Figuring Out Who We Really Are
It’s taking me a long time to figure out who I am. And I’m still not done. Part of the delay in unraveling this enigma is getting a grasp on what it even means to ask such a question.
I can answer in many ways. I’m a cartoonist, an author, a Costco Gold Star Member, a below average speller, a borderline Aspie, a lover of glazed buttermilk bars, a grownup with a newborn’s patience, a hack guitarist. I’m anxious, curious, philosophical , even when it’s inappropriate, annoying without effort. I’m so, so many things. Too many to neatly summarize.
So, when I ask who I am, what exactly am I even asking? What is it that I have spent so many years trying to figure out? Clearly, the question runs deeper than divining my favorite flavor of Ben & Jerry’s, or a score on the maddeningly confounding Myers-Briggs test.
What I’m ultimately trying to understand is how to best approach life in order to find satisfaction and peace. To know this, I need to have a clear and accurate picture of what I want that is based on what actually brings me satisfaction and peace. That’s the part of me I want to know. That’s what I’m asking.
Ironically, much our unique individuality actually comes from others. We don’t typically invent a lot of completely new approaches and attitudes, but rather, combine existing ones in endlessly new ways.
This process of curating our selves mostly happens unconsciously. We unknowingly emulate qualities of those we admire without ever being fully aware of it.
We’re complex amalgams composed of bits and pieces of countless people, behaviors, and stories we’ve ingested. Becoming aware of the endless ingredients that compose the complex stews of self that we’ve concocted takes time.
But here’s the rub. The task is complicated by the fact that a lot of the subconscious choices we’ve made along the way were inevitably not based upon our own true preferences, but instead, upon pleasing others.
There is nothing more important to humans than to be accepted, needed, and protected by other humans. Like it or not, we’re naturally selected to be people pleasers. In fact, our desire and ability to put our own immediate interests aside in order to secure our place in the group is the main bit of cognitive evolution that made us human.
What pleased Mom, Dad, Sissy, or the headmaster at the orphanage, let alone our friends and the cool kids at school, may well have nothing to do with the unique passions and desires that burn inside us. There is no avoiding this. We have all put some parts of ourselves aside in order to belong.
While this is exactly as we have been “designed” to do, today’s social world provides some of us with the freedom to stray from these sacrifices of self. Our tribes are far and wide now. Figuring out who really stirs inside us, below these socially adopted manners, is another layer of self that takes time to peel.
Ever-increasing work specialization intensifies the need for us to realize our individuality. It’s impossible to develop your “brand” without knowing who you are, and what you want. This is true well beyond the nauseating puke bucket of personal branding. To be happy at work, we need to know what we actually like to do and what we’re truly good at, regardless of the job.
To be happy in life, we need the same. Aligning our pursuits with our real interests, desires, and abilities is essential to finding satisfaction. Chasing fame, glory, or empire building can’t ever truly scratch our deepest itches, if we are feverishly raking ourselves in the wrong spot.
Knowing our true passions, preferences, and potentials isn’t the end of the task. We also need to master both the general mechanics of having a brain, and the individual particularities of having our brain. Coming to understand the methods and hidden processes of our cognitive biases, inaccurate judgements, and imperfect logic adds time to the quest for self knowledge. As does unraveling the influence of our past traumas and emotional defenses on these processes.
And then there is the constant shifting of our own personal evolution and changing tastes. The self is, along with everything else, a moving target.
Prehistoric humans probably never even asked who they were. Even our own grandparents are less likely to have. Probing the depths of self, as so many of us do these days, seems to be a somewhat modern phenomenon.
Our inner lives are vast and mysterious. Probing them is a process that demands courage, patience, and time. But, in the greater knowing of self, lies not just wisdom, but release from lifelong inner-conflicts between who we really are and who we anxiously think we need to be. Fortunately, I find the exploration of self to be one of the most interesting things there is to do.
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Comics by David Milgrim
Just trying to feel okay, one comic at a time
If you liked this, you might also like this comic on why we do as we do and not as we don’t.
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