Let’s Talk About… Identity

By Jeremy Godwin.

Welcome to Let’s Talk About Mental Health, the weekly podcast about improving your mental health and wellbeing by Australian author and speaker Jeremy Godwin. Each episode focuses on one specific topic and is full of practical advice for improving and maintaining your mental health and wellbeing.

This is Episode 30 and this week I’m talking about identity – I’ll be discussing finding and maintaining your sense of identity and living authentically, even while dealing with mental health issues. Listen to the podcast now in the Spotify player below or continue reading for the article/transcript version.

Let’s talk!

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Introduction

Who are you? What do you stand for? What do you want out of life? What do you want to be known for? This week, I’m getting into a pretty big and somewhat-philosophical topic because I’m talking about identity – however this isn’t going to be just some random theoretical discussion that will make your head explode; instead, I’m going to be exploring how mental health challenges can impact on our sense of identity and looking at how you can integrate your experiences into your way of being so you can live as authentically as possible. So, let’s talk!

Defining ‘identity’ and mental health

Identity is about how you define yourself, and how your different characteristics add up to create your overall perception of yourself. We’ve been fascinated by our own ability to think for millennia, and the 17th century French philosopher René Descartes summed it up beautifully when he wrote, “I think, therefore I am.” What you think about yourself is an enormous part of your identity and we have the ability to shape our lives for the better by taking the time to understand who we really are as individuals and then making decisions that allow us to live authentically.

Our identity plays a huge role in our mental health because it’s about our ability to both understand who we are and how satisfied we are with who we are. Our identity is both internal and external; it’s just as influenced by our core values and beliefs as it is by social and cultural constructs – which may not always be in complete alignment with who we think we should be or who we want to be.  

Pretty much all of mental health comes back to identity in some shape or form – self-conception, self-esteem, self-belief, self-actualisation and social identity are all terms that you’ll come across throughout pretty much every school of psychological thought (well, except maybe for behaviourism which focuses more on conditioning and behaviour patterns, but that’s a debate for another day…). Over the years, many researchers have theorised that injuries to our self-worth or identity may actually serve as signs of mental health issues (which opens up a whole ‘chicken or egg?’ discussion that I think I’ll avoid here completely)… suffice it to say, what you think about yourself and your place in the world will have a direct impact on how you experience this thing we call life. Being able to identify and challenge those things that threaten our sense of who we are and how we fit in to the world is what matters most, because that is what allows us to live truthfully.

Identity and mental health

Mental illness can negatively impact on your identity (both due to internal and external factors, e.g. Self-belief and self-confidence, as well as stigma and shame) BUT if it’s part of your reality then the challenge is to learn how to integrate it into your identity… life is about the good, the bad and the ugly, not just the happy shiny stuff, so we have this extra challenge of needing to find ways to accept what’s happening without letting it take complete control over us (and I’ll talk through some how-to points on that shortly).

You are not just one thing – which means if you’re dealing with mental health issues, you are not your condition; your condition is one aspect of your life experience and something to learn from. 

Mental illness can actually be a catalyst for us to examine our lives and our identities closely, and to figure out what really matters so that we can make changes where we need to – and so, in that respect, it can have a silver lining (I mean, I’m sure that if we were given a choice in the matter most of us would choose not to have to deal with mental health issues, but the reality is that if you have a condition like anxiety or depression then you need to find a way to adapt otherwise you’ll spend the rest of your life fighting a battle you can never win…).

Major events in our lives can trigger an identity crisis – went through this myself lately with everything going on and I nearly walked away from LTAMH, and I’ll revisit this a bit later in the episode by sharing some ideas of how to tackle an identity crisis that worked for me, however my point here is that dealing with mental health issues is, for a lot of us, a pretty major event and so I think it’s perfectly reasonable to expect that it would have an effect on your sense of identity, because it can make you question who you are and what you’re doing – but then, it’s up to each of us to look at how we integrate these experiences into who we are rather than fighting them. I’m not saying you just give in and spend the rest of your life in bed eating bon-bons while you watch daytime soap operas, but you can’t change having mental health issues just by wishing them away – if you have a condition like depression or anxiety, then it is what it is and so rather than fighting it, we need to find ways to live with it so that we can start to work with it and, with time, overcome it.

