Identity crisis (or gift)?

Published on April 20, 2017

Are you having an identity crisis?

Senior executives and business leaders can hit a crisis of confidence and identity as they step up the career ladder. And as we hit our 30's, 40's or 50's we all face situations that challenge our perception of self - be it redundancy, divorce, the loss of a parent or friend, children flying the nest or those inevitable grey hairs. What's the best way to cope?

It occurs to me that having a wobble under the broad heading of identity crisis is more gift than crisis, although it might not feel like it at the time. A crisis of this nature usually turns out to be a useful disturbance that forces us to reflect on what really matters.

When something causes a jolt in our world (like a new home environment, changing careers, the realisation of middle age), we experience emotional chaos as our minds necessarily reconfigure to form in a more appropriate way of being for our new circumstances. Accepting that this is part of a natural process (deconstruct to reform in a more useful way) can make the feelings of uncertainty easier to tolerate. Validating the experience somehow helps, even if it is just to confirm we're not going mad!

What is identity anyway?

Many psychologists assert most people have seven or more sub-personalities. We are a different person with our parents, our friends, our partner, our work colleagues etc. Our identity is formed relative to relationship and we make distinctions for these such as brother, mother, engineer, boss, vegetarian, cyclist and so on. They are helpful descriptions but not the full picture of a person. At the ego level of our identity (the part of us we prefer the world to see), we develop personalities ultimately designed to defend us. This is more akin to forming patterns of behaviour and habits than an accurate description of who we are.

Maybe we are all of these things and maybe none of them, and does it really matter? A more useful line of questioning might be to ask whether the various identities you have for yourself are serving you or getting in the way?

What identities would you like to have? The crisis of identity is much more a crisis of attachment. We are attached to what a particular identity means to us by way of things like security, status, attention, being needed, or recognition. If we can accept the conditions of our new reality we have a choice to let go of our self-constructed perceptions of who we are or should be, and the demands and entitlements that go with them.

This can be liberating and filled with possibility. In the act of acceptance and letting go we are freed up to be in the moment and open to potential. These are the conditions that create the possibility of living in a future pulled present, rather than a past-informed future. Opportunities to drop ways of being that aren't working for us, or aren't available anymore, and to build some more hopeful ones. Who would you be, if you were not your past?

It often appears to us that the circumstances of our lives are the cause of how we feel. We can easily blame circumstance for shaking the foundations of our identity. In reality it is an inside-out job. We decide the meaning we attach to any given experience. This is a powerful concept to reflect on. Much of our human suffering is related to the gap between how we believe life should be for us and how it actually is, and identity plays a role in engineering our expectations.

What might letting go of parts of your identity allow you to create space for?

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