by Dr. Michelle Caulk
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the primary definition of identity is “the fact of being who or what a person or thing is.” In his book The Gift of Being Yourself, David Benner defines identity as “who we experience ourselves to be—the ‘I’ each of us carries within.” We can also construct our identity to give us a sense of meaning, purpose, and even safety.
Identity is often described by the roles we play in life. For example:
Those are all relatively neutral “I am” statements, right?
But here’s where we get into trouble: when we assign negative descriptors to our identity. And even more so, when these negative descriptors become absolutes.
What are a few negative descriptors about our identity?
I am not an intelligent person.
I am a bad mother.
I am a failed wife.
I am a terrible friend.
These negative, absolute “I am” descriptors are sourced from two places: first, inside our own heads, and second, from the messages of others. When they come from an internal place, it may be that you’ve set an impossible standard for yourself. There is little room for human mess-ups because that feels too out of control, too vulnerable, too weak, and therefore, unacceptable. There may also be an old, deeply held message that you’ve been carrying since childhood or those tough teenage years.
These two sources usually work in concert with each other. Something sparks an old negative descriptor about your identity, which reinforces the internal perception, and on and on it goes. These negative “I am” descriptors keep us stuck, isolated, anxious, and even traumatized. They become our reality.
I am not an intelligent person. (My family member said I was stupid and wouldn’t amount to anything. Yesterday I failed a test, and that definitely means I’m not good enough to pursue a career I love.)
I am a bad mother. (Someone once told me anger is bad. I yelled at my children because they were acting foolish. I was angry, and therefore I am a bad mom.)
I am a failed wife. (A wife is supposed to meet her husband’s needs, but abuse has made me uncomfortable with intimacy. Therefore, I’ve failed at fulfilling our marriage the way it’s supposed to be.)
I am a terrible friend. (My best friend died, and I didn’t pray often enough for her to be healed. Therefore, I don’t deserve to have a good friend.)
Sometimes the identity we had was a positive one, and then someone or an event—like a death or divorce—came along and blew it up. When that identity is threatened or finds itself on unstable ground, it leads to self-doubt, negative thinking, and even depression and anxiety. You may be asking yourself questions similar to these:
When I got divorced, was I still a good wife?
When I was fired, was I meant to choose this career?
When my child bullied another, was I still a good mother?
The danger here is that all of our identities outside the image of Jesus are fallible, ever-changing, and temporary. Not exactly what we want to set our lives upon!
Recently, I mixed up my calendar and missed an appointment with a client. That mistake echoed around the cave of some old messages I didn’t even know I was still carrying around.
My thoughts went something like this:
You messed up.
You’re bad at relationships.
Therefore, you’re a bad therapist.
Can you see the power of the lie in that story? I had to pull myself out of the negative identity spiral by checking the facts in the story. What else was there to consider?
I messed up, but this is a mendable mistake.
God will help me, and my client, recover from this mistake when I apologize.
I am a good therapist because He helps me be a good therapist.
See the critical difference? The first story was full of thin conclusions—i.e., a short, incomplete story of identity. The second story took into account the fullness of the situation, a thick conclusion, without denying the mistake. It contained a different perspective, theme, and even a new character in the story—God and His descriptors over my work. This story reflected the truth of a second chance and the fact that I am a helpful therapist—of which there is more evidence than the original story.
I’m not talking about an ego boost just for the sake of feeling better about yourself. What I am encouraging is a truthful change in thinking. To move from the negative, absolute “I am” statement to “Wait a hot minute, there’s more to the story.”
You can imagine the different outcomes with this re-storying.
Yeah, big deal, you may be thinking. One missed counseling appointment. What I’ve done is so much worse. That kind of guilt and condemnation only adds to the I’m-a-failure story of your mistakes or identity. It becomes an echo chamber with the mistake in the center. Even more, it suggests a level of worthiness versus unworthiness.
A gentle reminder: there are no degrees of “worse” in God’s economy of grace. His love and compassion come without restrictions or conditions. Can you borrow His grace to yourself today? Move towards your own thick conclusion with grace—your story is more than your experiences, another’s voice, or identity. With God’s help, we can reframe and readjust the lens through which we see ourselves.
Dr. Michelle Caulk, LPC, LMHC, NCC is a counselor, author, and educator. Michelle is currently an Assistant Professor and Director of Clinical Experiences at Huntington University, and joyfully works with clients in a private therapy practice. Michelle and Sandi Brown, founder and President of Gateway Creative Broadcasting in St. Louis, are co-authors of Healing Out Loud: How to Embrace God’s Love When You Don’t Like Yourself. Visit the website at www.healingoutloud.com. This article is an excerpt from Healing Out Loud.