Episode 9: Identity, approval, and the downside of dreams

To start, I don’t actually think dreaming actually has a downside. So perhaps my title was 50% clickbait. But, I do think that dreams get an awful lot of hype around this time of year, especially in the online world. You may have noticed I haven’t posted in a quite some time. It isn’t that I suddenly ran out of things to say (that’s laughable). I think the reality is that I needed a break from the online world. Still do, in fact. Social media has a way of wrapping me around its fingers, and honestly I’m still learning how to resist its gravitational pull.

Recently I deleted my Instagram account because I noticed it was doing me more harm than good. My fingers load and re-load the same images, but it does absolutely nothing for me. It may be compounded by the time of year, with Christmas it felt like all I was looking at was ads for things I didn’t want or need. Following that was the onslaught of images selling me the ‘perfect’ resolution for the New Year. Its like if you aren’t doing Whole 30, or going Paleo, or starving yourself on a juice cleanse you probably aren’t doing the New Year right. Anyways the really scary thing was that despite being angered, unimpressed, and genuinely bored by what I kept seeing on social media I continued to look. The addictive nature of it kept drawing me back and wasting my time. But then I found myself less secure, less happy, and much less confident in my life choices than I had been before the holidays. (Hence, my break from the ‘gram. Confidence is everything, people).

But this whole experience got me wondering why I seem to feel the negative affects of social media so much more potently in this time of my life than I ever did before. A time in my life, when, as most of you know I am working alone, self-employed, and self-motivated most days. Basically I’m my own cheerleader (you could also say boss but that doesn’t sound as fun). So it got me wondering why consistently staring at the virtual lives of my friends, strangers, ‘inspos’, and advisements of products was making it really hard for me to pick up my pom-poms and cheer for myself. This thought spiral led to a conversation with a friend about filling our minds with images of what we think we should be, rather than just being ourselves. Now, perhaps staring at images of what you think you should be has no effect on you, but to that I would call bullshit.

Because the reality is that most of us are still working out this whole “identity” thing. And if you haven’t got that sorted, then looking at consistent images of everything you could be, should be, or might be is enough to make even the most confident person second-guess themselves. To me it’s relatively easy to spot. There is a vast difference between someone who is truly at peace with themselves, and someone who is still working to gain definition from their identity. Someone who falls into the latter category is likely trying to piece together his or her identity from “The Big 3”

  1. What they do
  2. What they have
  3. What people think about them

The Big Three is a term I heard while listening to a podcast about identity the other day, and it stuck with me. It’s a nice little summary for the three most common ways we create false identities. Here’s how you tell they are false identities: all three of them depend on something external in order to satisfy you. Your identity is always coming from somewhere else. Merriam Webster defines identity as, “the distinguishing character or personality of an individual.” Yet most of us are not searching for a distinguishing character or personality trait, instead we’re looking for things outside of ourselves. Ironically enough, we’re ussually searching for identity markers that allow us to slip seamlessly into the cultural status quo. This podcast (by the way is amazing, give it a listen. I got the Big 3 term from  episode 10) then went on to describe how if your identity is coming from outside of yourself, then you always have to fight for it. You always have to defend it.

Have you ever heard the term “emotionally exhausted?” That’s what came to mind when I imagine defending one’s identity everyday. How emotionally exhausting would it be to be in a constant fight for the very things that you believe make up who you are?

So when do you fight for your identity? Probably after you feel someone or something has attacked it. In the podcast they say the 2 positions we take in order to defend our identity are either:

  1. self-promoting
  2. self-protecting

I’ll just let those sit there for a minute…

 

Think of all of the subtle little ways you engage in one (or both) of these tendencies on a regular basis. (I’m not trying to point fingers, but this hit me so hard)! Consider the daily cravings for approval we all face, for starters. To go back to social media for a second – how many images do you post because you crave the response? So give this a little thought, like I did.

Every time I find myself promoting myself, or trying to hide and withdrawal from life, what I’m really doing is reacting to a perceived attack on my identity. If I am reacting to a perceived attack on my identify, then it means I am drawing that identity from something outside of myself. If I am drawing from something outside of myself, that means I am not yet fully operating within my true identity.

