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When the “Struggle” Becomes Your Identity

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.

Lonely girl image via Shutterstock

About Danielle Racey

Danielle Racey runs a Tumblr blog where she posts self-care tips, targeted at millennials. She is also the author of The Wisherman series, published on Kindle, a YA series focusing on trauma and triumph. Visit her at danielleracey.tumblr.com.

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  • Great post Daniella, thanks for sharing and for being so open 🙂

    It’s so true that we repeat those same old stories in our heads (often ‘negative’ ones) and we define ourselves by them. For me it’s always been ‘I’m the person who’s shy and not great in social situations’. The more I would repeat that, the more I would re-enforce it. It’s a viscous circle!

    You’ve given some great tips to help people get out of the trap, so thank you!

  • Luke,

    Thanks for reading, and I am so glad you enjoyed this. And yes, you are so right! We have to work to remind ourselves that the stories of the past are just that—stories. We can create new ones all the time!

    Good luck on your journey 🙂

  • bambilicious

    I love the “starting points” points you made. Also, can relate to the obsessive feeling of trying to “fix” myself all the time. It’s full of anxiety and impatience. However, I do not find going from the extreme of “fixing”/staying inside my own head to “throwing myself into work”. Can you share any tips on how to just live/move on with daily life alongside such problems?

  • Bullyinglte

    Thank you for sharing your own struggle to overcome childhood abuse. I also often talk about this on the subject of childhood bullying. C-PTSD is real and when we accept that these traumas that happened to us do live into our future and learn to accept and let go of the pain, we get to find our adult selves. I have no doubt that we are built up from the experiences we have in life, including trauma, but it doesn’t have to control our lives. I let it do that to me for over 30 years and have only recently learned to let go and live with my past as a reflection, instead of dictating how I act and react. It is a work in progress, but therapy helps you realize what the meaning of these feelings are and how to learn to embrace who we are, without the negative buzz that can go through our heads.

  • Bambilicious,

    Thanks for replying!

    My comment about “throwing yourself into work” may not be a solution for everyone, so if it doesn’t feel right for you —don’t do it! 🙂

    As I mentioned in my post, focusing on healing is very important, but after a certain point, even that can turn into a source of anxiety, right? That’s why we have to make sure to give ourselves a mental break.

    There are many ways to do this, but almost all of them involve becoming thoroughly engaged in something in the present/in your daily life. This could be work, this could be a very physical hobby, meditation, or even a safe person. But the goal is to allow yourself some time to fully experience things in the now, without worrying if you’ve made enough “progress” or if you have “fixed” yourself.

    I know how hard it can be to stay in the present, but the present is where all the action is. Think about your daily schedule, and see where you have the opportunity to engage with your surroundings. Is there a particular part of your day that you like most? Now, how could you enjoy that part even more? Start there.

  • Bullyinglte,

    Thanks for commenting. It is always nice to meet people who have gone through similar troubles, especially those who have an amazing outlook, like you. It is a long, hard journey, but I am convinced there is a lovely ending waiting for the both of us.

    Take care.

  • Yogagurl

    Thank you so much for the article.
    I didn’t have a great childhood, but by no means was is devastating. It was only in my late teens that the real struggles began, one after another. I quickly lost my sense of self and identity, although I didn’t realize it. After 10 plus years of struggles I realized the pain and difficulties had become who I was. It has been hard to shead that identity and take control. I was afraid of change and I felt I deserved the hardship.
    When I realized I didn’t know who I was I looked back to the point when I did have a sense of identity. Was I still artsy? Was I still timid? Did I still like to journal? It was a good starting point.
    For me it has been fun discovery. I found some new passions. I no longer blend into the background. I have value in this world. I still become consumed with the past and current struggles but I come back from it quickly. I also try to remind myself how far I have come. It has been about 5 years of rediscovering myself. I still have more work to do.
    Thank you. It is nice to know that I’m not the only one got lost.

  • Daniela

    I really need some prayers…no matter how I try to hide it from myself and others, I struggle daily with flashbacks probably more than 20x a day from my childhood. I’ve tried therapy, religion, you name it…but the pain lives on. I’ve lived a “normal” life otherwise, but want to free myself from this. It got worse when I had my child later in life at 38…I just for the life of me cannot understand how someone could harm a child.

  • Bambilicous

    Thanks for responding! I now get what you mean in your article & response. I now know what to look forward to (even though it sounds abstract): A worry free “in the now” experience & then eventually an enjoyable “in the now” experience.

  • bambilicous

    Yogagurl, I’m so glad I’m not alone.

    I felt similarly & I want to see myself how you see yourself in your last paragraph. My childhood was not devastating but I was still hurting due to hidden problems. I’m slowly realizing that I might be a late bloomer because I feel that my struggles began only when I was 19 or 20 & now I’m 23. I took it as part of being an adult, without realizing that it’s strongly connected to childhood & teenage problems or repressed emotions. Right now, I feel as though my identity & self worth is just rotting each minute. I am just learning starting to feel a little in charge of my emotions by avoiding anything triggers pain or hurt in me. Finding freedom in choosing the people,conversations I have has been very fulfilling so far.

  • bambilicous

    So sorry to hear this Daniel. It must be hard with so many flashbacks but kudos to you for making it this far & being a great mother. I hope you are getting enough hours of uninterrupted sleep everyday because I cannot imagine your exhaustion with so many flashbacks. For me, the first thing that goes down the drain is my sleep cycle.

