The identity conundrum

A collection of short essays on identity.

Choosing to be

Who are we? or Who do we want to be?

I used to label myself heavily. I am this or I am that. Today, I know enough to know that that was stupid. We are fluid, not just binary states.

I also used to think we are fixed. That we are a certain way and that is how it will always be it. Today I know enough to know that we can grow and change and evolve.

So if we aren’t fixed and if we can change, should the question really be – who we are? Or should it be – who do I want to be?

Perhaps intention precedes identity. We can decide who we want to be and choose to be that person, as against accepting that this is all there is to us.

That’s why I think affirmations work. The more we tell ourselves we are a certain kind of person, the more we strive to be consistent with it. It is self-fulfilling prophecy. You can actually be whatever you choose to be. The only thing that it needs is your focus.

Do I really have to define who I am??

I’m currently experimenting on changing my identity. By that, I mean, changing how I perceive myself and changing how i describe myself. As expected, I am going through a whole lot of confusion in terms of describing who I am. For most part, I feel like it is a meaningless question. I am nothing and I can’t really explain who I am by telling you about where I was born and what my hobbies are. But that line of thinking is a bit too existential for people, I think, and for all practical reasons, I may still need to come up with a ‘bio’ of sorts that communicates who I am to the world. But can these bios be changed as we change? It’s hard to relate to the version of me from 2021 and 2017 and all the ones before. I flow and grow and so does my definition of who I am.

I struggle to box myself and categorise myself. But the world needs categories. The world likes categories and labels because it is easier to understand. It dumbs you down to a set of parameters they can piece together to create the illusion that they do in fact understand you. “I’m a dog person” or “I’m a cat person”. I wonder what qualifications one must have to be a “dog person”. I don’t get it. There are no clear lines and definitions. These are mere social constructs we use for simplifying understand and of course, communal bonding.

The heaviness of identity

I’m also quite worried to attach anything to my identity. It feels heavy. More the number of things I associate myself with, the heavier it feels. It feels like layers added on top of who I really am. It feels suffocating and limiting even, you know? I’d like to remain small. Like allow myself to not be limited by the things I believe about myself. For instance: I’m from palakkad – feels heavy. I like tea – feels heavy. What if I don’t want to like tea later? Or what happens to all the societal expectations of a palakkadian when I say I’m from palakkad? It’s too much of a burden that comes with just saying the sentence I’m from palakkad or that I like tea. It feels more fixed. People begin to see me in a certain light and I can’t really tell if it is the light I intended them to see me through and then I wonder if my ‘bio’ did serve the purpose of communicating who I am to the world.

When your identity is your enemy

If we are not aware (or conscious) of how identities cage us, we can quite easily get caged. All my teenage life, I’ve been called ‘gundu’ (supposedly cute name for a chubby person in malayalam). I’m still chubbier considering my healthy weight. I’ve been trying to lose weight for a while now. But guess what happened? Once I reach say 72kgs, I feel both things – I want to continue to lose weight and I want to hold on to this body. For the longest time, I didn’t know why I was struggling to go lower than 72. It later hit me that it was my comfortable weight. It is the weight I associated myself with. If I lost even further, I’ll be losing not just the fat, but also a slice of my ‘gundu’ identity. Strange isn’t it? Even though I really badly want to get healthier and even though I am motivated, this small thing called identity stops me from it. It is because in my head, I am a fat person. That’s just who I am and I cannot even begin to imagine myself as being thinner or fitter or stronger than my current weight. Yet, there is desire and motivation to get healthy for reasons of health/fitness.

I cannot begin to explain how hard it has been to fight with myself like this. Self-sabotage 101. It is hard to let go of a piece of identity and embrace a new one. I imagine it is so with all kinds of change. It is just so primal, you know?

Even if we don’t really like our present selves (or identity), it can be so so hard letting go of that identity.

That, I think is why change is hard. Doing the action is much easier compared to who we become in that process.

Dating the new identity before becoming it

My biggest fear is not knowing who I will be if not fat and whether or not I will like her or not. I know it may sound strange – I am actually scared of losing weight. What helps me (marginally) in soothing myself:

I tell myself – You can try to date this new identity (fit = not gundu) and see how you like her. If you don’t like her, you can come back to your old identity (gundu).

I know this sounds ridiculous to most people, but it helps me to think that I can always gain the weight and become a gundu if that’s what gives me joy and there is no harm in it. Why this works for me is because it gives me agency. It makes me feel like I am fat by choice. That it isn’t my inability to lose weight and be fitter, but just that I choose to be chubby because I like myself so. To me, this makes sense. I’m not being a coward then.

This way, I do not think that I’m permanently becoming this new person. I’m only trying it out and seeing if I like it. If I like dating her, I will continue to adopt her as a part of my identity.

And I do think to myself, you know – maybe I’m happier this way. Who knows. I will only know if I get to my goal weight and experience both being chubby and being fit. I will then have the option to choose an experience I enjoy.

DIY identity definitions

To me, labels aren’t helpful. Who is a healthy person? How do you really define one? As it must be obvious by this point, I struggle to buy typical definitions of who qualifies to be what.

I totally believe in coming up with our own definitions of who a healthy person is or who a confident person is or any who a <> person is…

It is more about saying – I feel healthy when I do yoga everyday. This is much better than running the race to be healthy by drinking protein shakes and hitting the gym just because a ton of people think that is what healthy means.

Creating your own definitions are important so that you can detach yourself from societal conditioning. So that you bring the focus back to yourself and what you think you should be, instead of what the world thinks you should be.

Emphasising on experiences over labels

If step 1 is coming up with your own definition of identities, step 2 is discarding your own definitions.

Even if we have our own definitions, it can be really easy to fall into the trap of saying I’m healthy or unhealthy. In order to separate our experiences from our identity, it can be helpful to change our narrative and say instead – I feel healthy and I feel unhealthy.

This is lighter. You do not have to bear the burden of being a healthy person or an unhealthy person. You simply are a being experiencing things that can feel healthy or unhealthy.

This emphasis on your experience can be the key to freedom in general. Focus on the journey instead of the destination. This way, you get to feel healthy every single day, not just when you have lost 30kgs.

Embracing fluidity

A defining characteristic of fluidity is motion. (duh!) This means you can’t exactly tell when something is at the peak or when it is in the trough. You can only tell roughly whether the wave is going up or down. This applies to identity as well. You may be on the healthier side or the unhealthier side.

Fluidity also means that things don’t stay static. That means it doesn’t always stay low or high. It flows. Likewise, you will go through days or periods of being healthy and unhealthy.

Accepting fluidity can relieve you from forcing yourself to meet rigid standards. It also allows you welcome change when change is needed. It allows you to respect that things can go down any moment and that they almost certainly will go down from time to time. The only thing there is to do then is to dust yourself off and get back on the journey yet again.