Unpacking: Who Am I?

There are thirty-plus people crammed into a single room, sitting on couches, or standing, shoulders touching, sweating and sticky in the Florida heat. Packets of paper are passed around the room — a test — and I feel like I am in high school again.

I’m nervous and itchy, the backs of my legs sticking to my chair, and strands of my long hair are clinging to the back of my neck.

It isn’t a history test, or a spelling test, and I’m not being graded. It’s a gifts test, and the outcome is intended to direct me, not to rate me. Still, I feel just as stressed as if you asked me to regurgitate the Periodic Table of Elements.

When the packet arrives to me, I instinctively scan the length of the front page.

“I thrive in a challenge-based environment.”

“I enjoy influencing and inspiring people.”

“I thrive in consistent environments rather than changing ones.”

I’m trying to think clearly, to figure out how I should rate these statements on a scale from 1 to 5, but suddenly I feel my blood pressure rise, and my pulse begin to race. What if I don’t know the answers to these questions? I wonder to myself. What if I think I know, but I’m confused or deluded about myself? 

What if I answer, and I get it wrong? 

A year ago, I “knew myself” really well. In fact, growing up with a psychologist for a father, and in a part of the country that values self-awareness and individuality, I spent a good deal of time thinking about my personality and temperament.

I had a really strong understanding (or at least I thought I did) of what I was good at, what I was about, what I liked, and what I didn’t.

But recently, something is different.

I’m uncertain, confused.

Maybe it was the speed at which my life changed — getting married, moving across the country, losing most of what used to constitute my identity — that reached it’s long spoon into the jug of my life and stirred and swirled until I was left spinning.

Maybe it was the stress — planting a new church, starting a new job, grieving the loss of family and friends, working to build a healthy and loving marriage…

Either way, this new season has shown me a new side of myself.

I am weaker than I thought I was.

I am more fearful of new things, of change, of failing.

I struggle to make clear decisions for myself, let alone lead others.

Some days I even struggle to find my “voice” to write.

The things I used to “know” about myself, some days, don’t seem to be true anymore. Maybe they are true, and I just need to rediscover them, or maybe they were never true and I need to let them go.

But the question remains: How am I supposed to know? 

How do I know what is true about myself, and what is not, especially when the “truth” seems so influenced by my surroundings? If what I know about myself is based on the opinion and perspective of others, how can I know that what they say/think is reliable?

And most importantly, am I still supposed to be asking these things at 29 years old?

The process of discovery is, in some ways, liberating. Think of it sorting through the stuff in your house before a big move, choosing what to keep and what to give away, taking the car full of boxes to Goodwill, dropping them off, dusting off your hands. It’s stuff you didn’t want and never used, anyway.

Clearing out the old stuff opens up space for something new.

It’s also disorienting, at times, because, just like I discovered when I moved my belongings all the way across the country, I can’t bring everything with me that I wanted to. It wouldn’t be practical or even helpful.

I have to let go in order to grab onto something new.

In fact, come to think of it, packing (un-packing, re-packing) offers a really good analogy for this process of self discovery. You don’t just pack once in your life. You pack several times, each time you go on a trip or move somewhere new.

If you never travel, you never have to pack (many people choose to live their lives this way, and if they do, they never have to pack, un-pack, or re-pack).

But no one brags that, each time they take a trip, they bring more crap with them.

It seems like more you travel, the quicker you learn that less is more.

So that’s what I’m learning, I guess, is that weather you’re seventeen, or seventy, packing is part of the process. It’s okay. You don’t have to know exactly who you are, what you’re about, what you’re “going to do.”

Each season of life brings with it new challenges and expectations, and you need different luggage for each different trip.

Swimsuit for the beach.

Parka for the snow.

Boots to climb the mountain.

[photo: Ashley Santiago]

  • mstracy

    Life is a process, we always will need to learn and relearn things about who we are because we are continually changing, growing. It’s really amazing realizing that. We never really know ourselves fully, such a fun adventure!

    • http://twitter.com/allyvest Ally Vesterfelt

      It is an adventure! It definitely keeps things interesting, that’s for sure.

