You Just Might Have Identity Sickness
“We play in five minutes on court three.”
I was slicked with sweat, the corners of my cut-off t-shirt tucked underneath the shoulder straps of my sports bra. Following my basketball teammates as they trudged to the next court for our scrimmage, I saw someone standing in the doorway of the gym —
A few people smiled and waved. Dana had been a senior two years prior— before I was a freshman in college—and was a big name in this little gym: a Division II All-American and part of the team that had made it to the national title game.
Standing in the doorway getting ready to watch the scrimmage, she looked amazing — hair dyed, toned legs in neon Nike running leggings, and a confident white smile.
“Damn, she looks good.” My roommate Kylie whispered.
“Seriously,” and nodded in agreement.
Instantly I thought to the frizzy awkward lump of hair pulled tight on the top of my head, the pimple on my cheek, and my baggy basketball shorts. I tried to not feel gross.
I had concluded that once the seniors of our college basketball team graduated and launched into the world, that was what happened — they picked up another physical activity, grabbed the bull by the horns, and started wearing the aura of put-together. They left the grungy college athlete behind for form-fitting leggings and real jobs. Seeing Dana—and other athletes coming back for games after graduation—made me crave the look and lifestyle more than anything else.
That would be me. This idea sprouted wings and grew — a fit, beautiful, confident, and successful athlete.
Throughout college, and before Instagram lifestyle goals were on trend and personal branding was spreading like a wildfire, there I was — intoxicated with an identity that wasn’t my own. At least, not yet.
It starts as something positive in your head:
Just passing a few minutes.
I’m catching up on people’s lives.
I’m seeing what my friends are up to.
I should post a picture.
That’s the thought stream. Until it gets progressively worse:
They’re such a cute couple.
They look really happy. Am I that happy?
Wow, he’s traveling again. All over the world. He’s always doing fun things.
I wish my arms were that toned, my hair that shiny.
She’s so gorgeous, her husband is gorgeous, their children are gorgeous.
I wish my life was more like that.
For most of us, life is now a series of images.
Every generation since the photograph has cared about appearances in pictures, and at the base level, there is nothing wrong with wanting to look your best to capture a special moment in time. But it’s much more complicated in 2018.
A picture can say: this is the pretty food I eat, the expensive/thrifty/stylish/brand named clothing I buy, how much I work out, the friends I have, how happy I am, the amazing city or town I live in, how well I decorate my house or apartment, or the experiences I have.
The result can be insidious. Not only are we concerned about what every picture says about who we are, but a feed of someone else’s life can come with comparisons, demands, self-pity, self-loathing, and perhaps worst of all—envy. Slippery and smooth, we scroll through the images and pick apart everything about our lives we hate and how much we want what everyone else has.
Sometimes I ponder how others see me. Actually, I often dwell on how others see me.
When the curtain of college basketball finally closed, I thought I was ready to move on and start over. I would be rid of the rigorous schedule that had me on a bus every weekend, ragged and weary of road travel with team dinners at Domino’s pizza. I would be rid of how inadequate my position as a bench warmer made me feel. I would be rid of an identity I collected over years and years.
But letting go of one identity made me desperate for another.
Most of us consider identity as something visual. Not just how a person looks, but the air about them. The characteristics they radiate and what their lifestyle says about who they are. I bought into that illusion.
I bought into thinking that one glimpse of Dana was something I could become if I took control. So I hit the gym. I obsessively pursued the things I thought I was good at. Then, I displayed my progress.
It was an incredible time of learning—learning to let go and learning to work hard. I wouldn’t trade for that hard lesson. Yet, there was something big missing:
An image is a moment. In one moment—at the right angle, in the right light and the right clothing—anyone can look like they have the perfect or ideal life. Anyone can look like they have an identity worth replicating. But identity is far more complex (and simple) than that.
Behind the scenes of the picture or video you see, there is hardship, crushing news, bad days, a lack in confidence, stretch marks, growing pains, contagious laughter, lessons, mistakes, and memories. If we think we can boil down a person’s life to a feed we are sorely mistaken.
It’s nearly Christmas. People are putting up trees, showing off trendy pajamas, baking cookies, and drinking hot chocolate under the lights. And all the while, we can sit at home and feel broken. Alone more than ever before. Hungry for things to be different.
Comparing your imperfect world with all its nuance — the highs, lows, loves, losses, joy, and chaos — to a second of seeming perfection in the world of someone else only leads heartache.
I’ve been there. The American Psychological Association recently published the results of a survey that claim that young adults are the most stressed out generation. It’s something I’ve been mulling over for weeks. When I asked my mother about the report, she noted:
I don’t know if it is true. I don’t know if we can pinpoint one direct reason for all the stress young people are experiencing in the world around them, but in a lot of ways, I think my mom is right.
Identity is complicated because it’s a lifetime of living. Sometimes it’s rough around the edges, sometimes it is rhythmic when we find some semblance of balance. Sometimes identity is lost and we have to start over.
Identity is also simple. We are knit together with strengths and weaknesses, passions and distastes. Every day we stop thinking about what others see or how they care and just live as God has crafted and created us to be, we step a little deeper into an identity. Not of a brand or a lifestyle, but of a secure existence saturated with joy in little things and people.
It’s not a question of “to post or not to post.” For a while, I considered the solution was simply to delete social media and give myself some peace from the comparison envy that it sometimes brings.
But hiding from the problem is not the same as finding freedom from it. Our world is saturated with images of the life you ought to have, the relationship you’re missing, the job that would make more money, and the trinkets you need to be happy.
The choice isn’t seeing these messages, or not. The choice is whether or not you listen to them.
This resolution looks different for everyone. For me, it means I put media in its place. I set limits on when and how long I spend on Instagram or any app. I think about why I’m posting a picture. To express? Or impress? I am conscious of my thoughts and how they impact my emotions and choices.
And when in doubt, I turn it off. My phone, my brain, or my concern for my identity. Instead, I seek to love the people in my world. To experience something even if it lives forever in a memory. And to make the best decisions that help me grow.
With each step away from a brand or message that’s not who I really am, there’s a little more breaking out of the chains.
Decide where the messages directed at your identity are crushing you. And break the chains.
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You Just Might Have Identity Sickness
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