For years now, my students have heard me say the statement above. And I’ve come to understand that they each have their own interpretation of it. “Yes, I’m a better actress than I think I am.” “Yes, I’m not only a good businessman but I’m also a good father.” “Yes, those limiting beliefs I’ve had that I would never be successful are not true.”
Those are all good and useful ways to think about it. But I think we can take the notion of identity, of who we think we are, much further – and achieve amazing results when we do. So let’s talk about identity and about disconnecting from our “false” identities to gain the freedom of who we really are.
As human beings, we are quick to identify ourselves using our circumstances, how others perceive us, our behaviors, or our positions in life. It’s somehow comforting to clothe ourselves in these identities. But none of those are really who we are. And the problem with latching onto these identities is, in addition to limiting our growth, it leaves us lost and confused when they are stripped from us.
An example is a friend of mine who was a dedicated martial artist in her twenties. But she severely injured her back, so martial arts was no longer possible for her. “Everything I thought I was had been tied to martial arts: my friends, my work, even my spiritual practice. With all of that gone, what was left?” She had to come to the realization that her true identity was beyond her ability to do martial arts.
Isn’t this pretty common? When marriages break up, it’s not just the pain of losing someone you once loved. It’s also the devastating loss of who you had become: a wife, a husband, part of a couple. It can feel vulnerable and awkward to walk around without that identity. Who am I now? There is also the loss of the future that identity was heading toward: the house, the kids, the security of growing old with that partner.
Or take the loss of a job. So many people, especially on our culture, identify with their work or their positions. When that job or career is lost, no matter what the reason—even retirement—people report feeling useless, unworthy, even embarrassed or humiliated. Why? Because they can no longer point to an identity that says, “I’m an accountant.” Or “I’m VP of a marketing firm.” Or “I’m a widgets maker.”
We even cling to seemingly negative identities. “I’m a diabetic,” or “I’m not good with money,” or “I’m not mechanically inclined.” The benefit of maintaining a negative identity is that it surrounds us in an easily-defined, cozy comfort zone. We are clear about what we can and cannot do, so we never have to venture out. Of course, the downside to this is exactly the same: it surrounds us in an easily-defined, cozy comfort zone and so we think we are clear about what we can and cannot do so we never have to venture out!
So how do we keep ourselves from latching too tightly onto all of our identities? First, of course, is to recognize the identities we’re holding. Next, we need to re-language them, to speak about them in such a way that we create “distance” and ease the mental/emotional attachment. Try out the following examples, adding identities that fit your own life, and see if the re-wording feels different to you.
You are not your circumstances. Turn “I’m a diabetic” into “I have diabetes” and “I’m broke” into “I would like to have more money.” “I’m disabled” is more accurately “I’m a person with disabilities.” “I’m the product of a dysfunctional family” feels much more burdensome than “I spent my childhood with a family that was dysfunctional.” Circumstances, both good and bad, can change. Who you are will still be standing when they do.
You are not what you do. You aren’t a stay at home mom. You’re a woman who currently stays at home to raise your children. You aren’t a banker, but a man who currently works in a bank. You aren’t a dancer. You’re a person who dances. And when you can no longer do what you do, whether by choice or not, you will still be you.
You are not your roles. “I’m a wife and mother” feels less attached when modified to “I have children and a husband.” “I’m the oldest son” feels different when it’s re-worded to “I have 3 siblings who are all younger than I am.” “I’m a good person” is less adaptable than “I’m a person who wants to do the right thing.” We all have lots of roles that we play. But none of them fully define who we are.
You are not your beliefs or affiliations. This one is often the toughest. Identifying with belief systems or groups is especially comforting. It makes us feel safe and secure. But one of the keys to growth is openness and flexibility. “I’m a Christian” becomes more open when it’s “I believe in the Christian faith.” “I’m a Republican” doesn’t have as much life and flexibility in it as “I agree with the values of the Republican party.”
By loosening your grip on some of your false identities, you open yourself to more possibility – and more of who you truly are!
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