Who are you? Why identity matters
Posted on January 18, 2010 by William Powell, One of Thousands of Leadership Coaches on Noomii.
The importance of identity is grossly undervalued. Don't allow a poorly developed perspective of your identity dictate how well you do life.
In western culture, it has become quite commonplace to ask someone what they do for a living upon first meeting; an icebreaker, if you will. In and of itself, this practice is polite and shows interest in the other person…great people skills. There is also a dark side to this reality as well. A side that is so subtle, it becomes quite easy to dismiss someone making this distinction as doing so only to create the distinction for distinction’s sake.
To unpack this a bit, what is the typical response to “what do you do for a living”? The majority of responses begin with “I am…” The question was based on doing and the response was centered on being. Do you not find that interesting in the least?
I have found that many of my clients gain their identity through what they do. When they realize this, they are surprised and there is even a sense of cheating themselves that comes to the surface. The idea that one’s identity has somehow become inextricably interwoven in what they do is a nauseating idea for sure.
On a practical level, why does this matter? How can it negatively affect you? Have you ever noticed that you engage your more volatile emotions rather quickly when what you do is challenged or questioned in a negative light? Maybe you berate yourself because you were told you didn’t do a good job. Perhaps your lack of perfection causes you to question your self-worth and it’s beginning to take a toll on your confidence level. Are you overcompensating from years of what you do being attacked or questioned?
If you find many of these statements to ring true, then you are in great company. It is unbelievably common to gain your identity through what you do. Instead of getting into how and why it happens; let’s focus on a simple model so we can begin the journey towards a healthier mindset.
Picture a series of circles, one inside the other. The innermost circle is who you are, your identity. The next circle out from your identity is what you do (work, hobbies, relationships, religion, etc.). The circle out from what you do is what you have (house, car, boat, Beatles vinyl collection, etc.).
These circles are interrelated, however many of us have a tendency to force this interrelation to function backwards. Based on what we have, we gain identity and view ourselves in a good or bad light. What we have also determines what we do and how we act. The leftovers and unpleasant fallout from moving from the outside in (with respect to our circles), is a distorted view of our identity.
The reality is, we should be starting from the inside and working our way out. This sense of starting from the inside and working outward happens anyway, it’s just that our actions become self destructive because they have been tainted by allowing the process to start from the outside and work its way inward. It is this dynamic which usually puts people on the proverbial vicious cycle.
The simple answer is to cut out the part of the equation that causes the confusion; the part that starts from the outside and works its way inward. In other words, start at the center…you! Your identity rests solely in the fact that you exist and are completely irreplaceable. This isn’t to be a source of arrogance, but rather of accepting self-worth without stuff attached to it. Out of this place of acceptance, what you do will be affected with much more balance. What you do, typically determines what you have.
Once you have grasped this and begun exercising this mindset in your life, you’ll find you don’t become so emotional when someone criticizes or challenges what you do. It’s much easier to respond to their statements, as opposed to reacting to them.
Initially, this paradigm shift in mindset is a significant challenge. It requires focus, reflection and spending more time talking to yourself, than listening to yourself. I am confident that once you have overcome the initial difficulty of this exercise, you will begin to see things differently. It is one of those things that once you see it in a different perspective, you will find it difficult to revert to your old perspective. Good luck and have fun finding yourself!