Knowing Who You Are, Myth 4

by David King on October 3, 2012

brokenMirror-300x199 In a previous post, Knowing Who You Are, Myths 1-3, I outlined 3 prevailing myths associated with modern identity formation. Very roughly, these myths ascribe the following conditions to knowing who you are: 1) this state requires consistent and predictable behaviour, as perceived by others; 2) this state is impossible without mainly logical and rational examination and exploration of life; and 3) this state is optimized by the commitment to a single life trajectory or career path, which, after all, typifies a strong sense of self.

As I previously indicated, these perspectives are bullshit, remnants of an immature and entirely uninsightful stage of human development. Things are never so black and white.

There is a fourth myth, but this one resides somewhere between identity formation and identity resolution. The fourth myth is simple, really. It is the idea that self-knowledge and the strength gained therein are undermined by defeat; that the act of giving in neutralizes and essentially negates any previously developed state of knowing who you are. You’re already thinking it (hopefully) – bullshit.

This myth is a highly contagious one, infiltrating minds at very early stages of existence. For men, it’s the “tough it out, don’t cry, be strong” crap. For women, it’s the “break the glass ceiling, you’re strong because you’re more self-aware” crap. For all of us, it’s the “don’t back down, stick with it, you’ll get through it and come out better for it” advice we’ve heard over and over again. Sometimes it’s good advice. But sometimes it’s not. Sometimes it’s just crap.

But it’s always there – the pressure to see things through, to push oneself, to find strength in hard times, and to never give up. I’ve been guilty of kneeling to this pressure more often than not, and I consider myself a proponent of pushing oneself into uncomfortable and strange situations. The opportunity for growth is too great, I’ve learned. But sometimes it’s not. Sometimes – you got it – it’s just crap.

Nevertheless, this stick-with-it-ness has become an essential feature of our identity. It has the ability to strengthen it, when it’s at its best.

In psychology, a handful of researchers study what is called goal disengagement. It refers, very simply, to disengaging from unattainable goals. Surprisingly or not, this behaviour has been linked to improvements in psychological well-being, for without disengagement, that which is unattainable becomes a source of pure angst. The problem with this perspective, of course, is that we’re not all goal experts, and the objective assessment that a goal is unattainable is not always possible – we’re not fortune tellers. So disengagement may result in the loss of something that was indeed attainable despite all its apparent unattainability – or something to that effect.

But the suggestion that staying relentlessly and unequivocally engaged is a key aspect of our identity is, by and large, bullshit.

In truth, a strong sense of identity involves knowing when to play your hand AND knowing when to fold. Not all hands are dealt equally, and sometimes passing is the best opportunity for growth. Sometimes you need to know when to give up, when to call it quits, and when to disengage. Sometimes you need to know when to walk away.

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