As a clinical psychologist, I see lots of people who are struggling in this world because they have no sense of identity. They read tons of social media (or magazines if they are older), watch TV, listen to friends and family, and do as others tell them to do. But they have no individualism—who is this person, what are her morals, her beliefs, her characteristics, and what does she stand for? Sadly, too often when I ask female patients these questions, they either look at me with a blank stare or spout off whatever someone else told them.
Are you simply who others have said you are?
So, what do I do? Why, I take them shopping of course! While I do appreciate a good retail therapy session now and again, that is not what I mean here. I have them visualize a shopping bag (and sometimes even bring one into our session), and we make a list of characteristics that they want to be descriptors of them. I ask my patient, “When someone says your name, what characteristics do you want them to think of? What are your morals? What are your beliefs? Who is this person sitting before me?”
We talk through her dreams… what she wanted to be as a little girl and how that evolved over time, what she enjoys doing in her free time, and what hinders her from her dreams today. As we talk through these questions, I see her becoming stronger and proud of who she is. We talk about how she wanted to be a teacher when she was a little girl, but she was unable to finish college or realized it didn’t make the amount of money she needed or that she got pregnant and felt unable to leave her child to take those college courses. We discuss what her morals and values are. Is she OK with sex before marriage or not? Does she have strong political views for which she would like to advocate? Is she not OK with swearing and feels that others around her do it too much? Are her religious beliefs very important to her and does she want to surround herself with others who have those same beliefs?
When someone says your name, what characteristics do you want them to think of? What are your morals? What are your beliefs?
As we process those questions, we focus on the characteristics that stand out as she tells her story. We write them down and either literally or mentally put them in the bag. If this is something you want to do with someone you love, you might be thinking that your teen or your friend will find this dumb. I have worked with some pretty opinionated children and adults and never once have any of them laughed at me. They love it!
I hear all sorts of amazing characteristics—strong, beautiful, kind, honest, independent, bold, fun, crazy (yes, crazy can be good), carefree, and the list goes on. As we discuss these, I ask my patients, “What do each of these characteristics mean?” Essentially, define strong or beautiful. This is because what is strong to me, may not be the same to someone else. When I think strong, I think a businesswoman taking charge in a group. However, I have had many clients say strength for them is working out daily or eating healthy or being equal to their husband in their marriage. So, it is important not to assume that your way of defining a word is the only way.
Looking to define it for yourself? Listen to this episode of our podcast: Are You a Strong Woman of Grit and Grace? – 072
From a shopping bag of characteristics, you can clarify your identity.
Then, the next step is to discuss what behaviors or actions elicit those characteristics. How do you need to behave so that others see those characteristics in you? What makes you feel beautiful? Is it doing your hair and makeup every day? Or, is it speaking kindly to others? I have recently been hearing females say “clean” a lot. Having worked with people with a substance abuse problem in the past, I instantly think sober. However, many women describe it as eating clean, working out, using healthcare products free of dyes, etc. So, I say to them: do you need to do better with your personal hygiene? Do you need to work to let the little things go so that you can be carefree? What does fun mean to you? Is fun going out with your girlfriends every weekend and having a cocktail or is it hanging out with your children and using your imaginations? Or, is it both depending on the moment?
How do you need to behave so that others see these desired characteristics in you?
As we process through these characteristics and questions, it is so fun to watch the transformation of someone who looked sad, insecure, fearful, and angry to someone bold, independent, fun, beautiful, and carefree. I will never forget a patient who, during her first session, had no sparkle in her eyes. Her skin was ashen, and she was frail. As we worked through these questions and she learned how to define herself for who she wanted to be over the course of a few months, the sparkle returned to her beautiful brown eyes and she started wearing color in her wardrobe. She had a smile on her face, and she was talking about the fun she had with friends and family, who she used to believe bogged her down. The transformation from just one little question was amazing: “What characteristics do you want to have?”
One of the ways I have done this in my personal life is to learn how to take on the characteristics of the people I have loved in life who have passed. It started with my friend, Sara. As I processed through her memory, what amazed me was how she always remembered details and events in people’s lives as well as always made sure I knew she loved me at the end of a conversation. When she passed away, I intentionally started listening to others and worked to remember events in their lives so I could ask about them when we next spoke—so they might know they were important to me. I made sure the people I love know it by randomly messaging them an uplifting thought or encouraging word. When my mom passed away, one memory that meant a lot to me was how whenever she saw our birthdays on the clock, she said a quick prayer for us. So, I have started to do that. You would be surprised how often I actually see the birthdays of my loved ones and get to ask God, “Please take care of her or him today.”
It is pretty special. My mother-in-law was a guardian ad litem and loved, loved, loved it. I am slowly completing the training so that one day I may have the same opportunity to care for children who are stuck in a difficult place. With that said, you may choose to find your own values and characteristics, not necessarily reflecting on others for those characteristics. I will tell you that it bugged me that my mom was so dependent on my dad for money when we were children. So, I was determined to become financially independent, and I am, even as a married woman.
You were made to fill a void that only you can fill.
Most importantly, the key is to stop comparing yourself to other women. Stop looking at that high school friend who posts pictures of herself traveling to exotic places, only showing pictures of her shoulders up. Stop looking at that woman in the grocery store and assuming she only eats a carrot for lunch. Be you, because you are beautiful, wonderfully and fearfully made, according to God. You never know what is going on behind the scenes on social media. You never know what happened to that woman in the grocery store. She is thin and has perfect makeup, but she may be covering up bruises you will never understand. So, instead of feeling sorry for yourself that you are not this or that like your friend on social media, decide who you want to be, who God intended you to be, and work diligently every day asking yourself, “Am I behaving in a way that demonstrates the characteristics that make up me?” Go do the things you enjoy, wear the clothes you like, travel to where you want to go. Don’t simply be or do what everyone else says. In a Stitch Fix world, be an Etsy dresser if you would like!
Be you, because you are beautiful, wonderfully and fearfully made, according to God.
Remember, everyone is made uniquely. So, we will each have our own morals, beliefs, and desires. None are the same, nor should they be. We each define our grit and our grace differently based on our wants, needs, and values. No one’s life is the same. Also, I would be a fool if I didn’t say this: it is OK for these characteristics to change as you mature in life. Yes, as life happens, we evolve. I once would have been mortified at being home all weekend (in my early 20’s) and now, the thought of a weekend at home sounds like a beautiful, relaxing dream. So, do some self-exploring—go on a mental shopping trip and figure out who you are. Work at being or evolving into that person every day and you will truly enjoy the life intended for you.
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You’ll love this podcast episode from This Grit and Grace Life: How Do I Know What Defines Me? – 078!