“Who am I?” 6 psychological answers to this perplexing question

When I was about six, I asked my mom, “Who am I? And why am I me and you are you?”

She gave me a dumbfounded look. “Hmm, not sure, honey.”

Right. That didn’t answer much. Luckily, I wasn’t stuck at six forever, and the older I grew, the more philosophical and psychological books I read. That was where I discovered a true treasure trove of knowledge, helping me identify what exactly made me *me*.

Have you been wondering who you are, too? Well, it’s safe to say you’ve arrived at the right place because this article is essentially a condensed summary of my ten years of learning psychology.

Let’s dive right in!

First things first: Who you’re not

In his thought-provoking video, Justin Brown begins by saying: “You’re not your job. You’re not how much money you have in your bank account. You’re not the car you drive.”

YouTube video

When I watched the video for the first time, this really struck a chord with me because what he’s referring to are essentially status symbols – the labels we place upon ourselves to signal to others where we land in the social hierarchy.

But here’s the issue with status symbols. If you grabbed a hundred people from different classes and different countries and placed them on a deserted island, none of those symbols would matter.

No one would lose their sense of self, though. Carol would still be Carol. Rick would still be Rick, he just wouldn’t have a yacht to drink champagne on.

This serves to demonstrate that you are not your social status. You are not the school you went to, the apartment you own, or the expensive dog you go to the park with.

“Alright then. Who am I then? I suppose I could be my beliefs, principles, and opinions?”

Nope, you’re not that, either. Why?

One word: fluidity. I used to have opinions at seventeen I no longer subscribe to. The older I get, the more some of my beliefs shift, and my actions reflect that change.

But I am still me, just as I was me seven years ago.

“Okay, maybe I’m the summary of my memories and experiences then!”

If I took all your memories, would you stop existing? No. You’d still be you, you just wouldn’t remember your previous life. But that core of thinking, feeling, and experiencing would remain.

To sum it up, you’re NOT:

  • Your social status and the material possessions you surround yourself with
  • Your opinions, beliefs, and values
  • Your experiences, skills, and memories

… that doesn’t leave us with much, does it?

You’d be surprised. What follows is a list of 6 psychological answers to the perplexing question of “Who am I?”

1) You are the sum of Id, ego, and superego

Starting off with one of the most famous psychological concepts, Sigmund Freud’s (1856-1939) personality theory revolves around three hypothetical parts of the human mind:

  • Id: A part of the unconscious mind that’s instinctive and primitive – this is where all your impulses and urges hide, including the libido, which is a sexual energy that drives your subconscious motivations
  • Superego: Your moral compass – this is the unconscious part of your mind that has incorporated societal rules and values through parental teaching, turning into a “judge” that tells you what’s right and wrong
  • Ego: The fully conscious part that makes decisions in the external world, thinks conscious thoughts, and acts relatively reasonably (as opposed to the id, which is chaotic)

In a sense, the id is the devil on your shoulder while the superego is the angel, and the ego is your conscious self, listening to both.

What this tells us about who you are is that your most primary urges and motivations are largely hidden in the subconscious.

On a conscious level, there is only so much you can know about yourself, which is why so many of us cling to labels that let us position ourselves somewhere on the social hierarchy. We want to be *someone*, no matter how meaningless those labels are in the grand scheme of things.

2) You are part of a collective unconscious

Another famous psychologist, Carl Jung (1875-1961), worked with Freud for a long time before splitting from him and creating his own psychological theories – including the collective unconscious.

You see, while Freud believed that the unconscious mind was primarily affected by one’s personal experiences in life (especially during childhood) and was largely sexual in nature, Jung thought that there was such a thing as the collective unconsciousness of humanity.

According to him, this unconsciousness binds us all together through cultural symbols and images called “archetypes”.

One such archetype is a “shadow”, which comprises dark and immoral aspects of one’s psyche, while another is a “hero” who goes on an epic journey to fight evil and come out victorious. Archetypes such as these are hidden deep within everyone’s subconsciousness.

I know, I know. It sounds quite far-fetched, doesn’t it?

Consider this, though. If you look at fairytales from all cultures around the world, you’ll find the same narrative structures, mythological imagery, and concepts (I studied this at university; it’s super fascinating).