Let me just make a comment about that “it is what it is” saying because some people can use it in a negative or derogatory context (and if you’ve seen the recent Jerry Seinfeld stand-up special on Netflix you’ll know he had a particularly strong reaction to it!); “It is what it is” isn’t about just putting up your hands and giving up, or a means of just telling yourself or someone else to shut up and get on with it (even though it’s often used that way) — it’s actually about acceptance, i.e. Accepting that things are as they are and the past cannot be changed, so no amount of wishing will change the current reality, and so therefore we only ever have three choices for what we do from here: (1) accept things exactly as they are, (2) change things if we have the power to change them (and we can only ever change those things we have direct control over, i.e. Our words, our actions and our feelings), or (3) let go.

For example, I have anxiety and so I’ve had to learn how to integrate that reality into my identity so that I can make life decisions that are in my best interests. That means I’ve had to make changes in lots of different aspects of my life such as finding ways to explain what I experience to people and asking for their support when I need it. That doesn’t mean I am giving in to the anxiety, but it does mean that I’m adapting to its impacts on my day-to-day life at the same time as I’m continuing to work on longer-term strategies like mindfulness and gratitude practice that are working to reduce my anxiety over time. 

Part of the challenge around self-identity and mental health is that we have this social pressure to be ‘normal’ but there is no ‘normal’ – we’re all individuals and we each experience this life in our own unique way, and every single person has value and something positive to contribute to the world, so if you’re dealing with mental health challenges then maybe that’s just part of your story, part of your journey and it’s up to you to work out how to harness it to produce something positive, no matter how small. Remember just how many people are dealing with mental health challenges (1 in 4 or 1 in 5 are experiencing a mental illness each year, depending on which country you live in, and 45% of us will experience one at some point in our lives) and those numbers are expected to increase due to the economic, social and health impacts of COVID-19… so, you have absolutely nothing to be ashamed of and you’re not alone if you’re dealing with mental health challenges!

With all of that in mind, let’s get into the how-to part of this week’s topic…

How to work through your identity and mental health

Identity is a really personal thing, so I’m not going to give you step-by-step actions to follow but more of a few general things to consider about identity and how it relates to your mental heath and wellbeing.