  • Lucie

    I hope it doesn’t scare you to know that people are asking the same questions you wondered at yourself for asking, at age 29, when they are in their fifties. ;-)

    • http://twitter.com/allyvest Ally Vesterfelt

      Haha, it does scare me a little — but my hope is that it’s like exercising. What feels hard at first gets easier as I get stronger…?

      :) Thanks for sharing.

  • http://www.tammygrrrl.com/ Tammy Perlmutter

    Hey Ally. I think you’ve been very brave to keep tackling this question!! When I was in the midst of one of my many recent transitions, a friend told me that “all change is first perceived as loss.” Even if the change is considered a good one, we are still losing something or someone, and that is going to have to be grieved. It’s very easy to throw yourself into activity related to your transition to ward off the feelings of loss and fear, but you’re staying with it and feeling the stuff you need to.

    • http://twitter.com/allyvest Ally Vesterfelt

      Wow, I love that. Thanks for the encouragement and for sharing!

  • http://twitter.com/shalom08 Shalom

    What a thought-provoking article, Ally! It made me think how much “crap” I’m still holding on until now. I believe that if we do spring-cleaning in our houses, we should do the same with our souls/spirits. It’s easier to spring-clean a room, but what I found lately is that is a lot more harder to spring-clean our souls. I have been hurt before and I have to admit it was really hard to let go of all the pain. Forgiveness – the grace that we have received from God and the same grace we pass on to others – is really difficult to give. However, with God’s help, I believe forgiveness (a.k.a unpacking our “crap”) is possible. We simply just have to TRUST in Him.

    • http://twitter.com/allyvest Ally Vesterfelt

      Real forgiveness is so hard to give and, you’re right, ultimately our inability to forgive is not about a lack of trust in the person we’re forgiving — but a lack of trust in God.

      Circumstances that change and make us uncomfortable offer a beautiful opportunity to step into greater trust. It’s a gift, really.

      Thank you for sharing your insight!

  • http://KatieAxelson.com/ Katie Axelson

    I understand, Ally. I’ve been asking a lot of the same questions lately, though I’m 23 but having gone through a lot of recent changes.


    • http://twitter.com/allyvest Ally Vesterfelt

      Thanks Katie, it’s cool that you can identify. What are some tangible things you’re doing to cope with the changes?

      • http://KatieAxelson.com/ Katie Axelson

        I guess I’m trying to learn to embrace the packing since I can be whoever I need to be in various situations. Unless the identity is clear (aka: single), I’m trying not to label myself but rather realize that I’m somewhere between a Northerner and a Southerner, I’m an extrovert and an introvert, etc. I process through writing, so I’m doing a lot of that (even though since I’m ghostwriting, some days my voice sounds more like my client’s than my own). It’s ok. I’m also realizing that even though I don’t know who I am, God does, and He’s shaping me to be the woman He wants (needs?) me to be rather than the woman I was or the woman I want to be. What about you? Any more tangible suggestions?


  • Louise

    This is exactly where I am right now…about to move abroad again, about to be far away from all the things that I use to form my identity. And about to try for the millionth time to pack light!

    • http://twitter.com/allyvest Ally Vesterfelt

      Good luck with everything, Louise! Traveling always teaches you so much about yourself and, even though it can be uncomfortable to “go without” the things you are used to having, it’s also the only way to gain the incredible experiences you are about to gain.

      I’m excited for you!

  • http://jasonandkelliwoodford.blogspot.com/ kelli woodford

    The edge of our growth can be a very frightening place. And when we’re pushed out, into the unfamiliar, we are often forced to grow. I have been guilty of holding onto yesterday’s manna, but am slowly learning (at 34!) that although scary, the emptiness provides a spacious place for the new.
    Maybe this is where both trust and discovery can really bloom.

  • Maranatha John

    Yup! These are some of the big questions in life. “Who am I”? “What I’m I here for”? And the like!.. but I think the best place to find ourselves is in God. In Him we move, live and have our BEING (to be). And no better way to discover that than in His will. God’s will for our lives is perfect, pristine, and flawless! :)
    No one explains it better than Dag Heward-Mills in his book “How You Can Be in the Perfect Will of God”. I think y’all should check it out. It’ll be a blessing :)