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Who Do You Become Without The Relationships in Your Life?

What Happens When Who You Were Yesterday Isn’t as True Today?

“We usually don’t realize the thing that is defining our identity until that thing is taken away.”
Tim Hiller, Strive: Life is Short, Pursue What Matters

What do you do? Who are you? Where are you from?

There seems to be a simple answer to those questions for everybody. Except for me. I have premade answers I spout before I even think. Each time I say them, I’m left with a quiet unease that makes me feel like a liar. I know what I’ve said has some truth in it, but is that really all there is?

Is that who I am?

As I struggle to settle in this new country, I become fascinated with questions of identity. I moved without a full understanding of who I was — what really drove me — now, I can’t avoid those questions anymore. It shows every single day: in my writing, my conversations, my explanations.

No matter how much I may try to cover it up, I am mostly confused.

Not because I have a lot of information, but rather because for the first time, I look myself in the mirror and have a faint understanding that all that I identified with isn’t relevant anymore.

At the time, it could have been. At the time, I was those things: writer, social media guy, elder brother, friend, fiancee, employee, degree holder, poetry troupe leader.

I hung to those labels, unconsciously, to the point where I wasn’t me anymore — I was them.

Now, I look in the mirror, without them, and I can’t say who ‘me’ is.

Fascinating.

Of course, during the past year, this hasn’t been a joyful exercise. I’ve fought reality. I’ve felt pain beyond what I had imagined, the kind that cuts in parts of the abdomen I never knew I had.

I tried to replicate those labels in a new context; I expected the same reactions and even tried to defend titles I no longer bore. I tried so hard to stay within the confines of those labels that I forgot to see how limiting they were.

Who are you if all the relationships in your life are taken away?

“Before I can live with other folks I’ve got to live with myself. The one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience”. — Harper Lee, To Kill A Mocking Bird

This is no longer just an immigrant experience for me. It’s a human one.

What happens when you’re fired? When you get a divorce? When you lose a loved one? When you become a parent?

Who do you become when the labels you wear get stripped off by time, nature, or yourself?

The way I looked at this for the past year has been painful for me, and probably everyone who loves me. I held on to the past in a way that blinded the possibilities of the future. I wrote about the same things over and over because I could not admit that I was no longer ‘that guy’.

Even with my writing, I refused any advice that would expose me to change or any form of evolution.

As I read Dr. Dweck, I come to realize that for all this time that I thought I had a growth mindset, I didn’t.

“The idea that one evaluation can measure you forever is what creates the urgency for those with the fixed mindset. That’s why they must succeed perfectly and immediately. Who can afford the luxury of trying to grow when everything is on the line right now?” — Carol S. Dweck, Ph.D., Mindset, pg 29

I repeated college twice. Got fired and quit multiple jobs. For almost 30 years, I failed and learned, got burnt and grew. I did the best with what I had without paying attention to how much it molded me into a less flexible human. For a while, I never had to face the consequences of my actions or question my identity — my actions were either forced or my identity handed to me.

The past year, all that changed: every single day I was under evaluation — every single thing was on the line.

Although humans thrive in tribes, I have a personal theory that the success of the tribe depends on the success of the individual.

In this way, with marriage as an example, I am only in a good marriage if I am a good partner, and my goodness as a partner — although related to the goodness of my partner — should not be determined by their said goodness.

TLDR: I don’t need a good wife to be a good husband. I can just, be.

We don’t need other people to become better versions of ourselves. It’s a great feeling to get compliments and reactions that show that someone appreciates us and our roles in their lives. Those should be the cherry, not the cake.

The more I think about the kind of person I want to be, the more I realize that for a long time, I missed the whole point of improvement.

Maybe even the whole point of life.

We don’t become better so that others can tell us how better we are. Because they may never. We could work on ourselves for our whole existence, destroying bad habits, learning new skills, unlocking our potential and people may never notice.

Why?

  1. They're also dealing with their own issues.
  2. What really matters to be worked on is rarely visible to the naked eye.

We don’t become better people in our relationships for the other person. We do because — yes, they deserve our best, but mostly — we deserve the best relationships in life.

The best way to get a good relationship is to become the kind of person who deserves it.

I’m not neglecting the host of damaged and broken individuals who intentionally (or not) make relationships hell for others. I’m not refusing how hard it can be to live with a gaslighter, manipulator or plain wrong human. My lining here is that when you choose to become a better person, you are more likely to decide to walk away from the people you don’t believe are good for you. It’s not going to be easy, but more possible.

It’s okay to cut people off. It’s okay to walk away. It’s also part of your personal improvement.

Improvement should be for us, then others. When we do it for us, others enjoy too.

If we do it for others first, when happens when they don’t give the feedback we expected?

You exist to find yourself. I’m starting to think it’s the point of life. With every mistake I make as a partner, I’m learning how much I don’t know — as a human.

As we grow and enter each stage — adolescent, adult, wife, husband, partner, parent, boss, employee, freelancer, doctor, patience — we look around to see what that role means to the world and then adjust to what it means to us.

Those who succeed find a way that works for them — and the world. Those who fail, find a way that works only for them — end up being self-centered — or a way that works for the world — and end up being resentful.

If all the relationships in your life were taken away, and you become someone else, then you’ve been lying to yourself and to all those people.

That sounds like a largely wasted life, and that’s where I’ve been. That’s what I’m working on: removing the expectations from others and choosing who I want to be so that I don’t have to be confused anymore.

It’s a lifelong endeavor, we never finish. We never get to a point and say ‘this is who we are’. You don’t have to stick to who everyone thinks you are, including yourself. There’s always room to become the kind of person you’re proud of being.

We are human beings, always ‘being’.

You have a choice on where you go from here.

“So, I guess we are who we are for a lot of reasons. And maybe we’ll never know most of them. But even if we don’t have the power to choose where we come from, we can still choose where we go from there. We can still do things. And we can try to feel okay about them”

Stephen Chbosky, The Perks of Being a Wallflower

Written by

Cameroonian writer and video creator. Featured in LEVEL and P.S. I Love You. I write about building relationships and personal transformation.

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