How we think about mental health impacts our well-being. In these pages I offer my perspective - an African-centered, black-centered view of us and of what makes us well. an alternative path to healing both the personal and the collective.

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On Self-definition: Who Are You?

October 23, 20184 min read

“I know that if I do not define myself for myself, the outer world certainly will and, as you each will discover, probably will define each one of us to our detriment, singly or in groups.” - Audre Lorde

“Who am I?” is a question that we all face at some point in life. Actually, at several points in a lifetime. When we don’t do it proactively, times of crisis will bring up this question with a force that can topple us. This simple, 3-word question meets with violent resistance from most of us because we have been too busy hiding the parts of our Selves that make the world uncomfortable.  Many mental health problems derive simply from our refusal to honestly engage with this question. There are many good reasons why we do this, which can be the subject of another post, so, if you find yourself resisting the call to embrace all of who you are, find the place in your heart to forgive yourself because there are reasons you find yourself in that place.


My intention for this post is to highlight the importance of defining yourself and a few other points about why and how to go about it.


Why Is It Important that You Define Yourself?


If you do not define yourself, somebody else will. Whether it is society, politics, or other people; your family, your partner, or all of the above; something or someone external to you will attempt to define you. Because you have not taken the time to figure out who you are, you become whatever “they” say you are. You will bend yourself out of shape to fit into these external definitions or to resist them, killing your real self in the process. Well, actually, your real self cannot be killed. It can be severely bruised, crushed, distorted; but as soon as you extend a hand to it, it will come crawling, limping or flying back to you and can be nursed back to health – but you get my point. You are not here to be defined by others, you are here to discover who you are.


Whose Job Is It to Define You?


This is your job, your responsibility. No one else has the competence for it.  As mentioned above, when you don’t assume that responsibility, you create a vacuum that others will jump in to fill, usually to your detriment. And it will be to your detriment because no one can see the inside of you, only you can feel it, so any external definitions of you will always be limited at best and erroneous at worst.


An Inside Job


Defining yourself is not about making up random things about yourself. It is about going inside to feel what is there. It is about reconnecting with the parts of yourself you have disowned and honoring them again. It is about listening to your inner voice and expressing it outwardly.  It is about opening up to the unknown within you.  It is about accepting all parts of yourself. It is an inside job. Who you are is already inside of you, it only needs to be brought out, expressed. It is your job to gradually feel inside you and uncover who you are, and build up the courage to be that. No matter what.


It Never Ends


Defining yourself is an ongoing process because we are constantly growing and evolving. If you get too attached to your current definition of yourself, you’re no longer open to who you can become. There is no final destination in the Self, there are only phases of development, each to be enjoyed and let go of in their own time.




There are many ways to explore the self, whether for self-definition or something else. They all require that you invest time in self-reflection, it will not happen in the business of your day to day. Therapy is one way but by no means the only one. Check this post about healing the Self. The same methods can be employed for enquiring about the Self. For artists and creatives, practicing your art, whatever it is, is an excellent way of exploring the Self.

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Yema Ferreira

Yema is an integrative psychotherapist on a mission to help heal the collective trauma of people of African descent. Therapy and writing are her tools.

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