  • Be absolutely clear about who you are and what makes you ‘you’ – I talk about self-awareness and reflection a lot in this program and for good reason, because your mental health is directly related to everything that goes on inside your head so it’s important to have real clarity around who you are (especially when your mind might be trying to convince you of things about yourself that just aren’t true, because it’s a tricky little bugger and it will do that sometimes). Know your strengths and build on them; and, know the things that are your development opportunities and either address them (if they’re in your control), accept them as they are or let them go.
  • Be flexible and willing to grow – Remember that you are never the same you that you were yesterday nor will you be the same you tomorrow; we all change and we all grow, so be flexible about adapting your sense of identity in order to make the most out of all of the opportunities that life presents us along the way (and if that means you have to let go of old beliefs that no longer serve you, do so with grace and be grateful that you’re a human being who is capable of free thought and the ability to grow).
  • Know who you are and who you are not – sometimes being completely in touch with what you don’t like or what doesn’t serve you can be just as important as knowing what you do like, because it can help you to then make life decisions that are in your best long-term interests — for example, I’ve discussed previously in LTAMH that while I’m good at managing people, and I did it for many years in the corporate sector and worked really hard to get into management, it turns out that managing people is not good for me; having to juggle all of those expectations and delivering consistent results and then also having to discipline people and even terminate them sometimes… no thank you, not for me anymore – all of that just sets off my anxiety because I struggle with perfectionism (so ‘good’ results were never good enough, so I was always after more, more, more and would take on far too many things at once) and then the people management side of it was just awful, because I’d find myself up all night worrying and feeling sick about dealing with disciplinary stuff… so you need to really understand who you are and who you are not so that you can make decisions that are right for you. Don’t try to be something that you’re not or something that feels wrong to you — in the words of the great Oscar Wilde, “be yourself; everyone else is already taken.”  
  • There is no ‘right’ type of personality – whether you’re an introvert or an extrovert or an introverted extrovert or a whatever really doesn’t matter; what matters is what kind of person you are: do you treat others (and yourself) with kindness? Do you focus on doing no harm to others or to yourself? Do you respect everybody’s right to equality and the freedom to live their life however they like (provided it does no harm)? That is what matters. So, what’s important for all of us when we think about identity is to get back to basics: build and maintain a clear sense of identity around the core principles of kindness (to yourself and to others), non-judgement and acceptance (of yourself and of others – if it doesn’t harm anyone, you do what you do and let others do what they do).
  • Set realistic expectations for yourself and others – Do you need to have the ‘perfect’ life? Do you need three million followers on Instagram to be happy? No! I think that for each of us, having a clear sense of identity – really knowing who we are (and who we aren’t) – and then making better life decisions accordingly are the keys to greater satisfaction, because when you do that you begin to make choices that are less about making your bank balance bigger and more about making your soul sing, which is such a nicer way to live! 
  • Choose your mindset – you can’t just choose to be happy, but you can choose to look for the positives and be optimistic that even when you feel shitty, things can and will get better. Does that make sense? I have days when I wake up feeling anxious or just downright depressed, and no amount of telling me to snap out of it is ever going to do anything other than piss me off. However, I know that no feeling lasts forever (and that’s something I talked about back in Episode 28: Feelings) and so knowing that I have these days sometimes and that it’s just one part of my life experience rather than being my entire identity gives me the context that I need and gives me the ability to put one foot in front of the other without getting sunk down into the negative stuff.
  • Don’t let your identity be controlled by what others think of you – if we were all the same, this would be the most boring world to live in. This point kind-of comes back to those earlier ones about ‘normal’ and ‘perfection’ – no matter who you are and what you do, there’s always going to be someone who doesn’t like you. Back in Episode 21 I talked about opinions and I shared that infamous quote from Dita von Teese, who said “you can be the ripest, juiciest peach in the world, and there’s still going to be somebody who hates peaches,” and you know identity is such a personal thing so I think for all of us it’s just a case of “you do you” – don’t be controlled by what other people think of you; if you’re not doing any harm to others or to yourself, then go for it. We don’t need to change who we are just to fit in with people who are probably never going to full accept us anyway – that’s on them, not you. Live your truth. Be true to yourself.

Dealing with an identity crisis 

An identity crisis can happen when you find yourself questioning who you are and even maybe what you’re doing with your life, or you might be questioning your values and beliefs. It can be really confronting and confusing to deal with, especially the longer it goes on for, and it can often be triggered by major events like grief or loss, ageing, losing your job or other big changes in your life (such as, oh I don’t know… a major global pandemic, perhaps?).

I am not embarrassed to admit that I went through my own identity crisis recently which is part of what led me to take a break from LTAMH back in April – I needed to take some time out to deal with everything that was going on at home and in the world, and after my cat died I started questioning everything that I was doing and I nearly walked away from this podcast completely because my heart just wasn’t in it anymore, even though I love what I do and it feels really rewarding, especially whenever one of you reaches out to me to tell me about the positive impact that the show has had on you.

The thing is that when we’re dealing with a crisis or traumatic event it can make us question absolutely everything, which I certainly did, and the challenge becomes tempering any desire to make changes until you’ve had plenty of time for the dust to settle so that you can then make rational decisions. For me, once I was feeling more rational I very quickly realised that it wasn’t a case of my heart not being in it for this podcast but actually it was that I was heartbroken and deeply grieving and so I needed to ground myself in things that make me feel fulfilled – such as the work that I do with Let’s Talk About Mental Health. Now that I’ve been back for a few episodes, I’m completely relieved that I didn’t make any rash or sudden decisions because this work actually helps me just as much as it helps those of you who enjoy the show and that’s a part of my identity that I’m enormously grateful for. 

