Who are you?
It seems like an innocuous question but in my experience, it is far more complex than the surface level assessment would indicate. I will never forget my experience at Cedar Springs hospital regarding that seemingly simple question. We sat in our group’s room, ready for discussion when our counselor turned to one of us, let’s call him Greg, and asked Greg, who are you. How would you define yourself? Greg listed a few things, father, rancher, husband, and friend, to name a few. The counselor, who had written these things on the board, was now crossing them off. Your children pass away, you are no longer a father. Your ranch burns down and your wife leaves you, you are no longer a rancher or a husband. All of your friends go too. This was harsh at the time but it served an important purpose. When we define ourselves by our relationship to others or by what we do… we ultimately set ourselves up for failure.
All relationships, occupations or anything that can be the answer to a “what” question are by their nature, impermanent. What is this person to you? What do you do? A better way to look at it is in terms of “why”. Why is this person in your life? Why do you do what you do for a living? This is where our values come into play. Values, by definition, are a person’s principles. They set the standard for our actions and tell us what we truly believe is important. Values define who you are when all of your worldly titles have been stripped away.
Take a moment to think about what values you find important. During my time in the military, my service branch abided by three core values. Integrity first, service before self, and excellence in all we do. My own values would include items such as integrity, compassion, understanding, resilience, etc. If you’re having trouble coming up with your values try and think back to a meaningful experience and ask yourself why it had meaning. Think about what you look for in friends or a potential significant other. Most importantly, look within yourself and think about the person you want to be and what values you should live by to get there.
In psychology, there are four different forms of self-conceptualization.
- The real-self defines who we actually are and what values we currently live by.
- The ideal-self defines who you desire to be or what values we want to live by.
- The ought-self defines who we should be or what values we should live by.
- The undesirable-self defines who we don’t want to be or what values we don’t want to live by.
Understanding our values plays an important role in transforming our real-self into our ideal-self. You can’t live your ideal life if you don’t know what that would entail. Congruence is when your real-self and ideal-self become the same. This happens when you live by the values you find important. When there are discrepancies between these self-concepts problems begin to enter our lives. Discrepancies between our real-self and ideal-self can lead to things such as depression or low self-esteem and discrepancies between our real-self and ought-self can lead to anxiety and stress.
It’s not always easy, but it can be done. As with any change, there will be a period of resistance. It helps me to make a conscious acknowledgement of moments when I live my values. This helps reinforce the behavior in addition to the inherent reward you get when you live your values. I realize that sometimes you may feel trapped by your present situation and it can be easy to view your values as impractical because of other financial or social obligations. For example, some of my values are volunteering and positively influencing youth behavior. While serving in the military, I couldn’t exactly drop everything to become a teacher and given my rotating schedule, consistent volunteer work was a bit of a problem. I found myself in a place where my values were being put aside due to my obligation to the military but, due to some creative thinking and the awesome people at the on base youth center, I was able to work out a way to volunteer without leaving the base. Becoming a youth coach was the best thing I’ve ever done with my life and influences who I am to this day. The moral of the story is it takes time and effort to live by your values, at least at first, but it definitely gets easier over time. Most importantly, it will be the most rewarding endeavor you embark on.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this post, let me know what you think and as always, let’s continue to grow together.