Bam.

Ugh. And here I was thinking I was so self-aware.

Here is how my brain went from pondering the affects of social media on my productivity into a discussion on true identity. It wasn’t until I stepped out of what you could call the “normal” realm of the workforce for the solo, self-employed route that I began to see this massive void and longing for other’s approval in my life. (PSA. I’m going to be very real in this piece). The “what they do” false identity was/ still is at times huge for me. When I first started identifying myself as a writer and shouting my dreams from the (virtual) rooftops, I suddenly felt the uncontrollable urge to tell people just how busy I was. To explain how many things I juggled in each day. To justify how hard I worked. The reality is that some days I never leave my leggings and slippers. My hair is up in a greasy, coconut-oiled mess. My longest stint away from my laptop is my workout. And often I stay at home to work because frankly  coffee shops can be more distracting than they are inspirational. (I’m going to be exiled from all hipster circles with that comment but hey, I’m being real). The reality is my life is not glamorous, cute, or even very social at the moment. Yet, I still felt this pressing need for people to be impressed by what I do. I can get hung up on the hope that others will perceive me as a hardworking, productive, on–my-way-to-the-top self-employed 24 year old. I care, a lot. For me, the “what I do” fake identity is super strongly linked into the “what people think about me” one.

So, I deleted Instagram. I deleted Facebook. And briefly afterwards I felt kind of invisible. But, in that invisibility I finally recognized my cyclic cravings for approval. As I noticed those cravings, I also began to realize that they were impossible to meet.

Here’s why. All of my “identity cravings” would only be satisfied when others could tangibly see my accomplishments. For example, last spring my family made an obnoxiously big deal out of my university graduation. I won’t lie, I loved it. It marked this season of time in my life that up until convocation felt relatively unnoticed. There is nothing wrong with celebrating, please don’t misunderstand me. Trust me, I LOVE celebrating things (just ask any of my friends about my birthday month). My point is that I didn’t feel internally accomplished by my graduation until others externally validated it. Thinking back, I didn’t really care that I survived post-secondary. I certainly didn’t pat myself on the back. I didn’t identify myself as a graduate in any way until those around me did. Now, there’s probably a lot more psycho-analysis I could do on myself for that statement.

But my point is this: there are lots of dreams we are all waiting on. If your identity is linked to the achievement of those dreams then you can never hope to experience peace or joy in the interim.

You are always waiting. (I know I wrote an entire post about the beauty of waiting, but I didn’t mean you should literally wait forever).

So how do dreams factor into all of this? The start of 2018 was one of the most exciting New Years in a while for me. Mostly because for the first time in a long time I feel like I’m dreaming again. I have goals for this year that I can write down on a piece of paper: measurable, real, tangible goals. I have dreams that I fully intend to make real. I think it was a week or so into 2018 that I felt like God was challenging my picture of dreams. (Ironic, since I’ve been writing so much about them).

My profound realization was simply this: life isn’t to be lived only on the mountaintops. Not only is it impossible, if every second of your life is bliss then you’re probably living in a serious level of unreality. But the big issue I see happening (and magnified by social media) is the idolization of dreams. We hold them up as the epitome of identity and success and achievement and say that if you aren’t on a mountaintop now then you better get there real damn quick. And if you don’t have a mountain in sight to climb then boo on you, you aren’t in touch with yourself. It’s as if we shame anyone who isn’t living a real life! That is so ridiculous! You can’t be living in a dream! You can be focused on a dream, working towards a dream, or celebrating a dream come true. But you cannot live 100% of your life on whatever that mountaintop is, no matter how stunning the view.

I’ve heard it said that God is as much the God of the mountaintops as he is the valleys. Your life is just as important when it feels mundane and mindless as when you’re riding that high from your promotion, revelling in your new relationship status, or on your epic backpacking trip through South America. My identity is the same, regardless of whether not the books I write ever get published. It is the same if 1000 people read this blog, or if 1 person skims over it. It is the same. I am still me, regardless of my perceived successes or failures. My identity cannot depend on my dreams, because dreams are fluid. If you can 100% predict what your “dream” will look like and when it will come to pass I would probably call that a goal, not a dream. Dreams are like unfinished blueprints. There is always room for more improvement, more growth, and more beauty. They usually turn out 1000 times more magnificent than we can imagine at the start.

