Are You Letting Circumstances Define You?

Written by on November 3, 2014 in Pathways, Self-Awareness

Are You Letting Circumstances Define You

If I were to ask you to name 3 things that define the very essence of who you are, what would you say?

Your first thought might relate to your roles in life – father, mother, parent, or friend. Or you may list a few values you have grown fond of as a way of defining who you are such as grateful, persistent, generous or creative.

These are nice neat definitions that safely dance along the surface without getting into any areas too deep or uncomfortable.

But sometimes in life, we hit an immovable object that throws us off track for a time such as the sudden loss of a job, divorce, passing of a loved one, a physical injury or life-threatening illness.

Because of the consuming nature of such events, it becomes very easy to attach our self-worth to our external circumstances and let them become who we are, the divorcee, the widow, the unemployed (fill in the blank), the rape or abuse survivor, the cancer survivor.

We all know that the way to cope with trauma, with a loss, with any life-changing experience, is to find meaning. But here’s the thing: No one can tell us what our experience means. We have to decide what it means for ourselves.
~Debra Jarvis

You Can Choose Not to Let Circumstances Define You

Today I’d like to share with you a powerful TED Talk presentation by Debra Jarvis – Yes, I survive cancer. But that doesn’t define me. Considering the nature of her message I’ll let Debra introduce herself to you, but I will add that it’s not necessary for you to have experienced a traumatic event in your life to find great value in Debra’s message. Whether we recognize it or not, it’s human nature to define ourselves by everything from our failures to our economic status, culture or our job titles.

What if instead of allowing the circumstances of our lives to define us, we choose instead to claim it all – the joy and the heartache, the successes, the failures and the wounds – as priceless experiences along an amazing journey of self-exploration and discovery? What if we could learn to celebrate the person we have become as we continue to grow into the powerful person we were always meant to be?
~Marquita Herald

I challenge you to revisit the question I posed above … ‘What 3 things define the very essence of you?” Don’t try to answer this now, but instead, keep asking yourself this question over the next couple of days as though you were repeating a mantra.

You may be very surprised by some of the revelations that slip into your mind after you let go of trying to come up with the easy answers.

Will you be the passenger or the driver in your life journey?
About Marquita Herald

Marquita Herald

Marquita is an author, resilience coach and the chief evangelist at Emotionally Resilient Living. She’s also an unapologetic workaholic who loves red wine, rock n’ roll, road trips (and car dancing!), peanut butter cookies and (especially) a dog named Lucy.

She’s saddened and frustrated by excuses and cruelty and believes authentic compassion is the most powerful force in the world.

To learn more about Marquita and the mission of Emotionally Resilient Living Start Here.

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  1. martyherald says:

    Thank you so much for sharing Willena, and such thoughtful observations. There’s nothing I love more than to hear that something I’ve shared here has encouraged someone to explore a topic further, so thank you for letting me know and for contributing to the conversation! 🙂

  2. martyherald says:

    Thanks so much for taking the time to contribute to the conversation Meredith. The best reward of all is if an article encourages a reader to think about a topic, so thanks for sharing! 🙂

  3. Well said, Marquita!

    One thing I’ve noticed is that I’ve broken my life up into segments, divided by significant events. These can be negative (deaths of close loved ones) or positive (graduations, marriage), but are always highly significant events in my life. I guess we all do this to some extent, but dates have always been important to me. I remember how I held my breath more than once when the time for a birth drew near, as I hoped the baby wouldn’t come on the anniversary of the death of my father, for example.

    Which all sounds like another way of saying I tend to let these events define me. You’ve certainly given me food for thought!
    Willena Flewelling recently posted…Week 6 – Observing, Creating, and LovingMy Profile

  4. That is a really good question! I had an immediate answer, but I’m thinking that it might be, as you say, just scratching the surface of things. I’m going to give this some thought this week. It’s hard to pick just three!
    Meredith Wouters recently posted…How to Paint Kitchen Cabinets RoundupMy Profile

  5. martyherald says:

    So glad you enjoyed the post and topic Rose, and thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts and contribute to the conversation. Always appreciated!

