The following post is from my old column “Dear Ash.” Aspiring and new freelancers would submit their questions, and I’d answer them Agony-Aunt style.
I was filling out a form the other day and had an existential crisis from one of the questions.
It was super generic: “Tell us about yourself.” But after writing “My name is ***, I’m a…” I got stuck.
It got me thinking about labels, and who we identify as, and what happens when you don’t know who that is. Anything you say after ‘I am’ is, in one way or another, definitive.
For a while, I didn’t hesitate to put ‘writer.’ I wrote, therefore I was a writer. I’ve never really struggled with imposter syndrome in relation to this. It was always just something I just viewed as a fact, and it was comforting to have that identity to fall back on.
But in seeing myself as less of a writer during the past two years, it’s brought up this question of how are you meant to define yourself to others if you can’t do it for yourself?
I have some idea of who I’d like to be, but there’s nothing definite about that person either. She tries at everything. There’s a whole lot of emphasis on having everything figured out and having that one thing that makes you, you. But my whole thing for a while has been that I’m not certain about any of that. I’m not even sure I want to be certain about my ‘one thing.’
But of course, there are applications to fill in, so how does the person who wants ‘everything’ fill in that blank space?
Every 3 months or so, I routinely have a breakdown where I panic and ask myself: “Who the hell am I?”
Like you, I used to seize up whenever I was asked to answer the question: Tell me about yourself or Give us your bio.
I would stutter and stumble through my answer while thinking, “where the hell do I start?” And I’d leave thinking I was the most terribly boring person in the whole wide world.
As you can imagine, writing the About Page for my website was an exercise in torture that left me curled up in an anxious ball, weeping to my friends, “I don’t know who I am!! How do I condense all my life story, my values, and how I help people in a few freaking paragraphs??”
Like you, I’m someone who wants to be “all the things.” I couldn’t choose what ‘title’ or ‘occupation’ I wanted to be known for.
But here’s what I’ve learnt-
The statement “I am..” isn’t definitive. You’re allowed to change and grow. In fact, you will change and grow.
Three years ago, I wouldn’t have said “I am a writer.” I would have said, “I am a law student.” I didn’t have your confidence back then. I was too scared to claim ‘writer’ for myself if I didn’t have a published book or a ‘legit qualification.’ Now I know that’s bullshit. If you write, you’re a writer. If you cook at home, you’re still a cook.
Even now that I know I’m a writer, my ‘I am’ statement has evolved as I’ve explored different niches and fields. I used to be a ‘content writer’, but shifted into a ‘website copywriter’ late last year. Now, I’m shifting once again into ‘web & launch copywriter.’
See how we adapt and grow?
Here’s the thing: we’re multi-faceted. We aren’t supposed to be confined in one box or have just ‘one thing’. The reason ‘labels’ exist is to help our brains process all the information that’s flung our way every second. We like our ‘world’ to be ordered and certain – we need it to compartmentalize situations and behaviours – so we place ourselves and other people in boxes.
Most of the time, we fall into the trap of believing we have to stay in the box we (or other people) have placed us in. I used to think that since I went to law school, I had no choice but to become a lawyer. I didn’t recognise I was so much more than what I studied or what my career choice was.
You can be known for ‘one thing,’ just like how a restaurant may be famous for its deliciously fluffy buttermilk pancakes. But you don’t have to be ‘one thing.’
Right now, I’m not just a writer. I’m also a daughter. A sister. A student (of life). A girlfriend.
As I go through life, the words after “I am” will continue to change. One day, I may fill that blank space with the words: A fiancee. A wife. A mother. Who knows, I may even put “stand up comedian!” (I’m just kidding – standing on a stage while people laugh at me is my worst nightmare).
You may have once identified as a writer. But you are so much more than that. You are someone’s favourite person to be around. You are someone’s reason to get up in the morning. You are someone’s cheerleader, rock, inspiration, and on and on it goes.
That’s what makes being human so wonderfully complex and beautiful. If we were to be reduced to ‘one thing’ for the rest of our life, we’d be nothing more than cold, steel robots whose only purpose is to complete one function.
So, how do you fill in that blank space that follows “I am…?”
Practically speaking, you write down what makes sense in the context of the question. If you’re filling out a job application, writing a cover letter, or pitching yourself for a project, you’d probably write down what you do, like: “I’m a writer” or “I’m a student.”
If you’re talking to friends, on a first date, or introducing yourself to someone new, you can say “I am someone who loves…” or “I’m am someone who helps…”
If you’re talking to yourself and wrestling with this question, I find it helpful to write down what’s true about myself in the moment. I used to jot down all the random and quirky things I discovered about myself as I was ‘doing life.’ It’s filled with statements like:
“I am someone who likes lattes with one sugar.”
“I am someone who orders poached eggs for breakfast.”
“I am a blogger.”
“I am someone who binge-watches crime thrillers.” (Not anymore – my anxiety can’t handle it).
Lastly, I’ll leave you with this. You don’t have to know who you are right now. Take that pressure off yourself to have everything figured out by 20, 25, or 30. I know so many people in their late 30s, 40s, and 50s who are still learning something new about themselves every single day. Life’s much more fun that way.
Enjoyed this post? Get first dibs on my personal essays, stories, and occasional advice on launching courses delivered straight to your inbox.