In our adults years, we often believe we have a clear (somewhat clear?) understanding of who we are. This understanding is informed by the stories that have been told to us, about us, by other people throughout our lives: our parents, teachers, friends, extended family, coaches, etc. We play specific roles in the various systems in which we participate and, when we grow up and move out of some of these systems, believe that these roles define a central part of our identities, because they are who we have always been. In this way, our narratives are heavily informed by who we have needed to be at any given time, and are not always true to who we actually are.
To flesh this out a little bit, I offer a profile of the Caretaker, a role that many clients with whom I have worked frequently embody. Caretakers often grew up in family systems in which they were heavily relied upon to be “strong,” or to ignore or smoosh down their own feelings, wants and needs to some degree. They might have had parent that frequently needed care and attention, or a sibling with a serious illness (mental or physical). There may have been addictions in the home. They may have been asked to grow up very fast, or to provide a listening ear to a struggling adult in the home, even as small children.
As Caretakers grow into adulthood, beliefs are established that it is not appropriate to ask others for support or help (many homes had a “don’t tell” policy). They lose touch with their own preferences because they are not attending to them. They educate themselves to become Caretakers in the professional lives; sometimes holding very difficult jobs in which they give all of themselves and receive very little in return. And, when asked to reflect on how they landed where they did, they respond “this is just who I am,” or “I’ve always been this way.”
It is essential to examine our stories from our own lens, and to gently question the narratives about ourselves that have been handed to us by others along the way. Frequently, who we are barely resembles the profile we have been handed. Our true selves lie undiscovered underneath all our “shoulds” and “have tos,” quiet gems in the middle of the rubble of obligations and self-sacrifice. When we unearth the self, we give ourselves the opportunity to begin to become, which is the great gift of self-work and a completely freeing (if difficult and painful) experience.
What we believe about ourselves is not always the whole story. When we take the time to courageously dive into who we are, we might find someone wholly different than we expected at our core. The process is enlightening, exciting, a little scary, and entirely worth the work.