This summer I was going through a really interesting process of discovering how I identified myself and this post was a capture of what I was thinking at the time. It was almost a full blown "who am I?" without me actually asking that question. It was more of a how to I identify myself? What do I like? How do I represent myself? What is the essence of my spirit? It was a "who am I?" with some concrete labels and other identifiers behind it. What it served to do was broaden my own definition of myself since, as you'll read below, I had traditionally had a very narrow view on who I was and how I fit into the world.
When I quit my career in HR to go back to school to be a nutritionist I had an identity crisis. The plan for 4 years at that point had always been to save up money so I could quit my day job and dedicate myself to my studies. I was really excited when I finally quit, beyond the part where I could get up and not have to go to a job that brought me no joy. What I wasn't expecting was the total identity crisis that happened.
What is identity?
Identity is a really subconscious and subjective thing. I certainly never thought about it much beyond my coach training and never in the practical context of my own life till it was smacking me in the face.
Identity can be summed up with the question: who or what am I the same as? When we can identify ourselves as being the same as something or someone we gain safety in knowing that we fit in. To our deep critter brain programming, if you fit in in society you won’t be an outcast and die. That identity piece gets a little more sophisticated as our brains develop and we begin to perceive how we fit in in the greater world around us.
We often identify ourselves with the roles we play and the jobs we do. We first learn how to identify ourselves through our family relationships; we are first a girl or a boy, then a brother, sister, son, and daughter. We begin exploring the world and applying more labels when we go to school and beyond. When we leave home our identity is further shaped by how we spend most of our time or what takes our focus.
Think about any time you have switched jobs or organizations. There is always that tentative period in the beginning where you are acclimatizing to the new environment, to the new culture of the team or organization. In this period of time you are figuring out how you fit in. Gradually you relax once you begin to understand the environment. If you re doing the same sort of job as before, the process is a lot easier since you have previous knowledge to fall back on and can feel secure in. You already know half or more or what you need to know to do the job, you can feel assured in your own ability.
The reason it was so hard for me to transition into being a student was that I really strongly identified with my job, it was actually the primary way I identified myself to others, that was how I fit into the world so once I turned my back on it, I was on shaky ground. Plus I didn’t know how “student” worked so I was in full blown internal chaos. It should have been bliss!
Without realizing the state of chaos I was in I made it worse (in my search for identity and survival) by plunging headlong into creating a coaching business. I automatically added a couple more layers to figure out and made it so I couldn’t even fully focus on one thing. I was forever multitasking and couldn’t understand how these aspects of me worked together. I was trying to combine two or more labels while I was still learning how to operate as them.
I also understand now that a large piece of my worth as an individual at that time (another big topic in life!) was wrapped up in being outwardly productive. It could be described as looking like I am busy, having a pile of work that was done at the end of the day. I had real difficulties working on projects that couldn't be done in a day or two since the conceptual, problem solving aspects did not amount to having a pile of stuff done at the edge of my desk by the end of the day. I still bump up against that now from time to time.
My big epiphany came when I got the message: What you do, does not define who you are. You are a person, and your job is where you spend a large amount of your time; however, you are not your job.
Up until recently this was still a big mess for me. I was still identifying myself by what I was doing (and that pile of done stuff at the end of the day) but "Who I am" and "What I am here to do/how I am spending my time on this planet" are two totally different things. I am here on this earth to have an experience of life. I just happen to have made it my job to share what I have learned in order to help others, but my primary mission in life is to live life! Not to be my job.
I’m sure if you look around you, you can point out at least one person in your life that does not have this sort of definition between themselves and what they do. These two things are merged. I am not saying that it is wrong, it’s just one way of doing it. But what happens to that person if they don’t have a strong sense of self and you take that job away from them? They go into internal chaos and crisis just like I did.
I think it’s important that we explore who we are as a way of broadening our own definition. If I hadn’t been so tied up in who I was through my job I might have been able to make that transition in a much more graceful way. Also sticking to what I was doing in the immediate moment instead of trying to define my future self who hadn't arrived yet (and would never arrive in that manner anyways) would have helped immensely. But I don't think too many people really take the trouble to look at themselves this way unless they have something that forces their hand. Or maybe everyone does and they're not talking about it?
Now that I have graduated from school and started to understand what it is I want to do (not what I thought at all!), I am having this great opportunity to go through a process of definition of my business and myself. I realize that my business is a separate entity from me with it’s own identity. I am not required to be my job or my business in the way that I would have become the organization or job before. I don't have to conform myself to a cultural identity and what's more; I actually get to decide what the culture of my business is. Still that doesn’t mean that I become it.
In this pursuit of indentifying myself I am also in the process of defining the purpose and reason behind practically everything I spend my time creating. This is another way of identifying myself by defining the things and concepts around me. This helps me focus my energies more and creates boundaries to channel the energy instead of being all foggy and distracted by not really understanding what it is I'm working on or the purpose of my environment. It's hard to explain, but by defining all the edges my own edges and essence become more solid.
A surprising part of this whole process of definition that came up is the understanding that my personal style is separate from the aesthetics of my brand. It seemed ridiculous that I hadn't realized that before but it was a necessary distinction and further reminder that I am not my job.
When we work in an environment and culture with a lot of people and have to adhere to a dress code we might not be able to express ourselves through our style as we would have otherwise. I used to just get clothes that ticked the job boxes of looking respectable and upholding the dress code, with little though to identifying myself through these clothes. Now a whole new realm has been opened to me where I get to make decisions about how I represent myself visually and how clothes make me feel. Turns out the colours I wear are the most important factor for me. Clothes shopping as I’ve known it has been turned on it’s head and I have a new set of parameters beyond getting what’s on sale at Banana Republic.
My business also has a visual identity that expresses certain beliefs and evokes particular feelings. It has an essence of its own that is separate from me.
So what labels or identity pieces do you apply to yourself?
If you met a stranger at a party, (assuming you aren’t deliberately trying to network for career reasons) how do you introduce yourself? This is a clear indication of the primary ways you identify yourself and what is important to you. Do you identify yourself as a mother or hobbyist of some sort or do you immediately blurt out what it is you do for a living?
What you say about yourself also says something about what you believe about yourself and what you value as important.
How do you define the essence of your spirit? What colours represent it? What shapes? What pictures? What calls to your soul when you consider this? Creating a mood board can help you to capture your essence or the essence of the thing you are trying to define. I now have a mood board for myself that holds the things that I consider important along with a couple of pictures that capture the essence of the person I strive to embody and how I want to navigate my life. I have a separate board for my business to capture its spirit and how I want it to inspire others.
Other tell tale signs are what makes you feel good, comfortable or otherwise happy? How do you spend your time? What lights you up? These are also identifiers of who you are.
Now having gone through this process I see myself merging with my business in a different way. After all, it is my playground where I get to have fun and be myself in so now I am considering how I want to interact with it, but with a strong sense of self where before it was just a messy muddle.