Have you ever wondered who you are at your very core? If you sold all your possessions, moved to a new country where no one knew your name, and just started over, would you be the same person? What parts of you would stay and what parts would go?

Over the past few years I have been continually “rebooting” my life to start over in a new city. Every time I do this I have a chance to redefine myself, and to start my life anew. I have always found this to be an incredibly liberating experience. Who am I in a new place where no one knows my name? Am I the same person as when I’m surrounded by people who know me? Who am I in a country where my education, experiences, status indicators mean nothing to anyone?

Whenever I am abroad and someone asks me where in Canada I am from, I tell them that I’m from Calgary. They will nod and smile, but I can tell that the word “Calgary” means nothing to them. Maybe if I had said “Toronto” or even “Vancouver” I would see the light of comprehension in their eyes, but Calgary… nothing. Something that is so central to my identity when I’m at home means nothing once I leave North America. This experience really puts things into perspective and it makes me feel like all of our labels are mere vanities.

When we strip away all of the meaning and identity that we derive not only from our possessions (i.e. being a Mac person or a PC person), but also from our cities, nationalities, education, careers, religions, from all the labels that we use to describe ourselves – we often find that the person we truly are is very different from the person we pretend to be. The person that we are at our core may be utterly unrecognizable to us, if we have buried that person under all the external definitions that society thrusts upon us.

We often internalize and identify with external labels to the point where we lose our own true voice. Not everyone can just start their life over in a new city. I do think that experimenting with stripping away some of the external things that we use to define ourselves can help anyone learn something about themselves. Here are a couple ways that I’ve learned to do this:

Join a club in a new part of town ideally where no one knows you, or at least no one knows you well. Instead of talking about yourself, spend time listening to other people or talking about your common interest. Notice your behaviours, do you find yourself more willing to discuss certain topics, do you find yourself interested in or wanting things that you would never have considered before?

Stop rattling off labels or qualifications as soon as you meet someone new. I am totally guilty of doing this: “Hi I’m Darby and I’m new to Toronto, I just moved here from Vancouver, and before that I did my Masters in the UK…” and on and on. Now when I meet new people I try to spend more time listening to them and paying attention to my own feelings as they arise. I question myself a bit – why did I feel the need to mention my degree? Am I trying to impress this person? Why do I care about impressing someone I just met? Am I feeling insecure about myself? What is it about this situation that is making me uncomfortable? This often leads me to realize an assumption that I’ve made, such as “I have to show these people that I’m successful in order for them to take me seriously.”

Make fun of your own labels. I often joke with people that because I’m a vegan I just graze, or forage for roots and berries for supper. Treating relatively innocuous labels with a bit of playfulness can stop us from taking them too seriously. Although I am serious about my veganism, I think it’s important to remind myself not to take the label (or myself!) too seriously.

Sell, donate, or otherwise get rid of some of your possessions. I am in the process of doing this right now. I am finding it useful to question why I have kept objects around for so long. Ask yourself, in what way is this possession supporting my identity? And realize that you can be the same person without that possession, OR that you aren’t really that person and that’s all right. I recently came to terms with the fact that I am just not a lipgloss person. And a reminder from Fight Club: You are not your job. You are not the car you drive. You are not your f***ing khakis!

Take some time for reflection. Take some time to think about labels that we apply unquestioningly to ourselves. Example: Until I was 22 I couldn’t cook AT ALL. I didn’t even know how to use an oven to heat up pizza, and a simple dish like a stir fry seemed impossible. Because everyone knew that I couldn’t cook no one asked me to, or expected me too. In my mind, I was just someone who couldn’t cook and I dealt with that. When I moved to the UK and became a vegetarian, no one thought of me as someone who couldn’t cook – and so I start to learn to cook! I didn’t feel like I was being scrutinized because people had no expectations of my cooking abilities (or lack thereof!) and it was very liberating! I’m sure that most of us could come up with at least one label that others apply to us and that we accept without questioning.

And of course, my favourite:

Move to a new country where no one knows your name! If you ever have a chance in your life to do this: do it! It will change your life and you will learn a lot about yourself.

Has anyone else had an interesting experience with discovering themselves by stripping away external possessions, labels, and/or expectations? Please feel free to share in the comments.

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