I think if we were asked to define ourselves, most of us would have an answer already. We’d say- I’m a dancer, I’m a mom, I’m a writer. We’d tell them our job, where we live, what kind of car we drive. We’d tell them what has happened to us and what we’ve made happen to others. We’d tell them which sports teams we like, what college we went to, if we like vanilla or chocolate. And somewhere amongst this long list of labels, we’d find something to connect over, and be forever imprinted in their mind as a Yankees fan or Prius driver or stay-at-home-mom.
But who were we before we collected these titles? We weren’t born holding the keys to the house that makes us a homeowner, or the job that makes us an employee. We were born simply as we are, without notion of names or labels or lists. And if someone were to ask us to define ourselves without using a single title that has been given to us, what would we say? We could no longer be “the smart one”, or “the funny one”. We couldn’t be the class clown or the teacher’s pet.
I remember being very young and having everyone tell me how much I loved chocolate. Now, don’t get me wrong, I, like most other young kids, did like chocolate. It was sugary and messy and inoffensive. But everyone around me seemed to think I liked it a lot more than I really did. I got the label of “chocoholic”, and was given gifts of expensive cocoa desserts on every holiday. My dad made me my first email in fifth grade, proudly making me the “queenofchocolate”. And since everyone around me labeled me as a connoisseur of chocolate, I just went right along with it.
Here’s the thing- I don’t even really like chocolate. I don’t even have a sweet tooth, to be honest. I can get halfway through a mango and get that overwhelming sugar-mouth that most people get after a few fistfulls of cotton candy. But for the entire duration of my childhood, I was that kid who “loved” chocolate. And I ate it, despite the fact that dairy certainly isn’t my friend and milk chocolate didn’t do my stomach any favors.
Why was I so eager to go along with this sugary ruse? Because it gave me a title. A place. I was recognized for something, no matter how insignificant, and that felt good. That still feels good, to everyone, no matter your age. Having a place in this world is the only thing that keeps us from feeling alone, and that’s why we so often work it into conversation. How often have you heard, “As a mother…” or “As a student…”? We use it to justify our opinions, our right to speak. We feel as though we have to validate who we are and that we have a right to be where we are in order to belong.
That’s not to say that I don’t carry some labels myself, and that they don’t bring any value to my life whatsoever. I’m a yogi. I’m a teacher. I’m a student. I’m a hiker. All these bring me closer to a community of people who share similar values to myself, and feel true to who I am. But I also carry others that don’t quite fill that kind of purpose. I’m the small one. I’m the young one. I’m the one who doesn’t struggle for money. I’m the one with a car from my parents. I’m “the smart one”. Those aren’t ones I’ve embraced as pieces of me- they’re ones that have been plastered on me over the years like big neon signs and carry a laundry list of connotations. Your parents bought you a car? You must be spoiled. You get straight A’s? You must just be naturally smart. Your family doesn’t have to struggle to make ends meet? You must have a poor work ethic.
We’ve all jumped to these conclusions before, but that doesn’t make them right. I may not have had to pay for my car, but that doesn’t mean I’m not extremely grateful for it or that I don’t pay for my own gas. I may have good grades, but that doesn’t mean I’m just “good at tests” or that I don’t put effort into my academics. I may not necessarily need to contribute my own money to my household, but that doesn’t mean I don’t think it’s important that I develop a strong work ethic and be passionate about my job. Those labels don’t show who I am to the world, because they don’t share the whole story.
We come to our mats to reconnect with the purest form of ourself, to rediscover who we are without the labels we’ve collected from others throughout the years. All it takes is one comment, one time, for us to change the way we view ourselves. It takes one person telling you you’re dumb, or not good enough, or not smart enough, for you to begin to believe it, too. But on our mats we can shed these labels like a snake’s skin and reground ourselves to who we are and who we’re meant to be.
How do you define yourself?