  6. Well written and certainly got me thinking about three things to define me. Like us writers needed to be provoked into thinking more! I’m going to ponder them for a while, but I’ll throw out “instigator” as a key word that has been used to describe me and that I embrace. I tend to instigate people in my life to try new things or look at old things in new ways. I like that word and everything it entails. Thank you for including the TED talk–it was good to listen to her perspective.

  7. martyherald says:

    Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts and contribute to the conversation. Always appreciated! 🙂

  8. martyherald says:

    I’m glad you found value in the post Donna. You are correct about the importance of letting the past go, but each experience does change us in some way. No matter how resilient one is there is no way to “bounce” back to the person we were before the experience. I believe the essence of resilience is to look for the opportunities – not just to grow – but to share our knowledge with others who may be going through similar trials. And I know you do a lot of that in your coaching work. Thanks so much for sharing, always value your thoughtful insights. 🙂

  9. martyherald says:

    Welcome Jacqueline and thank you for taking the time to contribute to the conversation – nice to meet a fellow warrior. 🙂

  10. martyherald says:

    Welcome Tim and thank you for sharing your thoughtful insights and contributing to the conversation. You’ve said it so well when you talk about how your experience defined you in a way that has driven you to do things others said – or assumed – you’d never be able to do. Congratulations and I hope that you are finding ways to share your life lessons with others who have experienced similar challenges.

  11. andleeb says:

    I feel that any situation that can be cause of any trauma must not define or future. I am a survivor of Earthquake and never thought or talked about it. But I feel that any kind of trauma or incidence can teach us a lot of lessons that can be beneficial in our future.
    But I will keep asking me these questions as I have never thought about these. I believe that Life is , what we think about it or make it.
    andleeb recently posted…How to solve Exam to avoid mistakes… TIPSMy Profile

  12. Hi Marquita,

    I read this post yesterday and gave it a lot of thought. This is why I just love coming to your blog….I like to learn as I go!

    In the past I did define myself as a person who was a victim turned victor.. The key word here past lol.

    Life throws everyone a curve ball now and then, but we must overcome it and let it go. Now that I’ve done this little exercise, I do recognize more about myself and the essence of who I am. And that is in the here and now. Not the past, for those lessons were learned, why even go there 🙂

    Many thanks Marquita for helping me take a step forward in my life.

    donna merrill recently posted…Ready For Success?My Profile

  13. I think labeling yourself is good, to identify who you are, even negatively. I am someone who looks for, and thrives on negative comments. It is what drives me, to overcome it, to become better. If I let good circumstances define me, then I would be complacent and never grow.

  14. I have always been a believer that one should NEVER allow their current status in life to dictate one’s future outcome. Survivors, warriors, dreamers, etc. know this to be true. I’m one of them.

  15. Red says:

    Nevertheless, that our freewill may not be altogether extinguished, I think it may be true that fortune is the ruler of half our actions, but that she allows the other half or a little less to be governed by us.
    (Niccolo Machiavelli, “The Prince”)

  16. Tim says:

    Interesting topic. I have a few things that have played an important role in my life but the most important was an illness that left me paralyzed when I was 10 years old. The lesson I learnt was not so much in the illness or the paralysis but more so in the effectiveness pride has to your life when you stand up and battle; and winning helps. I would like to say it never defined me but that would only be true if we were talking solely about negative definitions. The experience defined me in a way that has driven me to do things I was told I never would, be adventurous, and strive to ensure that no-one could ever look at me and think that I was once broken. I am certainly not broken now and never considered myself that way. I was just making sure no-one else did either.
    Tim recently posted…The Big BaksheeshMy Profile

  17. martyherald says:

    Welcome Catarina and thank you so much for contributing to the conversation – very much appreciate!

