As humans, we love to categorize and name things to make sense of ourselves and the world around us. We all work on defining and establishing our identities in order to feel like we are understood and capable of understanding others. It’s why we love personality tests, enneagrams, horoscopes, and more! I think on the surface, it’s mostly about striving for self awareness and a desire for our “true selves” to seen by others.
I think there’s also an innate curiosity and desire to understand those who are different than us, and tools like personality tests can be helpful in that. I think the true root of it all though, is deep desire for community. Identity helps us find and create our community!
Throughout our lives, we seek different communities to support us, teach us, and give us a sense of belonging and comfort. As children, we seek friends to play with and learn. Ideally, families should act as communities to define and establish boundaries and safety. In college and early adulthood, our communities expand with our maturity to include newer and broader experiences and perspectives. As newlyweds and young parents our communities hopefully foster support and encouragement in this time of life, and so on.
Technology and the internet have exploded our opportunities for seeking and creating communities. As more of us find ourselves lacking local and physical connections (due to relocations and distance from old friends and family, extended work hours, etc), online communities have proven to be a wonderful resource for finding and connecting with like minded people.
Something I’m realizing lately is that there’s been a huge increase in communities—online and off—that are emerging based solely on health (and illness as well). It isn’t anything new of course, but I think the increasingly incredibly vast online landscape allows for such specific communities that we may often box ourselves in too quickly and too restrictively. There are entire communities dedicated to specific diets: AIP, paleo, vegan, Keto, and more (for example, two different instagram accounts dedicated only to celery juice have 75K and 274K followers each). There are lifestyle groups for nontoxic living, huge eco conscious advocacy groups/movements like zero waste living, major fitness movements like Crossfit, and more.
Certainly, the intentions behind these identities & communities are rooted in hope, positivity, and health. But are these super specific interests and groups empowering or limiting us in the end?
Many of us identify with illness. A diagnosis can explain previously unexplained and maybe scary or frustrating symptoms, especially after any time period (often years) of frustration and fear. It gives a tangible, nameable cause or explanation to those who might not have understood or been supportive in the past. Connecting with others who share your illness can alleviate a lot of isolation and anxiety associated with receiving any diagnosis, especially one of a chronic illness like an autoimmune disease (which one will likely live with for life).
I personally found it to be incredibly restrictive and truthfully, depressing, to immerse myself in communities centered around illness, though. It was all encompassing and I felt almost my entire identity reduced to an autoimmune diagnosis. Only once I stepped back from them entirely did I find that illness is actually not part of my identity at all! I am tall, brunette, kind, generous, smart, funny, and loving. I’m also careful, often anxious, I can be judgmental and I like being in control. All of these fixed and dynamic attributes (plus many more), positive and negative, add up to who I am, how I present myself, and who I want to be.
If you don’t want identify as sick, if you don’t want to be immersed in that world forever, you don’t have to be! Identities are created and projected by ourselves, so you can choose what to include and what to leave out. This separation and understanding has given me so much more of my life back after what felt like surrendering to the idea of illness for so long. It has been a journey of being fully immersed in an illness mindset to trying to fully exclude it from my life, and only now am I ready to begin to address it again and offer my thoughts/experience/advice about health to you without it being part of my identity any more.
It is my hope for all of us to feel seen, understood, and to have a positive identity and community around us. Please remember that while you are not be the creator of your life & environment, you are its manager and editor. You are in control of your identity and community, and therefore in control of what defines and surrounds you.