  • Denise L. Parker

    I’m past most of those problems now that I’m older, and I got here by doing literally everything mentioned here. The one thing I would emphasize is GET OUT OF YOUR HEAD!! Your brain, and imagination and thought processes, is one of the most creative things about a human being, and as a result, can be the most destructive thing about a person. You have to stop thinking about and dwelling on the negative things in your life both real AND PERCEIVED! You have to distract yourself. Some do it by intense work, watching and reading comedic things, and a really good way to distract yourself is write, write, write. Write everything down that you’re dwelling on and put it away for a while. Keep these writings in one place like a notebook or a folder. By writing down what you are thinking and feeling , you essentially “etch it in stone” and that way you can’t add to or edit those thoughts in your mind, making mountains out of mole hills. Doing this literally “empties” your head and you can go do other things. Some time down the road, when you’ve made some progress, (wait a good amount of time, months or years even, not just days or weeks) read what you wrote back then. You will be astonished at how much things have changed, concerning your environment, attitude, and state-of-mind. It worked incredibly well for me. Another thing is don’t guess or obsess over what others are thinking about you. Either ask them outright, or realize that opinions are just other people’s negative thoughts. They have no real impact on you. You need to realize that you’re not the only thing on their mind, and they sleep just fine at night. I learned that what other people are thinking about you is not your business. Opinions are like rear ends, everyone has one!

  • Yogagurl,

    Thank you for reading, and I am happy to hear how well things are going for you.

  • Ro Aroha

    I related so much with this post. Thank you for sharing, Danielle. Picking a place to make my beginning is something I have never considered before. A very delicious idea! Best wishes for your journey 🙂

  • Ro Aroha,

    I’m glad I could be of some help. Best wishes to you as well!

  • bambilicoius

    I love this response. Thank you so much for your advice.

  • Jared

    This is the greatest thing i have read on tiny Buddha yet. I dealt with an addiction to Marijuana and other drugs. Mainly was addicted to that style of life so when I finally shaped up I had to.make huge changes. This was scary and I didn’t know who I was at all. Everything about me was new. Like this said I had to Learn what I liked, food, movies, ppl and clothes. There was a lot more I changed and still have to change. I’m not going to get to deep in this post but just say this spoke to me so thanks for posting it….it feel where you’re coming from and I appreciate your kind words, the ideas for moving forward while making sure to check your progress. Thanks much! Jared

  • Sam

    totally love this article and this response to it! especially ” opinions are like rear ends ,everyone has one ” funny and true

  • guest

    “Get out of your head” … excellent advice. And yes, sometimes hard to do. Music I find sometimes helps, especially soothing classical music. Meditation is something I am trying to get back into, but need more self discipline. I know it would be the best thing for my mind.

    Having experienced the most hurtful, tramatic experience in my life of being disowned by my sister put me in tailspin for the last three years. The lies, the manipulation, pitting others against me … all the while feeling like I could not speak, could not “defend” myself. I’ve realized that I just need to accept the situation … to let others belive the lies. The same type of treatment was given to my neice, was unbearable, and she committed suicide. I can now identify with her struggle and find myself with these thoughts. It is almost scary how one person can have such an affect on one’s life.

    So, I know that I need to get out of my head, quickly. I need to look a the situation differently. Need to “re-write” the story in my own head in order to save my own life. And yes, for this person, it likely does not weight on their minds at all. It’s a daily struggle, but feel I’m almost out of the dark hole that’s occupied my mind for the last three years. If only I can empty my mind in order to feel a bit of peace and joy.

    Another saying I like ….

    “Don’t believe everything you think”. This is what I’m trying to do.

  • Denise L. Parker

    It’s so hard…I was in my early 50’s when I finally let it all go and turned my back on all the negativity. What freedom! I cannot describe to you how choosing to be happy and ignoring the rest has helped my outlook on life! I just would like others to do this sooner than me and not do it the hard way like I did! Good luck and to hell with those that cause you grief!!

  • Denise L. Parker

    Thank you I so appreciate the compliment! It was certainly hard to move forward! 😀

  • Denise L. Parker

    😀 😀 😀

  • April B.

    I really appreciate your post. I often wonder what would it look like if we didn’t jump into fixit mode. I think this is where “Take a break. ” fits in. Healing happen sometimes when we do nothing. Thank you for the great post!

  • Guest

    Thank you for sharing. I also experienced a traumatic experience (cyber-stalking and stalking by my ex-friends) and at one point, I was very frustrated with them that I let that negative experience take over my life (ie. constantly complain to my close friends about them). Back then, I didn’t realize that it was really simple as ignoring their aggressive behavior or reporting them to the police as stalking is illegal. I shut them out of my life as a start and for the past year or so, work and personal life (boyfriend, family and close friends) have definitely helped to keep my mind off of that traumatic experience. I know that healing takes time and being patient is really the hardest part. It was very difficult to get out of a negative experience and find the old positive me. The lesson that I’ve learnt is that if we can’t change what has happened, we can always change our outlook or attitude towards the situation so that we can move on with our lives. Never ever let a negative experience define you as a person. If someone hates you, that is that person’s problem to deal with, not yours. If something bad happens, don’t dwell on it. Bad things happen sometimes but that’s not the be-all and end-all.

  • I’m glad you enjoyed it 🙂

  • eagoodlife

    As an adoptee for over 70 years I came to realise that identity is a fluid thing, not fixed but ever changing. I have no belief in ‘the negative’ or ‘the positive’ you cannot heal unless you look at all that happens and deal with it in your own way in your own time.

  • Scott

    Great write up. Thank you.

  • Ilayda

    This was a great post! I really liked your blog and your
    list of ways to acknowledge your loss of whom you were and how to find your
    identity. Your guide was soothing and relatable because people often go through
    a time of losing themselves due to many different reasons. Although you were
    down you accepted that you were traumatized and there is a way to overcome that,
    which shows your courage. Good luck with everything in the future! 🙂