I’ve just spent the better part of an hour unsuccessfully digging through reading material trying to identify where I read (within the last week!) that “biography is not identity.” I had to wait to carve out time to blog about this subject and, in the interim, forgot where I found these four words which leapt off the page and tattooed themselves onto my brain.
How often do I hear clients make a determination about who they are based on what happened to them as children? Every day. If they were poor and had to go to neighbors’ homes begging for food to feed their younger siblings, they still carry deprivation and shame with them. If their father left them and their mother when they were toddlers, they still think of themselves as fatherless, abandoned children. If their mother trashed them with her words when she got drunk, they can’t shake the belief that they deserve to stoically take whatever life dishes out to them. If they helplessly stood by as their brother was physically thrown out of the house at age 16 because he was stupid and lazy (when what he really had was a learning disability), they soldier on feeling powerless and numb to their own pain and the pain of loved ones.
Are there things that happened—repeat, happened—to you when you were younger that you’ve incorporated into your identity? Maybe you were bullied because of your weight or were encouraged to be the perfect little boy or girl and never thought of being otherwise. Maybe your identity is “binge-eater” or “bulimic.” If so, rather than view these descriptors as aspects of self, you’ve magnified them into your whole identity.
And, here is the point of this blog: that your biography and identity are separate and are acquired in different ways. Your biography is bestowed upon you when you have scant ability to make choices. It’s inscribed into your being when you’re too young to know it’s even forming with words like “slow, fat, lazy, needy, troublesome, dumb, worthless, bad, airhead, or pain in the butt.” Your biography is written by other people about you.
Your identity, on the other hand, is what you wish to be and, therefore, become: smart, clever, courageous, kind, compassionate, funny, artistic, strong, wise. Your identity is what you make of your biography. I had binge-eating disorder and bulimia. Fully recovered, I am now a brave and compassionate person. Your childhood poverty (biography) may now make empathy and humility shine from you (identity). Adolescent anorexia may make you so wise now that you lead the charge against culture’s seduction for thinness. Decades of purging may make you a more sensitive healer. Your identity grows with every positive choice you make and biography be damned.