  18. martyherald says:

    Thank you for taking the time to share and contribute to the conversation Jeri. You are right of course about the importance of awareness and each of us have to travel that journey on our own. My family circumstances were also highly dysfunctional but being the obsessive analyzer that I am it resulted in my search to find out how to avoid following the family tradition and ultimately lead to what I’m doing now. 🙂

  19. martyherald says:

    Hey Mark, I’m so sorry you couldn’t view the video. I just checked it and it played fine. Anyway there was a direct link to it at TED Talk in the intro “just in case” and here it is
    I hope you’ll have a couple of minutes to watch it because it’s well worth it. I’m glad you found value in the message. I have to say that for me the most important point is a bit more subtle and that is that highly resilient people are compassionate and very often reach out to help others through similar circumstances by sharing the lessons they’ve learned. This to me is far more powerful than just being able to move on. As always, value your thoughtful insight and support Mark! 🙂

  20. Mark says:

    What a great message Marquita!

    Although I’m truly grateful to this point in my life, that I haven’t had to list survivor of a major illness as part of who I am!

    But I really like the way both you and Jacqueline Gum have framed it.

    Meaning; you definitely need to learn how to move on and get past any traumatic situation (s) that may happen to befall us.

    But at the same time, we must learn to embrace and be open to all the lessons to be learned from that type of situation as well!

    That’s a really powerful message! The video wouldn’t play for some reason, so I’ll have to try and watch it on youtube.
    Mark recently posted…How And Why Major Corporations Waste Tons Of Money On Totally Whack Advertisements!My Profile

  21. Jeri says:

    I grew up with a severely bi-polar mother and yes, I have let it define me. It’s been a lifelong struggle not to do so, but a hard one. At least I am aware of the struggle I face and have sought ways to lesson its hold over me.
    Jeri recently posted…#AmEditing: GOING PRO–Finding the Right EditorMy Profile

  22. Catarina says:

    Once upon a time I was sitting on a rug high up in the Himalayas. A holy Hindu wise man said to me: “Catarina, whatever happens to you in life it’s up to you how you perceive it.” And it’s so true. If we let circumstances define us we can ruin our lives.
    Catarina recently posted…Are you bilingual and have overcome adversity?My Profile

  23. martyherald says:

    Welcome Noelle! I’m so pleased you enjoyed the presentation and thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts. 🙂

  24. martyherald says:

    Well said Lenie! I would venture a guess that many more people around us than we realize have experienced traumatic events or life threatening illnesses and have simply chosen to learn and grow from the experience. Thank you so much for stopping by and sharing your thoughts. 🙂

  25. martyherald says:

    So glad you enjoyed the presentation Chery. You know I added that challenge because I went through it myself first and the other morning I woke up thinking about it and came up with a couple of real surprises. It’s well worth the effort. Thanks for contributing to the conversation my friend. 🙂

  26. martyherald says:

    Welcome and thanks for taking the time to contribute to the conversation Ken. Couple of things if I may, first of all alcoholism is never a “done deal” – just ask any alcoholic 20 years clean and still attending AA meetings. No better, ask any spouse or family member of an alcoholic. That aside, someone’s essence or true self has more to do with values and beliefs than specific life experiences which is in fact the whole point of the presentation. 🙂

  27. martyherald says:

    Welcome Beth and thank you for your thoughtful comment. Those experiences you mention have helped to make you the strong person you are today and I like your phrasing about how those experiences have become your background chapters. Perfect analogy. 🙂

  28. martyherald says:

    Welcome Deborah and thank you for taking the time to contribute to the conversation. I love your attitude! You are so right about the challenge of acceptance, but it’s also really quite freeing once we can get to that point.

  29. martyherald says:

    Hi Jacqueline, you are so right about the importance of embracing the lessons we learn from adversity. This is one of the opportunities and a key trait of highly resilient individuals. Thanks for contributing to the conversation!

  30. martyherald says:

    Hey Dave, great share and for the record I’m not so good with confrontation either. Although I would imagine in your case it’s because you such nice man and in my case it’s because I have a temper to control. You do make a good point about how people sometimes adopt the role of survivor even if they haven’t experienced a traumatic event. In that even I believe there are self esteem issues involved because the payoff would be attention. Wow, we humans are a complicated lot aren’t we? 🙂 Thanks so much for your thoughtful comment, always appreciated.

