I am constantly circling back to the notion of identity.
Even now, as I channel much of my free time into writing — tapping into the one medium that feels the most natural for me — I struggle with the desire to label myself a writer.
Technically speaking, I am a writer. “Writer” literally makes up one half of my 9-to-5 job title. But when it comes to what I’m doing here, now, outside the formal institution of my day-to-day job, I continually face the question of whether I truly deserve to call myself a writer.
The truth is, I’ve always struggled with my sense of identity, with the compulsion to define myself by labels. Part of it, I think, is the fact that I’m a Scorpio. I don’t feign to know a lot about astrology, but I do know that us Scorpios are famous for putting a tremendous amount of stock into our work and what we contribute to the world. Which is why I so badly want what I do to be meaningful.
And what better way to assign something meaning than by giving it a label? (Do you see my train of thought here?)
I’ve constantly struggled with the awareness, as well, that my day-to-job isn’t necessarily something I want to be doing for the long-term. Don’t get me wrong, I’m immensely grateful for the stability offered by my work, for the fact my job is fairly flexible and affords me the opportunity to enjoy a pretty comfortable lifestyle and annual paid vacation time.
But my work is just that: work.
It doesn’t necessarily excite or invigorate me, it doesn’t make me feel passionate.
Which is why, for much of my adult life, I’ve spent a lot of energy trying to discover how to harness the things that do make me feel passionate, to coax them to the forefront of my life.
And why I constantly land again and again on the concept of identity and the persistent need to define myself by what I do.
It’s a weird journey, let me tell you. For one, I’m habitually coming up with ideas.
I tried once to create a website to sell articles of clothing I’d thrifted, but which didn’t fit me. When that didn’t take off, I started hand-painting designs on the clothes, except the process was tedious and time-consuming, and wasn’t really going anywhere anyhow. So I took a screen printing workshop, which allowed me to improve my process, but didn’t amount to anything more than a few modest sales. I thought, why don’t I transfer my love of craft to jewelry and wall art, and spent hours printing and weaving and stitching. But none of it all felt original, and all of it like I was trying too hard.
Most disappointingly, it didn’t miraculously liberate me from my day-to-day job like I’d desperately hoped. I had tried to make it as an “artist”, as a creative entrepreneur, and I had failed miserably.
This is a pattern for me, for sure — any time I experience even the tiniest amount of success, I’ve automatically envisioned a life defined by that success.
There was a time I imagined becoming a professional photographer — I have a natural eye for composition and can pull off pretty decent images with minimal editing. So I took an evening course to expand my knowledge of the technical side, and I read books and practiced regularly, but the idea of advancing my knowledge to professional-level status seemed virtually impossible.
For one, to be able to shoot professionally, you have to be downright confident with the technical details, and that part never interested me much. I learned what was necessary to get a good shot, sure, but I’ve always been far more interested in compelling moments versus technically-efficient photos.
Second, professional photography these days more than ever requires editing software expertise, which is just not my jam. I’m happy enough to play around with contrast and saturation and apply a pre-canned filter or two, but I haven’t the remotest clue how to fumble my way through Photoshop settings.
And professional photography is, not to mention, a highly saturated profession, making it meanly competitive. My lack of concern over technical details and absence of image editing know-how make me a bad candidate to even try and compete in the field, which is why somewhere down the line I eventually set free the belief that I might somehow make it.
Even when it comes to herbalism, I struggle with my sense of identity. Calling myself an herbalist makes me extremely uncomfortable, despite an apothecary brimming with remedies and a bookshelf crowded with resources. It’s the same as any other dilemma I’ve faced when it comes to defining my sense of identity: what constitutes the right to be able to label myself?
Does writing regularly qualify me as a “writer”? Does making art distinguish me as an “artist”, or capturing photos characterize me as a “photographer”? Does the fact I study herbs automatically make me an “herbalist”?
I suspect this desire to want to assign meaning is probably also a by-product of the kind of world we live in, one influenced by the strangeness of social media, where everything is curated and labelled, manipulated and defined.
Social media is triggering in a big way. Social media affirms for me that I’ll never earn the right to call myself a writer or artist or photographer or herbalist because I am, sadly, nothing. Nothing compared to the vast expanse of talent and skill, expertise and perfection that already abounds in the world.
Nothing can make one feel more inadequate than the experience of social media. Nothing makes one feel more unmotivated to put one’s self out into the world than the words and images projected by social media. In fact, social media serves as one of the biggest threats to anyone struggling to find their way in the world, their unique sense of purpose and meaning.
Social media will, unfailingly, fuck you up.
The key is learning how to overcome this sense of inadequacy, this belief of being “undeserving”.
Going through my accident last winter lent me some real perspective. The challenges I faced in my recovery were so much deeper than the seemingly inconsequential dilemma of how to define myself. In fact, as I came through the other side of my recovery process, the fact of labeling myself felt so much less important. For all the darkness I faced during that experience, I’m grateful for having learnt so much more about myself than I had previously known. That defining myself by a label maybe isn’t as important as I’d once believed.
Which doesn’t mean I don’t regularly come up against the struggle time and time again, particularly when I’m feeling frustrated or vulnerable, insecure or uncertain.
The reality is it’s in our very nature to want to label and define, to want to assign meaning.
When in truth it’s easier to just let it be.