Andrew Solomon on How to Forge Meaning and Build Identity

Your identity is made up of both “vertical” and “horizontal” elements.

Psychologist and author, Andrew Solomon was bullied growing up because of his dyslexia and homosexuality.  This led him on a lifelong exploration of identity and meaning.

He divides identity into two categories.  Your “vertical identity” consists of traits inherited from parents.  Your “horizontal identity” consists of traits different from family.

Vertical identities are viewed as “normal,” whereas horizontal are treated as flaws.

But it was Solomon’s horizontal identity that helped him forge a meaningful life.  He shares insights in his 2014 TED Talk on how your horizontal identity can be used to “forge meaning and build identity”:

Start With a Personal Narrative of Triumph

Life’s challenges must be weaved into a “core narrative of triumph.”  See yourself as an enduring and valuable work of art.

According to Solomon, “endurance can be the entryway to forging meaning.”  Without a narrative of triumph, negative experiences become the defining narrative of your life.

But forging meaning means taking traumas and making them part of who you’ve come to be. It is “to fold the worst events of your life into a narrative of triumph, evincing a better self in response to things that hurt.”

Let Go of Familiarity 

Vertical identites are difficult to let go of. They are embedded in family bonds.

But in order to forge true meaning, you must discard any vertical traits that do not align with the person you choose to be.  You cannot fall for the comfort of the familiar. Because that “comfort” is a detriment.

Take Charge and Define Your Experiences

“We don’t seek the painful experiences that hew our identities, but we seek our identities in the wake of painful experiences.” Solomon emphasizes the key distinction.

Letting your experience define you means being passive. You’re in the passenger seat.  Defining your experience is to be in the driver seat.

Ultimately, you have control over how you’re affected by an experience.  And how you consistently respond is the act of building identity.  Solomon admits that life would be easier if he were straight, but “I would not be me.”

Solomon eventually accepted that he was indebted even to his childhood bullies.  Not because they were “gifts,” but because they forced him to find gifts in meaning.  “Forging” by definition includes fire—something undeniably painful.  But “if you banish the dragons,” says Solomon, “you banish the heroes.”

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