Managing your mental health: How to find your identity

Mental health blogger Fiona Kennedy says our focus should be on who we are, instead of what we do

Managing your mental health: How to find your identity

Photo by Pete and Ute Grahalmann (Flickr Commons)

How do you identify yourself? Is it by what you do? Or by who you are?

It took me a long time to figure it out, but these are two very different things.

We live in a results-driven world, and I think it’s likely a lot of us, as I did, equate what we do with who we are. And if we don’t succeed in what we do, or if for some reason it’s taken away from us, what’s left?

I started out determined to make a career in archaeology. It felt really important that I be able to call myself an archaeologist – it gave me meaning, it gave me a purpose, and if I’m being really honest, it made me a little bit different, a little bit interesting. It gave me an identity - I became Fiona the Archaeologist.

But when circumstances meant that path was no longer available to me, I floundered, badly. I became Fiona who Just Works in a Shop. Nothing had changed about me, other than the source of my income, but that shift had a profound impact on my sense of self. I felt looked down on, that I was being judged for standing behind a counter and so began to judge myself accordingly.

Doing something 'worthwhile'

Nothing had changed about me, other than the source of my income, but that shift had a profound impact on my sense of self. I felt looked down on, that I was being judged for standing behind a counter and so began to judge myself accordingly.

This problem, this reliance on what I do to define who I am has followed me throughout my life. I’ve never quite been able to figure out if it was the salary attached to the job that made it worthwhile, or the title of the job itself, but no matter what it was, it never measured up. Something was always missing.

After 12 years working in various administrative roles (none of which gave me the sense of self-worth I was looking for), I’ve spent the last 18 months at home full-time with my kids. Even that wasn’t right. I love it – I love being able to walk them to and from school, I love the freedom of taking a notion

Even that wasn’t right. I love it – I love being able to walk them to and from school. I love the freedom of taking a notion to go on a walk with them in the afternoon. I love that now the weather’s picking up, they can spend hours outside with their little buddies.

It’s good for them, for me, and for us as a family as it has greatly reduced the busyness of our lives.

And yet… Being home with my kids didn’t feel worthy enough. I’m not contributing enough financially to the household. I don’t have a career. I don’t have a clearly defined path.

I couldn’t answer the question ‘What do you do?’ in a way that I perceived to be socially worthwhile, and so the logical conclusion in my mind was that I wasn’t worthwhile.

Searching for validation

I’ve given this whole scenario a lot of thought in recent months, not least because my most recent means of identifying myself was probably the most damaging – Fiona Who Has Depression and Borderline Personality Disorder.

Having a mental ‘illness’ almost became a badge of honour – it marked me out, made me different, and writing about it cemented that identity. I was able to call myself an award-winning blogger – doesn’t that sound nice?!

But as I discovered, even that wasn’t going to be enough. If I had something published, I drove myself demented wondering how many people had read it. If I was nominated for an award, the disappointment of not winning was crushing. Having people read my blog, understand what I was feeling and maybe even learn from it made me feel useful – I became Fiona Who Helps Other People With Mental Illnesses.

Do you see the problem here? The bar kept moving. I had no sense of who I was, and was utterly reliant on other people to make me feel good about myself. I was constantly looking outside of myself for validation, for approval, for acceptance.

That cannot work long term, there will always be something missing.

This slowly dawning realisation has led to some fairly significant changes in my outlook and expectations of both myself and the world around me.

Right now, my life is very small, very quiet, very simple. I look after my kids and my home, I write this series, I occasionally blog. I walk a lot, spend time with friends, take photos and let myself slow down.

Am I financially well off? Not in the slightest. This lifestyle doesn’t come with a flash car, foreign holidays and designer clothes. But what it does come with is peace of mind.

I’m not anything other than myself. It’s taken a lifetime to come to this conclusion, although it’s a conclusion that’s not without its challenges. But they’re challenges that feel worthwhile to me.

I still can’t answer the ‘what do you do’ question with a quantifiable response, but that’s ok. I find myself in what I suspect is a relatively rare and privileged position. What I have, what I do, what I am – is enough.

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