Some decades ago your parents, relatives, and the rest of the adults in the community, marketplace and culture-at-large stole your identity in order to help you fit into their world. Their intentions were generally good, but limited by the theft of their own identities years earlier. Depending upon the specific details of your theft, you experienced some powerful emotions, repressed and/or acted them out, and in retaliation for the theft and to protect yourself from further violation, you began to close down parts of yourself, build barriers, and engage specific defensive strategies.
To compensate for your loss, you’ve attempted to replace what’s missing with substitute gratifications that offer temporary relief, but just don’t fill the void. Deep down inside, you know this. The good news is that through conformity, rebellion, insight, hard work and luck, you survive—even thrive within the ephemeral breaks these substitutes provide from remembering your loss.
Even better news is that your identity can never be consumed or destroyed; it’s merely hidden, and you can reclaim it. Unfortunately it’s buried amid gazillions of words, images, secrets, opinions, habits, worldviews, lists, best practices, only-things, how-to’s, to-do’s, even voodoos.
Because you were a child when it happened, the theft wasn’t your fault. It is, however, absolutely your responsibility to recover your identity. No one will or can do this for you. In order to even recognize and admit that it was stolen—much less get it back, you’ll have to do some work, drop defenses, remove barriers, and see the substitute gratifications for what they are. They’re not bad; they’re just substitutes.
The work required varies. It may be spiritual—looking into ultimate concerns, or perhaps it’s somatic —really grounding your awareness in your physical body. It might also be cognitive, emotional, moral, or interpersonal, and you might access what you need through one or more practices and environments—the arts (musical, literary, visual, performance, etc.) business, teaching, service, laughter, nature, or meditation, among many possibilities. No one-size-fits-all is available, although healthy relationship and community are inevitably essential.
In very general terms, what was stolen is the space in which pure, infinite wisdom meets deep, unconditional, all-embracing compassion. It’s the paradox of letting everything in the world arise as it is, completely free from any attachment or aversion to it, and simultaneously embracing life fully and having your heart broken wide open when you see even one person’s suffering—including your own. Neither of these alone—the infinite freedom nor the unqualified embrace—does it or is it. You need both, and you have to walk in this world with and as that paradox.
One way to move toward recovering your identity is to begin a conversation with someone whom you trust and who cares about you. Keep the conversation going. Pay attention to what comes up. Be skillful—practice accountability, acceptance and forgiveness, especially with yourself. Engage life with fierce gentleness. Hold the paradox lightly. Love fully. Risk vulnerability. Catch yourself as an identity theft, especially with those you love. Keep paying attention to what comes up.