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Your Struggle Is Not Your Identity

In 2015 I was playing Dorcas in a production of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers and in this particular production Dorcas had a little sister. The actress playing my little sister was six or seven years old and naturally we hit it off right away. One day she arrived at the theater with a drawing she had made for me. All over her masterpiece she had used a stamp that said “your struggle is not your identity.” How magical it is when the universe presents you with exactly what you need to hear at exactly the right time.

I think we all can do a better job of owning who we are without outside labels, accolades, or fancy titles. When I first graduated college my identity was so wrapped up in the situation I found myself in. I booked a lot of work as a musical theater performer those first few years out of school and so it was very convenient for me to link my identity with the fact that I was a working actress. The same thing happened when I joined the union; I became an equity actor. My identity was tied to the fact that I had “earned” my way into obtaining union membership. At the time this was all fine and dandy because nothing was challenging my distorted sense of self.

But what happens when you go through a period of unemployment? If you identify as an actor (read: employed actor) what happens to your identity if you aren’t being paid to act? The last time I was paid to perform onstage in a musical was December of 2017, four years ago. The first two years of that shift was a huge adjustment for me. I struggled immensely. I grappled with “your struggle is not your identity” over and over again. Because not only was my identity wrapped up in my employment as an actor but my self worth was too. That’s actually the reason this blog was born. The reason why I started to do the internal work necessary to truly believe that my struggle is not my identity. I saw a very similar shift happen during the shutdown for friends of mine who had also been identifying as an actor contingent upon their ability to get paid to work.

Over the years I have come back to this sentence whenever I find myself in a particularly tough time of struggle. It has brought an immense amount of clarity and reassurance. I have also substituted the word failure for struggle when it seems more fitting to my situation. But I think this powerful sentence is only one half of the truth. And so “your struggle is not your identity” recently received an upgrade.

Your struggle/failure is not your identity and neither are your accomplishments.

Being a Broadway actor isn’t your identity. Being a Tony Award winning actor isn’t your identity. Being a final callback and shortlisted actor isn’t your identity. Being booked and blessed isn’t your identity. These are all jobs you might have had, awards you might have won, and exciting processes you might have gone through but they don’t make you who you are. Regardless of your struggles and your accomplishments you are a human first. It’s that simple. You are an imperfect, nuanced, complicated human being with a unique point of view. That point of view is your identity, not the things you’ve done. This distinction is important to make because if we don’t we run the risk of determining who we are based on what we have and have not done, which means we never really get to know ourselves. To be totally corny and quote Edward Kleban, “who am I anyway? Am I my resume?”

This morning I was listening to the podcast We Can Do Hard Things with Glennon Doyle, episode 62: The Big Lies & the Truth About Happiness with Dr. Laurie Santos. One thing that Dr. Santos touched upon that really stood out to me was the ways in which other cultures value things that lead to higher levels of happiness. At one point during the conversation Dr. Santos started talking about Denmark. Denmark tends to rank pretty high on the list of happiest countries in the world. Apparently, in Denmark you don’t really talk about your accolades at work and when meeting someone for the first time you don’t ask “what do you do?” It just isn’t part of your identity in the same way that it is here. But here in the U.S. we are so wrapped up in what we do and what we accomplish in our careers that it takes over our entire identity. I think we can all learn to be a bit more like Denmark.

For the past four years I have done a lot of work tearing down who I thought I was and rebuilding an identity for myself that is based on honest, hands in the mud soul searching. It was hard work. There were lots of tears involved, therapy, meditation, journaling, so many self help books, and time spent away from my phone and social media. But now I identify as so much more than I used to give myself credit for. I am an artist. I am a creative. I am a storyteller. I am an educator. But above all, I am a perfectly imperfect human being.

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