Last fall, I participated in an online class that was all about being brave enough to follow your dreams and how to appreciate the little steps to help you reach them. It was an amazing class, and even though I have yet to actually start work on my chosen project, it still left me changed. That class was the beginning of an ongoing soul-searching transformation that has been long overdue.

I have always had difficulties finding a place in the world. I’ve survived by defining myself by my own strengths and abilities rather than how the world viewed me, and I owe that to my parents and their guidance. Had I chosen to go by what others thought of me, the journey would have been much more painful. I definitely faced my share of bullying (albeit mild compared to what our youth is forced to endure today) all through elementary and middle school, and the only thing that made it lessen through high school was that my dad was a teacher at the school and kids knew better than to screw with the daughter of a Marine. But that didn’t mean I was instantly accepted, just tolerated. Even in college, I didn’t have any set group that I fit into, and that was painfully emphasized in vet school when I was overlooked and frequently left out of the one group I tried to be a part of. But please don’t think I’m complaining — in it’s own way, this was the best thing that could have happened to me.

As a result of all of the above, the friends I did have became that much more dear to me. The friends I made in high school are still my friends today, and it is such a strong bond we can go months without talking and pick right back up when we do. My friends I made in undergrad were my rock through vet school, and my friends I made in vet school are like my sisters. Had I been tied down to a set group, I would never have met many of these amazing people, and my heart hurts to think about how much I would have missed out on.

Still, it is our nature to want to fit into a group. When we don’t fit into a set group, we feel left out, hurt, unimportant, even worthless at times. Depending on the group, those people may even try to emphasize those feelings, try to wear us down and make us feel that we aren’t part of the elite group because we don’t deserve it. Extreme cases create bullies whose primary goal is to create these feelings in people who may not have felt them before. It takes a good support system and strong role models to remind these individuals that they are still valuable, beautiful, smart, talented, and amazing just for being themselves.

When we begin to identify with a certain group, the group becomes our identity. We begin to believe that our attributes are those set by the group and forget what it is that makes us special. For awhile, this may seem enjoyable, and this is the face we put out to the world. We want the world to think that we are happy because we are a part of this elite group. Identifying ourselves with the group becomes safe and comfortable, mainly because we believe that the group will be around forever. The longer we continue to blend our identity with the group, the more ours becomes buried. Then one day, the unthinkable happens: the group dissolves, and suddenly we are standing alone, holding on to an identity created by something that no longer exists, and we realize we have forgotten who we are.

We need to encourage our youth to discover their own individual identity, to discover and feed our special talents and abilities, to define themselves by their own dreams rather than by the dreams and talents of others. No one else can be us better than we can be ourselves, but that also means that we cannot be someone else better than we can be us. We were created to be us, not someone else, and the more we try to create a separate identity, the scarier the world becomes when that identity is suddenly taken away from us. That doesn’t mean we can’t be part of a group, just that when we do find that group, it doesn’t replace our identity. On the other hand, if we fail to find that one specific group, we still know who we are, and that enables us to face the world head on, to tackle our challenges using our finely developed strengths that we have been tuning all our lives.

Our dreams are our own, and the strengths and abilities we have are given to us specifically to help us achieve our dreams. If we fail to discover those gifts, it becomes that much more difficult to reach our destinies. If we begin to identify ourselves by something outside of us, we will lose sight of not only our strengths, but also our dreams themselves.

Define your dreams and then focus on your strengths and talents. Begin to visualize how those gifts can be used to reach your dreams and appreciate that they were given to you just for that reason. This is your identity. This is who you are.

P.S. If you are interested in learning more about the class I took, visit Big Dreams Small Wonders. To visit the artist’s website, go to Louise Gale.

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