Andrew Solomon on Forging Meaning and Building Identity

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

Psychologist and best-seller author Andrew Solomon faced severe bullying growing up because of his dyslexia and homosexuality, leading him on a lifelong exploration of identity and meaning.  He divides our identity into two categories – “vertical identity,” which are aspects inherited from parents, and “horizontal identity,” which includes traits that are different from family.  Vertical identities are usually seen as acceptable, while horizontal ones are often treated as flaws; i.e., “black sheep” traits.

But it was Solomon’s horizontal identity that helped him forge a meaningful life.  Here are some insights from 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

All your experiences need to be incorporated into a “core narrative of triumph.”  You must see yourself as on ongoing, valuable work of art.  “Endurance can be the entryway to forging meaning,” says Solomon.  Without an enduring core narrative, negative experiences are left uninterpreted them and can become the defining narrative of your life.

Solomon says, after you’ve forged meaning (taken a positive lesson from a negative experience), you need to incorporate that meaning into a new identity.  You need to take the traumas and make them part of who you’ve come to be, and “you need to fold the worst events of your life into a narrative of triumph, evincing a better self in response to things that hurt.”

Accept the Death/Loss of Part of Yourself 

Crucial to forging meaning and building identity is letting go of negative associations that do not align with your personal narrative; these usually come with horizontal identities—personality traits, beliefs, or practices that differ from your parents or family.  But in order to forge ahead with meaning, we must accept the sense of loss that comes with leaving behind the “old self.”  You cannot fall into the trap of the comfort of the familiar, especially when the comfort is a detriment.

Do Not be Defined by Your Experiences, but 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,” says Solomon.  Letting your experience define you means being passive, in the passenger seat; defining your experience means being in the driver seat.

Ultimately, you have control over how you’re affected by an experience.  You must continually remind yourselves of the mental switch you’ve made and continually sift painful experiences into your personal narrative of triumph.  Solomon admits that life would have been easier if he were straight, but “I would not be me.”

Solomon realized he was indebted even to his childhood bullies, not because they were a gift but because they propelled him to find the gift of his own 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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