How to Start Answering the Question “Who Am I?”

We live in an age of identity. Discovering our individual identities defines the quest of so many contemporary souls. As a result, “Who am I?” has become a central question of our times.

In multiple ways, that’s a good thing. 

The Baha’i teachings encourage all people to seek self-understanding — to know themselves and understand their true identities. Baha’u’llah, the prophet and founder of the Baha’i Faith, said, “True loss is for him whose days have been spent in utter ignorance of his self.” In another passage, Baha’u’llah wrote: “… man should know his own self and recognize that which leadeth unto loftiness or lowliness, glory or abasement, wealth or poverty.

So, our search for our self-identity has real meaning. Each one of us takes that essentially spiritual journey of reflection and inner comprehension throughout our lives — which means that it’s a never-ending journey, one that constantly becomes deeper and more searching as we grow and mature.

RELATED: How a Short Baha’i Book Changed My Spiritual Life

Who Am I, Personally?

Usually, the first avenue of self-exploration most of us undertake has to do with our personal proclivities — what we like, what we feel, and what we want.

These self-defining decisions normally take place when we’re young, as we start to seek autonomy, particularly from our parents and immediate family. This quest — what psychologists call “individuation” — represents a normal, healthy part of the maturation process. It often works like this: we see our peers begin to self-identify in certain ways, and we’re faced with decisions: where’s my tribe? How do I fit in? Who are my friends, and what are they like? Ultimately, our peers help us define ourselves by answering the question, “What am I like?”

As adolescents become more self-aware, they begin to build a sense of personal autonomy. This “identity development” increases their commitment to the social aspects of their own self-awareness by discovering and expressing greater needs for connection with others. 

Identity development has two stages: exploration, which involves trying out different roles or options; and commitment, which involves committing ourselves to the aspects of self-definition that fit us best.

The Development of Identity and the Importance of Role Models

This process of exploration and commitment, often unsettling and uncomfortable, requires social and emotional support from a group of like-minded people. Studies show that those who succeed in this process of identity development generally feel more satisfied in adult life, as they build self-esteem and purpose. Those who don’t succeed in developing a clear identity can feel depression, anxiety, purposelessness, and a sense of identity confusion.

Those who do succeed in forming strong personal identities, the research consistently shows, often have role models they can look up to and emulate. 

Adopting a role model in life — a parent or grandparent, a teacher, an older peer, a community leader, or even a spiritual figure — involves finding someone admirable and resolving to pattern aspects of your life after their character and attributes. Role models can help us imagine a future for ourselves by knowing who they are, and by expressing that knowledge through their actions. The best role models have authenticity and coherence — simply, what they do reflects who they are and what they believe.

Role models tend to be noble, admirable people in all aspects of life — those with the ability to inspire us. Typically, the best role models have the essentially spiritual character traits of a clear set of inner values, a selfless approach to helping and serving humanity, and the commitment and fortitude to overcome life’s obstacles. Role models express visible commitments to their community and tend to evince love and acceptance toward others. Role models have passion, which usually means they possess a set of core values that drive them to act.

RELATED: Are We Created Whole and Perfect?

Of course, it’s hard to determine who might be a good role model for you unless you first identify your own core values — the aspirational beliefs deep in your inner, higher nature that matter most to you. The Baha’i writings call those core values “attributes of God,” such as the qualities of “love, mercy, kindness, truth, and justice,” as expressed in this excerpt from an address Abdu’l-Baha gave in Paris in 1911:

In man there are two natures; his spiritual or higher nature and his material or lower nature. In one he approaches God, in the other he lives for the world alone. Signs of both these natures are to be found in men. In his material aspect he expresses untruth, cruelty and injustice; all these are the outcome of his lower nature. The attributes of his Divine nature are shown forth in love, mercy, kindness, truth and justice, one and all being expressions of his higher nature. Every good habit, every noble quality belongs to man’s spiritual nature, whereas all his imperfections and sinful actions are born of his material nature.

So how do we form our identities around these kinds of noble inner values, qualities, and attributes? How do we discover role models who have developed their own values and identities in these spiritual ways? In the next essay in this short series, we’ll explore those questions.

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