Some people today treat identity as fluid, easy to change or choose. Whatever you “identity as” in the moment is what matters, and the rest of us are supposed to play along with your fantasy. But identity — the answer to “who are you?” — is actually something formed over time. All our experiences, our personality traits, our choices build who/what you are. There are parts of identity that we can’t change, and if you want to change the other parts it requires hard work and a fundamental shift in how we think and behave.
The word “fundamental” comes from the same root as “foundation” (Latin fundare “to found/lay a base for”). Many of our foundations are laid when we’re young. We ask questions like “Who am I?” and “What do I value?” and we figure out answers that stick with us as we grow. We might not be using those words, but nevertheless we pick up things that become part of our identities and create the lenses through which we see the world.
Building Blocks of Self
Let’s think of each of the things making up our identity as blocks that go into our foundations. Someone who grew up in a good, healthy family might have blocks like “I am loved,” “It is safe to trust other people,” and “I am allowed to have healthy boundaries.” Or they might have grown up in a good family, but still incorporated blocks like, “I am loved, but I’m not worthy of it” or “I can only trust people in my family.” Others, who perhaps didn’t grow up in a good situation at all, have blocks like, “I am not worth loving,” “Trusting other people always leads to me getting hurt,” or “My needs and wants will never be honored.”
These foundational ideas don’t always stay the same. You can swap some out or re-write them as more experiences happen and you make choices about how to live your life. You might lose good foundations as you grow and pick up new blocks that aren’t healthy and supportive. On the other hand, you can also over-write bad foundations and put more positive ideas into your identity.
- Disclaimer: most of what I’m writing here isn’t based on specific psychology research, though it does line-up with basics of identity from a psychological standpoint. This is more of a collection of thoughts that have been filtering through my head for a while and just all came together a few weeks ago. Take it or leave it as you see fit.
Most people have at least a few broken things in their foundations. By that I mean we believe lies about ourselves as if they are fundamental truths. We’ve picked things up and put them in our identities (often not by conscious choice) that don’t reflect the best and most authentic versions of ourselves.
I didn’t wake up one morning and think, “You know what? I’m going to make the idea that I’m fundamentally broken part of my core identity.” It happened more gradually than that. Through a series of rejections, heartbreaks, and friendships that fell apart I decided the only way to explain everything that happened was to accept that something in me is broken. I don’t know what it is, but other people can see it and when they do they leave.
That belief has been a part of my identity for years. If someone asked, “Who are you?” I would list more surface-level identities like Christian, woman, writer, etc. But when I looked into my heart one of the things I would tell myself was “I am broken.” Others included “I am ‘too much’ and ‘not enough,” “It isn’t safe to open up and let other people in,” and, “It is selfish to ask for the things I need or want.”
I know where I got some of these ideas, but others I haven’t been able to trace. Still, they’re there and I don’t want them. So now what do I do? And what do all of you do with the ideas of your own that came to mind when you were reading my list?
Founded In Jesus’s Perspective
Several weeks ago I was sitting in church listening to the Rabbi (I attend with a Messianic group) talk about building our foundation on Yeshua and His words. He talked about how the foundation — the hidden things underlying our beliefs — should be the strongest part of what we’re building. Near the end of the message, he said we need to ask for healing of past hurts that are in our foundations and replace the crumbling foundations with the foundations of Yeshua (that’s the Hebrew name for Jesus).
Usually when I’ve thought about foundations in Yeshua, I think about sound doctrine (like my foundations post series on Hebrews 6). While that is definitely included, this message got me thinking about another way to apply the idea of Yeshua as our foundation. In addition to founding our religious/spiritual beliefs on His teachings, we also need to found our beliefs about ourselves on what He says about us.
On the recommendation of my counselor, I’ve been rereading Captivating by John and Stasi Eldredge. Replacing your wounded, hurting, and broken foundations with God’s perspective on you is something they talk about as well. Their focus in this book is on women, but this specific idea can apply to men as well. Somewhere along the way, we started believing things about ourselves that aren’t in-line with how God sees us. If we can recapture His perspective on us and make it our own, then we’ll be doing what the tag-line for this blog says: “Finding our true selves in the people God created us to be.”
- You can purchase a copy of Captivating by clicking here (this is an affiliate link).
Swapping Out The Bad Foundations
One of the most helpful exercises that my counselor and I have done is a form of schema therapy. Here’s a basic outline:
- Identify ideas/schemas like the ones I described earlier as broken foundations.
- Write that idea (along with closely related thoughts) on a card
- Turn the card over and write a statement that refutes the negative schema (e.g. the reverse side of “I am broken” is “I am not abandoned, nor am I always at fault when something goes wrong”)
- Collect evidence to support the positive statement. Repeat
When we have bad schema or foundations blocks at the core of who we are, it’s often hard (or impossible) for us to realize there’s evidence against them. A dozen things might happen to show me I’m not broken, but I won’t put them into my self-view as easily as I will a single incident that supports the idea that there’s something deeply wrong with me. At least, not without some hard work and a great deal of prayer.
Non-Christians can do personal growth work like this too, of course. But for those of us who follow Christ, studying His perspective on us can be a huge help in rebuilding our foundations. The more we understand how He really sees us, and learn to see ourselves that way as well, the better our sense of identity will become.