There is always a rags-to-riches story. There is always a hero. There is always a witch. There is always a choice between two forks in the road, a battle between good and evil, a juxtaposition of opposite forces. I could go on and on.

What this tells us about who *you* are is that contrary to what you might believe, you are not a unique being that is completely cut off from everything else.

You are not a special snowflake.

You are part of the snow, which is part of the whole sky. And it is in the subconscious mind where you can explore this connection to other beings in more depth, for example through art.

3) You are aware beyond thought

Let’s get a little bit more spiritual, shall we?

In his book The Power of Now, the spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle (1948) explains how he once discovered he was made up of two versions of “I”.

He writes:

“’I cannot live with myself any longer.’ This was the thought that kept repeating itself in my mind. Then suddenly I became aware of what a peculiar thought it was. ‘Am I one or two? If I cannot live with myself, there must be two of me: the ‘I’ and the ‘self’ that ‘I’ cannot live with. ‘Maybe,’ I thought, ‘only one of them is real.’”

Tolle realized that the thinking part of his mind – the conscious ego, as Freud would put it – was but a front to a real sense of self, which is the thoughtless awareness beyond, the state of mind you can reach during meditation or mindfulness, the sheer *experience* of life as it is with no judgment placed upon it.

When I read his book, it immediately reminded me of Jung’s collective unconscious. “Is it possible,” I contemplated, “that we’re all ‘plugged’ into an overarching consciousness, and our real sense of self is beyond all active thought?”

It is a known fact that mindfulness and meditation reduce stress and increase well-being. But as someone who meditates regularly, I also know that meditation isn’t helpful only on a physiological level – when I zero in on my breath and focus on the passing moment of Now, I feel more like *myself* than in any other situation.

I feel at peace. I feel one with all. And maybe that’s where the answer to “Who am I?” lies: in the simple experience of life as it is, with little to no ego getting in the way.

4) You are your main purpose in life

Alright, let’s leave the spiritual plane, come back to planet Earth, and talk about one of my favorite psychologists: Viktor E. Frankl. Frankl (1905-1997) is known for his book Man’s Search for Meaning, as well as this famous quote:

“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

Inspiring, isn’t it?

And there’s more where that came from.

Created in the 1930s, Frankl’s logotherapy is all about finding your purpose in life. Where Freud saw a sexual drive, Frankl saw an existential one. According to him, it is not our subconscious sexual energy that motivates us – it is our desire to have meaning.

It doesn’t matter what clothes you wear, what country you were born in, or what your name is. All that matters is whether you’ve found your purpose or not because that purpose is the very core of who you are.

That’s something I can get on board with.

This theory isn’t unlike the Japanese concept of Ikigai, which is all about finding what makes you feel alive and useful, and devoting as much time to it as you can. The moment you discover your “reason for being” as it were – for example, I know that mine is writing – is the moment you get in touch with your authentic self and are able to thrive.

5) You’re an actor on the stage of life

Knowing your purpose is one thing, but the way you present yourself in front of others is another story entirely.

This brings us to the sociologist Erving Goffman (1922-1982) and his influential book The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life.

Remember when we spoke about social symbols? Yeah, that comes in handy now.

Goffman said that “we are all just actors trying to control and manage our public image, we act based on how others might see us.” He referred to social interaction as a type of performance – in one way or another, we’re all wearing masks.

It sounds a bit depressing, but there is a way to use this theory to our advantage. To a degree, it’s completely normal to act differently based on the setting and the people around you – for example, you wouldn’t treat a coworker the same way you treat your best friend.

This means that the “mask” you put on allows you to navigate social situations with ease, creating connections with others in a safe, respectful, and predictable way.

But balance is everything. If you pretend more often than you reveal your authentic self, you might stray too far from your purpose and true personality, feeling like a fraud or an empty shell of yourself.

The shaman Rudá Iandé points out exactly that in his free masterclass Free Your Mind. He says that every time you mold yourself to fit social expectations, you get more distant from your true nature.

When I watched the masterclass, I couldn’t help but nod along to everything Iandé said. His teachings were truly eye-opening not only when it comes to one’s identity but also the way we let ourselves access the life force inside us and channel it.

You can watch the free masterclass here.

6) You are a work in progress

We tend to think of our identity as something solid. You are your name, your personality, your career goals, or your nationality. You are a collection of labels that summarize your existence into something tangible, something others can comprehend.

