This post is based on an Instagram Live interview with my friend and fellow therapist, Jesie Steffes, LPC. Join me for Riverbend Therapy Chats most Mondays on Instagram Live (@riverbendtherapy) as I discuss mental health topics and answer your questions with my colleagues. Also, if you are interested in this topic check out our New Women's Empowerment Group beginning August 25th.
One topic I often focus on with my clients is how to define yourself on your own terms. Who are you outside of your relationships, work, or the roles you inhabit? If you don’t already know, how can you begin to find the answer?
Being able to define yourself based on your authentic values and goals is key to having healthier relationships and a more satisfying life. That’s why the topic will be a cornerstone of my new Women’s Empowerment Group, which I’ll be leading with Jesie Steffes, LPC, a friend and fellow therapist. Jesie and I devoted this week’s River Bend Therapy Chats on Instagram Live to exploring why other people try to define us, and how to begin to start defining ourselves on our own terms.
So what does it look like when someone else tries to define us? It could be:
→ A parent who only graduated from high school pushing his or her children to go to college.
→ A teacher tracking students into a class based on their “potential.”
→ A friend giving unsolicited advice about how to deal with a significant other.
You might think, “Well, the parent/teacher/friend just wants the best for the other person,” and you’d be right. Often, our attempts to define others come from a place of love. When our parents, grandparents, mentors, and friends tell us, “Here’s how to live your life,” they’re offering us a template to follow so that we struggle less than they did, so we can avoid the pain they felt, or so that we can fulfill an unsatisfied desire from their lives. It may feel good initially to be believed in, encouraged, supported, and pushed. But if what we are being pushed towards isn’t in alignment with our values or goals, it will take us away from our authentic selves.
But how do you know if you’re defining yourself, rather than letting others define you? For me, it’s all about paying attention to my inner voice: When I’m traveling a path someone else has created for me, I feel like I’m homesick. When I stop and listen to my inner voice, it tells me I’ve strayed from home and won’t feel whole or at peace until I put myself back on my path.
If you want to start defining yourself, realize that it won’t happen overnight; it takes time to discover who you are outside of your relationships and roles. Here are some tools I share with my clients who are beginning this journey of self-knowledge:
1. What Are the Rules?
We live by a set of spoken and unspoken rules handed to us by our families, social circles, and society at large. As you begin to define your life on your terms, take stock of the rules that shape you. What have you been told, either implicitly or explicitly, about what’s expected of you as a member of your gender, race, religion, marital status, or profession? Which of those rules align with your core values? Which ones require you to abandon a part of your authentic self? When you begin to identify the rules that conflict with how you want to live, you’ll have a roadmap for change.
2. Let Go of Perfection
It’s been said that good choices come from experience, and experience comes from bad choices. I like to think that defining yourself is similar: It’s a long process and requires exploration. Maybe for a while you’ll go down a path and discover that it’s not your path. Maybe you’ll fall or make mistakes. Learning to define yourself on your own terms requires imperfection, so open yourself to that.
3. Embrace Evolution