feeling of who we believe we are. It’s usually built by our early childhood experiences and reinforced by the things we do, say or hear others say about us. We can change this label anytime we want but it usually requires more than “positive thinking” or fake confidence.
“Know, first, who you are, and then adorn yourself accordingly.”-Epictetus
We have to truly convince ourselves that we are who we want to be. This usually requires that we be honest with ourselves. I recommend making a list of what it would take for us to feel the way we want to feel.
Next, we need to take the necessary steps to do what we believe it takes to fit that identity.
If you want to be a great parent, you have to ask yourself “What would a great parent do, how would they act and think?” Then you have to start consciously and consistently doing what a great parent would do, acting as a great parent would act and think the way a great parent would think.
There are no short cuts, it takes actual work and we have to be consistent. The deeper the old identity is engrained in us, the more work we have to do to change it. But I can say from experience that it is totally worth it.