But psychological research claims otherwise. In fact, there is a psychological concept known as The Fluid Self, which says that one’s self is always in a state of flux. You are never one and the same. Just like a river, you keep on flowing forward and changing with each passing wave.

In his article on Ideapod, Nathan Dennis quotes the psychotherapist Mel Schwartz:

“Our identity should be seen as an ongoing process. Rather than a static snapshot, we should embrace a flowing sense of self, whereby we are perpetually re-framing, re-organizing, re-thinking and re-considering ourselves.”

And that is perhaps the most important piece of information you should take away from this post. You are not any label that you place upon yourself because those labels can change and disappear, and while that loss may shake you, it won’t mean you’ve lost your sense of self.

Because who you are can’t be written down in a few simple phrases. It can’t be caught and preserved in a bottle. The best analogy I can think of is a quote by Alan Watts that Justin Brown mentions in his video:

YouTube video

“You cannot understand life and its mysteries as long as you try to grasp it. Indeed, you cannot grasp it, just as you cannot walk off with a river in a bucket. If you try to capture running water in a bucket, it is clear that you do not understand and that you’ll always be disappointed, for in the bucket the water does not run. To have running water, you must let go of it and let it run.”

The same logic applies to your identity. Stop clinging onto labels and preconceived notions of yourself as if they mattered so damn much. They don’t.

Let go. Let yourself flow.

“Who am I?” 6 Psychological answers: Summary

Let’s recap, shall we?

  1. You are more complex than you give yourself credit for. Your sense of self cannot be put into a box. It cannot be described by simple definitions. You are so much more than your social role, your material possessions, or even your beliefs about the world.
  2. A great deal about who you are is hidden from view. There are many different motivations that drive your behavior on a subconscious level, affecting your choices and thoughts on a daily basis. Therapy, self-reflection, and getting in touch with yourself on an emotional level can help you a lot when it comes to discovering these motivations and impulses.
  3. You are not a separate entity that’s fully independent from everything else. Your preconceived notions of the world – such as the “archetypes” that naturally exist in your mind – connect you to the rest of humanity on an unconscious level. This can be useful when it comes to exploring intergenerational traumas and family legacies. How have your parents’ lives and lineage affected your own perception of yourself?
  4. Finding your purpose in life is one of the most important things you’ll ever do. Once you find it, don’t give up on it. It’s what will give you a sense of meaning and what will ultimately establish who you are deep inside.
  5. It’s okay to change your behavior based on social circumstances – your social identity is but a part of who you are overall – but be mindful of how far you let yourself stray from your authentic core. Look for friends who make you feel comfortable in your own skin and with whom putting on a “mask” seems unnecessary.
  6. Recognize that your identity isn’t set in stone. You are always evolving, growing, and shifting. The only thing that remains the same is your human experience of the world.

…which brings us to the last answer to “Who am I?”

Once we strip away all the layers – your social identity, your subconscious motivations, even your meaning – we are left with but one thing.

Awareness. You are a human being experiencing the world in its beauty and cruelty, feeling, observing, breathing, existing.

You aren’t here to prove anything to anyone. You don’t need to shroud yourself in labels or external achievements. You simply need to exist, and that is enough.

That’s who you are. Someone who gets to exist. How freaking wonderful is that?

Struggling to Love Yourself? This Quiz Reveals Why and Shows You How

Do you sometimes feel unworthy, flawed, or not good enough? Like you’ll never measure up no matter how hard you try?

Most of us grapple with self-doubt and low self-esteem at times. And when we don’t love ourselves, it permeates everything – our relationships, our work, our inner peace.

But why is self-acceptance so hard? And how can we move from self-judgment to self-love?

That’s what this illuminating quiz dives into. It’s designed to uncover the specific barriers holding you back from embracing who you really are.

In just a few minutes, you’ll gain priceless insight into:

  • The root insecurities driving your self-criticism
  • How past emotional wounds shaped your self-perception
  • Ways you unconsciously sabotage your happiness

With this valuable self-knowledge, you’ll be equipped to start the healing process and develop true self-love.

Stop feeling plagued by not being enough. Take the quiz now to pinpoint what’s distorting your self-image so you can reclaim your sense of self-worth.

The first step is bringing awareness to the problem. The solution will follow.

Take the quiz now.

 

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