When Your Struggle Has Become Your Identity: How to Rediscover Yourself

Lonely Girl

“It ain’t what they call you. It’s what you answer to.” ~W.C. Fields

For much of my life, I have struggled against the after effects of unresolved childhood trauma.

For years, I didn’t even know how much of an issue it was. I thought it was completely normal to expect the worst or avoid intimacy like the plague.

When I finally dragged myself into a therapist’s office and was diagnosed with “significant, complex trauma,” I initially felt free.

And I admit, it was freeing. I now knew that this “thing” that I had been dealing with my entire life wasn’t just the result of me being “broken” or “born that way,” but it was a significant, understandable, and more importantly treatable response to a less than ideal childhood.

I was flying high for a while as I attempted to recover with every type of self-help trick out there.

But then came the fog. Somewhere in the mix I began to break down as I realized the true impact of what my therapist had told me. My entire identity up until that point in my life had been formed around that trauma. I didn’t know who I was without it.

What did I like to do in my free time? What did I like eating? What was my favorite color, even? Was I funny, or was I more serious? As it turned out I had a lot to learn about myself, and I was going to have to start from scratch.

I wish I could speak to you from atop a mountain of wisdom, but I can’t. I’m still in the process of figuring it all out. But there are a few things that have helped me remain strong and encouraged through the entire process.

Release the struggle.

This is, of course, easier said than done, but it is one of the most important parts of making peace with your past and untangling the trauma.

The identity and narrative that was forced upon me was one of defeat and self-hate. I stuck to the narrative because that’s all I knew. I might as well have been introducing myself as “the girl whose parents don’t love her,” and “the girl who has failed to secure any meaningful, intimate relationships.”

Realize, as I did, that the narrative is not yours. It is not your name. It is not what you have to answer to. There’s more to you. So much more. How are you going to start introducing yourself?

Start from a place you know.

For many of us—myself included—the onset of trauma was at a very early age, and it can be scary to try and delve into that. But “starting from a place you know” doesn’t necessarily mean the beginning of your life. It simply means picking a place to make your beginning.

It could be the first time you remember laughing out loud or any positive memory that you have. What were you doing then? How did you feel? Who were you with? What could that experience be saying about you? This can be a great first step on your journey to discovery.

Start from a place you don’t know.

Seems like contradictory advice after the last point, right? But in a way, not knowing who you are can give rise to the most unexpected blessings.

Many people have either defined themselves—or been defined by others—from day one. Some people live their entire lives this way, without ever feeling the desire or a reason to change. But you? You’re a blank canvas now, in a world full of paint. This is your chance to start creating a version of you that feels right.

Remember what you have gained.

As we begin this process of self-discovery, it can be very easy to get hung up on how wrong everything is, or was. Despite making significant gains (and if you’re reading this post, you probably already have!), you might find yourself focusing on what is still wrong.

Take some time out of your day to remember how far you’ve come. Are you less anxious today than you were yesterday? Score! Did you discover a new interest but haven’t worked up the courage to try it yet? That’s still progress. The scoreboard is on your side, because we are counting wins, not losses in this game.

Have patience.

Patience, I admit, is pretty much a foreign language to me. I can’t pretend to be great at having it, but I will say, as hard as it is to have, it is absolutely necessary in this process.

Discovering your new identity will take time. I’m talking months, even years. It can (and will!) seem like a wild goose chase at times, but the key is to remain patient and trust in the good work you are doing. Your efforts will be recognized.

Take a break.

As much as I have made my mental health a priority over the past year, it can be exhausting to feel like you have a huge problem you must fix looming over your shoulders at all times. This can lead to obsessive thoughts and dissatisfaction with your progress.

It is important to stay focused on healing, but it is also important to get out of your own head sometimes. Throw yourself into work for a while. Get involved in an intense project to take your mind off yourself. These things help too, and keeping yourself productive is never a bad thing.

Above all, the most important thing to keep in mind—and the thing that I keep learning every day—is that our greatest revelations don’t exactly show up in a nice, well-wrapped gift box. That would be great, right? But fortunately for us, they reveal themselves slowly, carefully, and right on time.

As long as we stay the course, we’ll be able to see the new truths and lessons waiting for us further down the road.

I wish you luck in your journey! Keep the faith.

About Danica Jay

Danica Jay is a Philadelphia based social worker working at the intersections of race, health, and education.

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