What Is the Difference Between Identity and Identifying?
I remember the very first time those words came out of my mouth in a meeting. The evidence was clear. I qualified to be there! The stories and episodes were more than I cared to recount, and the jury was in. I was one of “them” – the addicted, powerless, helpless, and hopeless people of the 12-step rooms. At least, that is how I thought of it in that moment.
“I’m David, and I’m an alcoholic – and that is the first time I have ever said that out loud in my entire life!” I felt my heart race; my face was flushed (and also beet-red from a previous night of binge drinking); and my breath was short. Before I had time to experience the panic and confessor’s remorse that I was sure would follow those words the room erupted in applause.
The man who eventually became my first sponsor took me to this very large Friday evening group so that I could sit in the circle and see that the people I had stereotyped and characterized were actually just like me. I was them and they were me. I was suddenly being affirmed, not for my substance issue but for my willingness to identify myself and say aloud what I had already known to be true for far too long. It was that affirmation from those in the circle that night which let me know I had taken my first steps on to the path of freedom.
What I didn’t understand at the time was the importance of what I had just experienced – the importance of identifying myself. Why did I need to say my first name? Why did they need to know who I was or what I was owning up to? Why wasn’t it enough for me to simply say, “I’m someone who needs a little help with my drinking, and it really isn’t important to me for you to know my name or what I’ve been up to lately.”
I believe the answer lies in the difference between identifying and identity. What I had resisted for so long about the meetings was having to identify as a person with a problem. I didn’t realize until much later that my problem wasn’t my identity. Just because I was identifying myself by name as someone with a problem didn’t mean that I was adopting my problem as my identity.
If we don’t say it aloud it can stay inside us as an unspoken concept without ever becoming a public declaration of surrender. Once we identify ourselves and our issues, we are actually one step closer to freedom. We don’t become our problem in that moment. Instead, we become one step closer to who we are truly meant to be: an integrated, authentic and whole individual.