By Mac Fabens
Artwork by: Kael Banks, age 18

I have a strong dislike for the phrase “know who you are,” both because it is used so often and because I think it has a completely different meaning from what it is often used to convey.

This phrase is often used in Western movies, where a protagonist is lost and goes on a quest or adventure to “find out who they are.” What this phrase is trying to convey is discovering or accepting one’s identity — a completely normal and valid process. However, when people say they “know who they are” instead of saying “I am comfortable with my identity,” both the future and past are being neglected. I view being comfortable with your identity as a necessary component of mental stability, and “knowing who you are” as a fantasy of being able to safely navigate your thoughts and feelings, without ever having to question yourself again. Evidently, different people define “knowing who you are” differently.

To me, “knowing who you are” means that you understand every thought you have and why you have it, all in the present. To know who you are would be to have the ability to predict everything you will do given every situation. This separates the self from your identity, because while your identity is how you live and express yourself in a given moment, the self is everything pertaining to you. This isn’t to say thinking about who you are is useless, because you can examine who you once were and who you want to be. Everyone has some long-term thought patterns or habits, and identifying those is a way to make new habits or break old ones that you don’t like. You can’t know your current self, only your current identity.

One idea could be that knowing who you are is a short term process, in which you understand your current identity as well as the idea that your identity can shift over time. Every time you notice a major identity shift, you just have to re-learn who you are. My problem with this is that your identity isn’t who you are. To get farther into this rabbit hole, “being something” doesn’t even really exist because it implies a fixed state. Most people probably think they know who they are, or their true purpose, multiple times throughout their life. The simple fact that you can think you know who you are and later disavow that thought is what eliminates the idea of knowing who you are from the table. If you are constantly changing, how can you be something, and never change from being that thing?

Claiming to know who you are is dangerous because it may lead to thinking you never have to reflect on anything and can write off anything you do as “that’s just who I am.” Not having to question yourself may seem like a good thing — contending with self and identity can be painful and difficult. You may have to do less day-to-day thought and reflection, but then bad habits can’t be corrected, and personal growth is out of the question.

I find it contradictory that you can only know who you were, not who you are or who you will be. Because time is always moving forward, you are always moving with it. Even while you sit here trying to think about who you are — personality, tastes, habits, etc. — what you just thought of has now become the past, technically a past person. Anything that isn’t split-second decision-making is in the past, a past thought of yours. You can dream of who you want to be, or reflect on who you were in the past, but knowing who you are is just not technically possible.

Even if you could think about every aspect of you in one second, the other factors of life make you constantly change. If someone grabs your pencil to write something really quickly without asking, how do you react? The answer probably depends on other things going on in your life, or your day. A self even a week from now could react the same way or completely differently. If you knew who you were, you would subscribe to that choice staying the same forever, because you are the same person who makes the same choices. You would believe that if someone were to take your pencil in endless different scenarios, no matter how you were feeling that day, you would make the same decision, because you know who you are. But because you’ll always make a different decision, the decisions you do make are just factors of who you are, not definitions.

With so many different definitions of “are” or “am,” there can’t be a definitive end to this debate. According to my logic, you can never see the big-picture you. I can be someone who likes dogs, and that is on definition of who I am, but there’s too much constantly changing for me to know who I am.
With so many different personal definitions of “are” or “am,” there can’t be a definitive end to this debate. According to my logic, you can never see the big-picture you. I can be someone who likes dogs, and that is one definition of who I am, but there’s too much constantly changing for me to know who I am.
Using my definition, let’s circle back to the question. Can you ever truly know who you are? No, because this implies a constant, fixed state. Knowing who you are means you will never stray from the person that you are, and promotes a fixed mindset in which you are devoid of change. Thinking you know who you are promotes a lifestyle where anything that doesn’t come naturally is not worth striving for, because it isn’t who you “really” are.

At the time of writing, Mac Fabens lived in Brooklyn, New York, and was in the 12th grade. He enjoys walking his dogs, canoeing, and being able to learn new life skills every day.

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