I see it this way: new parents don’t sit around wishing their boring newborn would grow up faster. They don’t ignore the day-to-day moments, twiddling their thumbs and saying things like, “Omg I can’t wait until this kid is 2 years old! THEN we will have something to celebrate!” or, “Wow this baby will be SO IMPRESSIVE once it can walk!” Are you kidding me?? Have you ever been around new parents? They celebrate when their baby sticks their tongue out, or ever so slightly turns their own neck, or breathes, or poops, makes any facial expression remotely resembling a smile! They celebrate every freaking second of that newborn baby’s life. They celebrate the most mundane parts of being human that anyone could ever celebrate. That is how God sees us. And that, I think, is how He wishes we would see ourselves. *(Don’t literally cheer for yourself the next time you properly use your neck to turn your own head). But DO celebrate the little moments of everyday life. At the risk of sounding like a very aesthetic calligraphy sign that millennial girls hang on their walls: celebrate the little things.

This year I caught myself living for the dreams rather than enjoying the process of dreaming. Yes, I want to be a published author. But there is a lot of life I have to experience between now and then. If my identity is dependent on my career success, then I have an unknown number of unsatisfied months or years ahead of me. What a waste of life! What a waste of joy! What a waste of dreaming.

So bear with me here. I’m going to go on a small tangent in order to paint a picture of why and when dreams are important. (Because they are very important. I’m still a superfan of dreaming, by the way).

Growing, up my family went camping a lot. Every camping trip our parents would usually let us kids try to light the campfire (at least once or twice) before stepping in to really get it going. Mostly we got to build the little kindling tipi or log cabin. The struggle was always getting it to light. If the wood was a bit damp, or you didn’t have any newspaper, or maybe you just messed up with the matches one too many times, then lighting that fire could be the most infuriating thing in the world. Enter: my dad. An important little detail about my dad is that I’m fairly certain he is a pyromaniac. He would always roll in after we had spent an exorbitant number of minutes laboring over our little wooden tipi, with still no sparks to be had. Frustration would set it. But in our moments of disappointment, as if on cue my dad would stroll in with his little canteen of gasoline. His eyes would light up and we’d all scream, laugh and jump back as our pitiful little flames transformed into a raging bonfire.

The thing was, the gasoline always burnt out. Eventually, the fire would diminish and we could all move our camping chairs a little closer to the edge of the pit. The post- gasoline fire was always slightly less exciting, but it was sustainable. Once the fire was burning naturally (the wood finally caught and coals developed) that thing could go all night with only minimal tending.

Dreams are like gasoline on a fire.

They burn really quick and really hot. They come to you in your lowest moments of frustration. They are thrilling and mesmerizing and sometimes dangerous. They consume you entirely! They draw everyone’s eyes. They wash away your disappointments and fears, and they thrill you. But, they don’t sustain you. The wood and the coals are what keep that fire going. If all you have is gasoline you are doomed to a life of highs and lows. Your fire is not lasting very long; nor will it leave any lasting impact. Dreaming has its time and its place, but we’re not meant to live in the dream forever. Stoke your fire, but don’t get caught up chasing the biggest or brightest burn.

January is annoying to me because it seems that all I see is resolutions burning out. But as I’ve thought about it, I think it’s because the nature of our resolutions tend towards external validation. Loosing 10 lbs, for instance, can mean nothing to some people until it is recognized by those around them. So instead of bashing resolutions and dreaming, I think its better if we focus on the WHY and the WHERE. Why that goal? Why that dream? If it’s something that is rooted in a false identity, then it isn’t going to last you very long. Where is the desire for that dream coming from? Where is the root? If its driven by genuine parts of your heart then, yay! Go you! If its rooted in your perceived insignificance, a desire for others to pat you on the back, or for people to look at your life with envy, (be honest here) then it probably isn’t the dream for you.

It isn’t going to satisfy.

My dreams haven’t changed, but the way I see them is changing. They don’t define me, they don’t control me, and they won’t consume me.

 

Burn bright, people!