  31. Loved this post Marquita. I think sometimes we do focus on the negatives rather than pulling strength from difficult situations.
    Noelle McNamara recently posted…Chimelong Safari Park GuangzhouMy Profile

  32. Lenie says:

    Three times in my life I have had life-threatening illnesses but they were things that happened to me, they were never me and never defined me. I think the important thing is to focus on the things in life that are important and make sure you add in some things about which you are passionate.
    Lenie recently posted…5 Top Money-Saving AppsMy Profile

  33. Ken Dowell says:

    If you are going to define your own essence you need to describe the present, not the past. If, for example, you are an alcoholic that may in fact define what your are. But if you are a former alcoholic that’s a done deal, it is not your essence, but rather your history. We may well be a product of our experiences but we’ve all grown from those experiences and are no longer the same person.
    Ken Dowell recently posted…Digital Deception: Social Media’s Identity Conundrum Pt. 1My Profile

  34. Chery Schmidt says:

    Hello Marty, I don’t let the negative experiences that have happened in my life define me and believe me I have had my fair share.

    With that said I am going to take you up on your challlenge and really think about what 3 things defines the very essence of me over the next week.

    This really did get my mind a racing tonight.. Thanks for sharing.. Chery :))
    Chery Schmidt recently posted…Your Foundation To Online SuccessMy Profile

  35. Beth Niebuhr says:

    I have had some experiences that I could have allowed to define me. As you might guess, I’m not talking about the postive ones. My decision has been to consider them background chapters in the story of me but definitely the defining points in my story. I have learned from them but chose to move on each time.
    Beth Niebuhr recently posted…Never Stop Asking!My Profile

  36. Deborah A. Ten Brink says:

    Hello Marquita. This is my first time here visiting your blog. I too have had many challenges in my life. I learned early on with the grieving process that I had to work with the natural process of it and not try to just shove it all down deep because it was inconvenient. I learned to just go with it when it came.

    Acceptance for me was the hardest part. Then I learned that my reaction to the events, my acceptance of it or should I say my attitude about it was about all I could control. I refused to let my circumstances define me!

    Great post Marquita! Thank you for the awesome message.

    Deborah A. Ten Brink recently posted…Your Mission Statement. How To Capture The Essence Of Your BusinessMy Profile

  37. Jacqueline Gum (Jacquie) says:

    I too survived cancer, but rarely speak of it becasue I do not think it defines me. Letting go of the pain is essential to growth. But holding onto the lesson is also important. Sometimes it’s difficult to separate those two things, however:) So for me the key is to keep trying.
    Jacqueline Gum (Jacquie) recently posted…Daylight Saving Time… Where’s The Justice?My Profile

  38. Dave Cenker says:

    I can honestly say that I have not been given a situation (thankfully, I presume) to label myself as a survivor. However, as you have stated, you don’t really need to have experienced a life-altering situation to have this talk really hit home.

    At the risk of sounding numb to the harrowing emotions that survivors need to endure, I would say that we all sometimes adopt the role of survivor without suffering an acute situation. We just need to get through another work day, another week of hectic schedules, another list of responsibilities that perhaps we would rather not be tagged with. I can tell you that is the way it is with someone I know – quite well.

    I really enjoyed this talk. It was filled with eye-opening revelations along with well-placed humor. I especially liked the part where she said – “I told him a not so nice word, followed by a regular word.” 🙂

    Whether we are surviving a trauma, or surviving the doldrums that we have ourselves buried in, I like the insight Debra provides that the word – survivor – sounds so static with no opportunity for growth.

    The three C’s that Debra defines as the cornerstone for being a chaplain really hit home for me in the area of personal growth. They seem to be the same: comfort, clarify, confront. I’m really good at the first also, not so good at the last one.

    I am going to work on that third one this week – take the challenge you have posed – to identify those three things that define my essence – honestly – and hopefully make any changes that help to live a more authentic version of myself. Thank you Marty, another great article 🙂
    Dave Cenker recently posted…SubmissionMy Profile