“How do we re-define ourselves before we have had a chance to define ourselves even a first time?” -Katie
When our world feels flipped upside-down and turned inside-out, we often have to negotiate existential questions. Who am I now? Who do I want to be? Here we describe how we stay true to ourselves and draw strength from within to adapt to our changing circumstances.
Advice from Health Care Providers
Self and identity
“Who am I now?” is a common question that young adults living with advanced illness ask themselves. How you answer it is up to you, because nobody else has a right to define who you are. You might find that you are also changing your definitions of other things, like “what success looks like” or “what I truly value.” Maybe “success” means getting out of bed and doing one thing with your day. What you “value” might be the important people and relationships in your life.
After everything you’ve been through, you might feel like a different person than you were before. How could something so significant not be life-changing in some way? Your own self-identity has likely evolved in one way or another. There may be a part of you longing for things to go back to how they were before. Maybe you have experienced changes to your body as a result of surgery or treatment. Adjusting to these changes is difficult. There may be another part of you that likes the person that you have become. There may be yet another part that feels confused and lost in this whole process. It’s entirely possible that you are feeling all of these things at different times, or even at the same time!
You might be struggling with self-esteem and body image. Adolescents and young adults with advanced illness can feel so much pressure to feel positive (from others and yourself) that sometimes it feels wrong to feel down or upset. It is perfectly understandable (and expected) to have shitty days. You don’t want every day to be like that, but humans aren’t supposed to be super positive all of the time. Try to be patient and compassionate towards yourself.
There are likely parts of your identity from pre-diagnosis that you want to carry with you as you move forward. There may also be parts of yourself or certain relationships and values that you want to leave behind. That’s OK. It’s your choice and a very personal decision.
You might find that others have labels for you like “warrior,” “fighter,” “survivor,” “hero,” “brave,” or “courageous.” If these make sense and fit for you, that’s great, but you might find these labels either don’t fit or are actually unhelpful to you. There is no right or wrong, and while some find these helpful, others find other ways to describe themselves. You might reject all labels because nothing can capture all the complex things that make-up who you are.
Figuring out who you are now, and who you want to be, takes time. It is not a one-time event, and it is part of being human to change and develop over time and with different life experiences. There is, however, that inner core of you that is always with you and always will be.