03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Who Are You?

Last week I presented the question "Are you having a quarterlife crisis" and shared a quiz to support you in answering that question. For most twenty-somethings that took the quiz, I suspect you answered "yes" to the majority of the questions. The simple fact is that a so-called "quarterlife crisis" is a natural part of growing up. In my experience and work coaching quarter-lifers, what is at the root of most quarterlife crises are the unknown answers to the questions of what I refer to as: "The Twenties Triangle: Who am I, what do I want and how do I get it?"

These three questions dominate our minds during our twenty-something years and it's incredibly frustrating not to have the answers. Hurried to experience results in the areas of career, relationships, money and other external things, most skip right to the second and third questions. But if you have not taken the time to truly investigate the question "who am I" before you make decisions about what you want or how to get it, you are likely to experience disappointment, confusion, and increased anxiety or self-doubt. The process of self-discovery and coming to understanding and acceptance is the first step out of a quarterlife crisis. You have to take the time to look within rather than constantly focusing on what you are without.

You are consistently asked HOW you are or WHAT you do, but how often are you asked or do you ask yourself, "WHO am I?" This question slaps you in the face the hardest in your twenties, when so many grown-up, real-world, this-is-your-life questions arrive at your doorstep. Feeling pressured to make decisions, you are likely to just try to become someone or something that you think will make you happy. Stepping into jobs and relationships that are not satisfying or being completely paralyzed by ambiguity are common outcomes of not really knowing who you are.

So how do you figure out who you are? Well, you start by identifying who you are not. We are not the roles we play in life or who other people want us to be. We are not our jobs, our relationships, our bodies, our accomplishments, or our bank accounts. The answer to "Who am I?" comes from inside -- it's what makes each of us a unique individual. What makes you tick? What excites you? What scares you? What makes you feel alive inside? Who are you when no one else is looking?

Discovering who you really are is like peeling back layers of an onion. The layers of your "identity onion" are likely to include who you have been told to be, who you believe you should be, and personas you've developed to handle certain situations or people -- whether to get something, appease or impress someone, or escape an uncomfortable situation.

The peeling of this identity onion is not easy because instructions for soul-searching are usually not shared around the dinner table or taught in college. Plus, becoming clear on who you are is an ongoing process, not a single event. It's like a class that never ends - but you must enroll!

To kick off your first day at self-discovery school, write the answers to the question, "who am I?" in a journal. After you do, reflect on your answers. How many of your responses are roles you play or things you do? Such as: I am a student, I am a daughter or son, I am a grad student and so on. Remember those are not things that define who you are! Dig deeper and you may discover things like compassion, courage, a sense of humor, sensitivity, loyalty, integrity, etc. Get to your core qualities that make you uniquely YOU. If you are having trouble finding them, think about someone you love and/or something you absolutely love to do and identify the qualities that come forward in you when you are around that person or doing that thing.

Spend some time on this exercise, perhaps do it over the course of the next few days and see what emerges. And release any expectations you have about doing it! The thing to remember and embrace about self-discovery is that it is both goalless and timeless; which can be frustrating for those with a do-do-do, controlling approach to life. Give yourself permission to stop beating your head up against the wall trying to figure out what you want and how to get it. Trust me, if you are patient and set the intention to connect to who you really are, the answers to your other questions will reveal themselves more easily.