I have always thought that I don’t have any real identity issues. Now I’m thinking otherwise.
I don’t like being placed into boxes of identity. Or so I thought until yesterday, when things I said in my session with my therapist—who I’m seeing to find ways to deal with anxiety— made me wonder.
I was telling her how I’ve been struggling with myself this year to calm down rising anxieties that I need to get everything done in a day: my work, my sport, and my house-related errands. These anxieties are not why I decided to see a therapist. I have much more complicated things happening in my life. But I’ve found it surprising how these seemingly unimportant things, things I know I can put off if I need or want to, are making me feel anxious. I know that the world won’t end if I don’t do that run today. So why is there something inside of me telling me that it absolutely will end?
My therapist said something about how I might be using my activities, such as work or sport, to displace my real feelings about other things happening in life.
What she said made me look back at various phases in my life.
I started thinking out loud:
When I was young, I was almost obsessive about my academic performance.
When I was a young mother, I was almost obsessive about being the perfect mother.
When I started my career, I became almost obsessive about being the best at what I do.
When I got into sport, I gradually became more and more obsessive about doing my training and feeling that it was important that I got stronger and faster. Even though I know I’ll never be fast compared to other athletes, I still obsess at some level over the need to become better.
During each of those phases, there were real problems happening in my life. Like real trauma-inducing, therapy-worthy problems. It is quite possible that my way of dealing with those problems was to internalize them and to focus all my energies instead on keeping busy with something else. Keeping busy isn’t a bad thing, of course. Working and being able to achieve are good things. So many of the things I do allow me to focus my energies on positive things instead of dwelling on the negative. If I’m feeling bad, sport does a whole lot of good in terms of releasing feel-good hormones that help to keep me sane.
But how healthy can any of these things be if, despite their relative unimportance sometimes, I prioritize them over my own mental well-being?
It’s complicated. I’m still figuring it out.
But my talk yesterday with my therapist made me think about the reasons that make me obsess over trying to reach a hypothetical perfection that in many cases isn’t important at all.
And so I’m wondering about identity.
Do I sometimes obsess over things because these things give me a sense of belonging and community? Or because these things even give me a sense of superiority, perhaps?
I might detest being placed into a box of: She’s Egyptian. Or she’s Muslim. Or she’s a conservative Muslim. Or she’s a liberal Muslim. Depending on who is on the other end, I have been considered both and more. I’m human, I’ll say. Don’t put me into your boxes.
Even so, I spent a large phase in my life focusing on trying to be the best I could possibly be as a science journalist/writer. Again, not a bad thing. But what effects did that have on me and what were my intentions behind it? The same questions can be applied to my sport training.
I’m wondering if, in all actuality, I have a really intense need to belong. I needed to belong to the science journalism community. I need to belong to the sports community. Not only do I need to belong, but I need to stand out among them.
My therapist asked me: What do you tell yourself when you’re considering not going on a run on a particular day because you just don’t feel like it?
My responses were: I’ll lose fitness. I won’t get faster. I won’t get stronger. I want to be fit. When I stop training it’s really hard to get back into it and I don’t want to have to deal with how difficult that can be. I gain real benefits from sport because it helps me deal with my anxiety. It makes me feel good once I’ve done it.
But since that session, I’ve been wondering if my real answer is: Who am I if I’m not, for example, Nadia who, compared to other Egyptian women her age, excels at sport and can shovel out bucket-loads of wisdom to her contemporaries about all the great things sport can do to change your life? Who am I if I’m not the Nadia who people will often look at and comment on how fit I look? Who would I be if I didn’t look as fit as I do now?
What would happen if I decided to live a different lifestyle that doesn’t involve obsessing over daily workouts? My answer, I discover with a feeling of dread and fear in my heart, is that I would lose my place in Egyptian society as someone who is special; someone who stands out.
And if I don’t stand out as a science journalist, or as a mother, or as an athlete, or as a blogger, or as a user of social media, then who am I? What is my place in this world?
And this brings me to ask myself: Why do I so need to “have a place in this world”? Why can’t I just be?
There must be a certain degree of narcissism in all this. A certain degree of narcissism must need to exist for people to succeed and excel at what they do. But at what cost to self? When do we stop and tell ourselves: turn down the narcissism a notch, turn down the obsession, the need to achieve, and the need to stand out because it’s adding to your anxiety?
I’m wondering about identity. Who am I if I’m not known for things I achieve or do? Where are my “people” if I don’t belong to a group that I can stand out in?
Are those boxes that I detest actually really important to me?
I’m starting to think they are.
Thoughts that are to be continued…
Post-publish addition: Or is it…IS IT…that I worry about not being seen? That I worry that if I don’t excel, if I don’t stand out, if I don’t push myself in one field or another, that I will become invisible. The mere thought of being invisible puts absolute horror in my heart.