So, if you ever find yourself facing an identity crisis, a few things I would highly recommend you do are:

  • Take time out to reflect on what you’re feeling and why (without making any sudden changes).
  • If you are thinking of making changes, make a list of the things you’re feeling as well as what changes you’re thinking about making, and write down the pros and cons of any potential changes… then, leave it for a day or two then come back to it and do it again – do this two or three times over the space of a week or two and see if your thinking has changed at all before you even consider proceeding. I did this with a few things and I found that once I had gotten to the second and third round, my thinking was less emotional and more rational which resulted in very different perspectives (obviously, because I came back to LTAMH and I’m feeling very satisfied with that decision!).
  • Try something new instead of making massive changes – the risk with knee-jerk reactions is that we can end up throwing away things in our lives without giving them serious consideration first, so instead of just suddenly changing why not try something new for a bit and see if that helps to inspire you – take up a new hobby, make a new friend, join a group, do some volunteering… my grandmother often used to say “a change is as good as a holiday” and sometimes it can be exactly what we need to just let in some fresh air so we can breathe a bit more clearly (NB: Let me just say that if you’re in a situation that is threatening to your physical or mental health/safety then that’s a totally different story – that is something that you need to treat very seriously and make the changes that you need to make).
  • Consider what grounds you and look at how you can incorporate more of that into your life to help tackle the things that you might be finding challenging or that you’re feeling less enthusiastic about.
  • Talk to someone – chatting with a friend or loved one, or speaking to a counsellor or therapist, can make things much clearer and often it’s a case of getting things off your chest in order to help you process how you’re really feeling.

I’ll include a link in the transcript to an article from Healthline talking about dealing with an identity crisis (find it here: https://www.healthline.com/health/mental-health/identity-crisis#outlook ) so if you’re interested have a read.

Summary and close-out

When it comes to identity, what it all boils down to is this: You are not your condition(s) – it is simply part of your life experience, not your entire identity. Your identity is all of you – every favourite song and bad joke and questionable hairstyle decision. You’re never just one thing. You’re also a person, someone’s child, someone’s sibling, someone’s cousin, someone’s niece or nephew, someone’s friend, someone’s partner, someone’s parent, someone’s pet parent, someone’s neighbour… you’re that person who likes to write or read or sing or dance or share your passion for obscure 1980’s memorabilia or knit or paint or a thousand different things that combine together to make you the unique person that you are. Your condition is just one tiny aspect of you; it doesn’t define you and it certainly does not control you. Know who you are and be you – all of you, not just the part of you that has some mental health challenges to deal with. You are whatever you believe you are, so choose to believe in the positive and in the limitless potential inside of you and in the authenticity that comes by being completely true to yourself.

To finish up, let me take a moment to share a quote about this week’s topic that I’d like to encourage you to reflect on and consider what it means to you. This week’s quote is by the philosopher Epictetus, and it is:

“Know, first, who you are, and then adorn yourself accordingly.” 

Epictetus

That’s it for this week’s episode. Next week I’ll be talking about mindset – I’ll be talking about how the way you look at things impacts on your mental health and wellbeing.

I hope you’ll join me for that episode, which will be released on Monday morning in Australia & New Zealand, Sunday evening in the UK & Ireland, and Sunday afternoon in the US & Canada. You can find past episodes and additional content at the website which is letstalkaboutmentalhealth.com.au.

You can find Let’s Talk About Mental Health on Instagram, Facebook and Pinterest – I’ve recently changed the account name to better reflect the focus on mental health and make it easier for new people to identify what LTAMH is all about, so the new username is now @ltamentalhealth on all social media platforms (Instagram, Facebook and Pinterest).

Thank you very much for joining me today – look after yourself and make a conscious effort to share positivity and kindness in the world, because you get back what you put out. Take care and talk to you next time.

Jeremy 🙂

PS: If you enjoyed this week’s episode/post, please share it with someone you know because word of mouth is a great way to help other people find Let’s Talk About Mental Health (and I’d really appreciate it if you could take a moment to leave a five-star review on your preferred podcast platform). Thanks!

Let’s Talk About Mental Health.
Because the more we talk about it, the easier it gets.

Let’s Talk About Mental Health. © 2020 Jeremy Godwin.

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