What am I? Who am I? Such philosophical questions have been posed time and time again, sometimes by others, sometimes by ourselves. We are experts at grappling with the complexity and magnitude of the human psyche, seeking understanding both in the larger sense of a world shared with over seven billion people and within the boundless boundaries of our own minds. What now deepens the sense of intricacy surrounding a statement exploring identity is the age in which we live.
The many layers of modern life have altered how we interact with society and, most importantly, how we interact with ourselves. Where once the necessity of self-perception and personal identity was debatable, nowadays we are automatically expected to know how to reduce what we are into one hundred and sixty characters. Personal identity has stepped beyond the innermost connection that we have with ourselves and into transforming what we are into digestible quotes, sticking labels on top of them, so that strangers scrolling past our faces might spare a second to judge our knowledge of ourselves.
Growing up as part of a generation that has been dubbed ‘iGen’ (short for iGeneration), the name itself representative of the technology we have become tied to, I have found myself juxtaposed with emphasising my own individuality and creating an altered version of myself. The very nature of our teenage years is to grow and learn and, in many ways, to become someone else that we were not at the start of adolescence. It is what makes the stepping stones to adulthood interesting and terrifying in equal measures. However, our digital lives demand something other of our teenage years. Online, we are expected to know what we are and to be able to communicate that effectively—or, alternatively, lie about it effectively. Though this would hardly have been the intention behind Michel Foucault’s introspective declaration, the internet certainly does offer up the perfect opportunity to become someone else, even if that someone else purely exists in pixelated form. With this separation between our online and real-life selves, the concept of identity and self has become even harder to grasp.
Nonetheless, the reality of modern life means it is impossible to ignore this second world that lives beneath our fingertips and inside of our screens. We are stuck treading a fine line between allowing technology to enrich our lives and allowing it to consume us. It is all too easy to lose sight of ourselves when the vast landscape of social media has meant that personal identity has become something less for the individual and more for other people, something that we are encouraged to broadcast to the world rather than reclaim for ourselves. In a time of ever-increasing media consumption, what is important is that we each begin to find a balance between knowing exactly what we are and opening ourselves up to self-growth—becoming the ‘someone else’ that Foucault suggests—while simultaneously appreciating the self we are now.
This is not to say that the internet’s habit of telling us to know exactly what we are must be inherently poisoned by negativity. My own personal experience has taught me that being encouraged to recognise what I am can be empowering.
Despite being born with a rare form of muscular dystrophy, I spent years being afraid of connecting with that part of my identity. The pervasive nature of ableism made me wish that I could become someone else and be more like my able-bodied classmates. The stigma attached to disability taught me that being disabled was perceived as ‘less than’ and that, rather than taking pride in my identity and who it made me, I should do my best to hide it, conforming instead to an ableist society.
It was not until I acquired a new, more debilitating chronic illness and transformed into a different version of myself that I learnt to embrace my identity as a disabled person and began dismantling the internalised ableism that society’s perception of disability had taught me. I had not foreseen suddenly becoming someone else at that point in my life and I had not expected that new version to be a sicker, perpetually fatigued one, but nevertheless my chronic illness has significantly shifted my relationship with myself and my identity. It is strange to say that in this particular aspect of my life it has had a positive effect on me. In becoming someone else, I also learnt how to know exactly what I am.
A large part of my journey to feeling empowered within my identity occurred due to the online disabled community. For all the negative things there are to say about it, the internet has given me a space to educate myself and to become unafraid in saying that I am disabled. My life has been enhanced by being able to own my identity.
This does not negate how interesting it can be to become someone else. Self-growth is a central part of life and we each are on our own journeys when it comes to changing into someone we were not in the beginning. For me personally, the work I do through writing allows me to become someone else every day, stepping into the shoes of characters who live rent-free in my head, while also giving me the tools to messily pick apart what I am and the relationship I have with myself. It offers both a form of escapism and the space for growth, allowing me to explore different realities and state of minds, engaging with both the past and present.
At the same time, as valuable as self-growth is, it is also key that we are comfortable with the versions of ourselves that we are in the here and now, rather than continually wishing we were someone else.
There is no wrong or right answer when it comes to who we are and how we relate to that fact. You do not have to know exactly what you are, nor does your main interest have to be becoming someone else, though it is important that we do not deny ourselves the space to grow. When it comes down to it, our focus as individuals should be exactly that: individual.
To me, it feels necessary to know what I am. There is power in being able to know it without fear.