On Saturday I attended a tea party with the Mad Hatter and a pair of mice (a bit like the kitty party I threw for my mini fluffs’ first birthday last week).
I’m writing a review on a production of “Alice” and while researching it, I considered one of the books’ major ideas: that while the instability of identity causes us anxiety, it also allows for the fun and freedom of exploration.
Lewis Carroll’s classic books ask the questions: what is more important, to know what you know or to know who you are? And does true self-knowledge come from understanding your habits and behaviours first and labelling your identity second?
What you “know” is relative to the moment - “facts” are changing all the time. At times, it is exhausting to try and pin down who we are - our tastes, hobbies, interests, physical appearance and opinions are continually changing with time. But who we are at our core, when you strip back all the more superficial things - what you believe is morally right and wrong, if someone put a gun to your head and made you give your true perspective - does not change as much, I believe.
The second question is particularly relevant to me right now. As someone suspected by medical professionals as having OCD, I have clung to the hopes of an official diagnosis to paradoxically give me distance from my illness. Because if I could put a medical label on it, I could say: “No-one can rightly say I have chosen to be this way. It is not part of my personality to be miserable. It is an illness and everyone will know that. They are more likely to tolerate something about me if it is a defined fact that makes me behave as they would expect”.
But this push for a label is not healthy for me. It’s just another bid for certainty and thus an expression of insecurity. It shows I care too much about what people think of me. It shows I care too much about their expectations of how I should behave. And it shows I want to have some degree of control over those expectations. It’s as though the label would say: “It’s OK for people to expect me to behave in a certain way, as long as that’s in accordance with someone who has OCD - because that’s what I have, so I know I can meet those expectations”.
And so it is indeed much better for our mental wellbeing to prioritise an understanding of our habits and behaviours as individuals over labels - because the latter requires a consensus on identity. What I say is this: look at what you do that helps and hinders your life. Indeed, look at the behaviour and habits of others if they inspire you to be healthier, kinder and happier. But remember, you are an individual - as long as you are not hurting yourself or others, you do not need other people’s approval to be who you are.