In a beautiful TED talk about injustice, human rights lawyer Bryan Stevenson explains how powerful the role of identity is in shaping our lives and decisions.
One incredible line from his talk has always stuck with me: “Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.”
I think of how often we define ourselves by our mistakes. We might replay the time we hurt someone, whether accidentally or intentionally as a result of our own pain, as evidence that we don’t deserve to be happy.
Or more likely, we try to avoid thinking about it at all, since the knowledge of what we’ve done feels like a referendum on our self-worth.
In working with young people over the years, it’s amazing how much I’ve seen the narrative of “I’m a screw-up, a failure, and unlovable” create a self-destructive spiral that traps kids in poverty and/or emotionally toxic environments for their entire lives.
When we tell ourselves that we’re not worthy of love or happiness, we tend to take actions that reaffirm that belief. We don’t treat people in ways that are likely to create positive or healthy relationships. We neglect or abuse our bodies and minds, while continuously telling ourselves that our lives aren’t that important anyway, so it doesn’t matter what we do with our time.
Helping people understand that they are more than the worst thing they’ve ever done, or the worst thing that’s ever happened to them, is critical to helping them build resilience, confidence, and personal responsibility.
Adopting the identity of a victim or a perpetrator is comforting in a paradoxical way. We have clarity about who we are, what we’ve done, and what’s been done to us. We don’t have to choose our actions or responses anymore because we have a justification that is deeply rooted in who we are. We no longer feel responsible for our behavior because of what has happened to us or what we’ve done to others.
The road to emerging from these passive identities into active ones where we actively choose our responses is extremely difficult. The pain of victimhood is real, both for the victim and the perpetrator. It’s not the feelings or emotions that are the problem – it’s letting them define us that’s the issue.
Our identities are our greatest source of strength. They give us reasons for the actions we take, the decisions we make, and the communities we create.
If we cede control of our identities to a single event, we reduce the beautiful complexity of our humanity into a moment in which we felt powerless to stop what was happening. Whether we hurt someone or were being hurt, the feeling of dreadful inevitability is what haunts us. And because the moment is in the past, it continues to highlight our lack of power to stop or change it.
So what can we do about it? A simple exercise to start is to look at yourself in the mirror and say the following statements:
“I am more than the worst thing I have ever done.”
“I am more than the worst thing that has ever happened to me.”
“I am lovable.”
“I am able to love others.”
The first time I said these words to myself in the mirror, I could feel deep emotions and tears welling up within me. I didn’t even realize how deeply ingrained my feelings of being unlovable were until I confronted them in the mirror. Hopefully through this process, you can begin to realize and affirm yourself in all of your beautiful complexity.