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A New Identity Please
A fresh passport is not enough for this trip
Work seems to be synonymous with identity these days, at least the US. Perhaps work has now formed modern identity more broadly, as even Europe (the last bastion of working-to-live) begins to lengthen hours and shorten vacations. This kind of identity is problematic.
Reflect for a moment on how you may have felt (or still feel) when you did not have a job title to share at dinner parties and events. I noticed that I do not like it. Not even a little bit.
There was a hot minute in 2022 when I was traveling through Latin America on a self-created sabbatical to write and surf, when I delighted in the looks on people’s faces as I told them this delicious fact about my lack of job title. Unfortunately, even a “life status update” like this one, framed around a write/surf sabbatical, is still centered on what I am doing and its relationship to my work (as in, my being away from work).
Why is this such a problem?
Identity is a story we tell that frames our perception of ourselves in the world. When we craft our identity around our work, or really anything else external to our inner being, we build our place in the world on ever changing sands. Our jobs change. Our fields and industries change. Layoffs happen. We may stay at home with children. We may start up business that ultimately fail. We may go from for-profit to non-profit work. So much can change. Our identity is insecure.
Many books have been written about how we can rewrite our own story. Two that I particularly like are Brene Brown’s Rising Strong and James Pennebaker’s Expressive Writing: Words that Heal. In each, the author guides us to undergo a process of integration through writing and storytelling, in which our own fresh choice of frame helps move us to a new version of the story we’re telling about ourselves and our experience.
Learning a solid story revision process is a way to re-form our identity around a healthier and more holistic tale.
Stuck on my story
Lately I have been very stuck on “how to tell my story,” as a person doing a handful of different “work and work-like” activities, from writing this Substack, to creating and facilitating leadership workshops, to offering freelance strategic advisory services, to building a speaking business, to volunteering on the planning committee of a literary festival at near part-time job hours. It’s a grab-bag of activities that doesn’t fit neatly in an elevator speech. Plus, after a twenty-year career holding recognizable titles at big companies with recognizable names, I’m not remotely comfortable sharing my current “non-title” title.
It feels to me like my job headline could read “fluidly dabbling” just as easily as it could read “gathering power, gaining practice, and preparing to shoot beams of light out of my eyes, which will radically alter the way everyone sees the world.” No one would know if I was bullshitting either way.
People who are more concrete about it tell me, “you’re a writer, speaker, strategist and leadership development facilitator.” Then I feel foolish for struggling with this naming process so much.
Mostly, I think I struggle because starting with my sabbatical, I have been committed to allowing the next phase of my career to grow in an inspired and organic way, such that I find myself in the right places, doing what is needed of me. But it’s not a linear process in which each stage becomes immediately obvious to me.
I’ve noticed, however, that another— perhaps deeper— part of my struggle with how to tell my story stems from not having explored the alternatives to describing my identity beyond my work.
Let us explore, then, the ways to identify ourselves that go beyond the usual.
For me defining my identity has usually started with work. For someone else it may be body (“I’m tall”), or mind (“I’m smart”), or personality (“I’m a type A person disguised as a type B person“), or possessions (Rolex, Porche, Gucci, children, PhDs, club memberships), or activities (gardening, iron mans, volunteering, parenting).
Let us, for a moment, loosen our grip on these items and see what else we might discover.
When we look more broadly and expansively at who we are, what do we see?
Do you notice that what is left when all of the above items are stripped away is simply your own existence? It feels a little hard to describe that. But luckily there is a way.
Changing our perception of self
Getting to a place of self-acceptance about my Messy Humanity over the years has delivered the clear understanding that we do not need to fix anything about ourselves in order to grow. That’s self-rejection. Instead, our growth work— our transformation work— is all about showing up more fully as our already whole selves.
But how? What is there to perceive of our full self beyond our work, body, brain, personality, possessions and activities?
There is our inner world. What we sense and feel. What we envision and think.
While we may not often stop to consider these inner realities, they are actually the source of our behavior and action (or inaction).
Sensing → feeling → envisioning → thinking → acting.
At the root of our story is the non-verbal experience of our bodily sensations, which includes the biological sensations of our feelings flooding our body.
What is my body sensing? Learning to drop into our body and notice our body’s sensations is, in itself, an education in how our lived experience in the world is impacting us.
Becoming aware of the body’s desires and impulses as they happen, in the moment, can help us respond to life directly, without adding filters related to what we think or believe or remember or expect, all of which can hold us back from authentic action.
Also discoverable within the sensations of our body are the non-verbal images conjured up by our brain in response. As we experience sensations and feelings in the body, we can close our eyes, turn inwards, and discover that our inner eye sees colors, shapes, textures, or other imagery related to these sensations. I recently experienced this imagery layer in my own brain in the most vivid way, through a guided meditation exercise. I was shocked at what my body had to tell me about in pictures (though that is a story for another day).
Paying attention to the images and symbols conjured by our mind in response to our body’s sensations and feelings, tells us metaphorically about what the body has to say. These images may explain how we’re energetically responding to our sensory experience more accurately than the words we might use to explain it.
Of course, thoughts also impact us. Noticing what thoughts are flooding our mind as we experience the sensations of our body (and any related imagery) is essential to piecing our story together and becoming conscious of what we may want to change or re-write. Thoughts often drive additional feelings, as well as actions, so consciously noticing them can help us transform our behavior and therefore change our lives.
A new story of identity
In the book Designing and Leading Life Changing Workshops, the authors identify five areas to consider when telling and integrating your own story:
Your Future: imagining possibilities, inspiring action
Your Past: appreciating and honoring past contributions and turning points
Your Purpose: identifying what makes you feel most alive, most in line with the great flow of life and creation
Your Foundation: knowing what you care about, value, and what grounds you
Your Present: noticing your own internal state with present-moment awareness into your senses, feelings, visions, and thoughts
As you consider each of the above areas, you get to decide how these five aspects of your story integrate to a complete whole. And that process is how you begin to transform and grow into the version of you that can show up most fully you, most fully alive, and most fully self-accepting.
When honoring this new, integrated, self-accepting story you will be able to take more purposeful, embodied action, which is more free from limiting beliefs and fears than before.
Here are a few question prompts to consider as you explore this new version of your identity story:
Re: hopes, dreams, unlimited potential for the future
Wouldn’t it be great if…
Maybe I could…
Re: past influences, impacts, transitions
What were the pivotal moments that formed you?
What did you learn from what happened?
What could you let go of?
Re: your reasons why, the things that make you feel most alive, your purpose
What is motivating to you?
What is the bigger conversation you may want to have?
How do you feel most impactful to the greater good?
Re: your values, what connects you to your broader humanity and grounds you in your foundation
What fosters connection and appreciation for you?
What are your strengths and gifts?
What do you feel most inspired to share with others?
Re: your internal state, feelings, thoughts in the present moment
What do you sense right now? Where do you feel it? What do you feel?
Where is your focus?
What thoughts do you notice rising up?
I find that as I begin to think about my story more holistically and more internally, I bring lessons from my past experiences to bear on what I most care about today and what I want to share with others. This also helps me understand my unique gifts and strengths in a new light. I see how my present experience is filtered through the lens of my past, and I notice things I might let go of to change my present experience.
As I piece it together, yes, I can certainly define myself through my work as a person who writes, crafts strategy, speaks, and facilitates leadership workshops.
I can also tell a more fully integrated story of myself as someone who has learned the practices of self-acceptance the hard way, through five promotions in five years, a divorce and many years of dating, influencing (and head-butting with) top executives in ways that rarely felt like fun and games, and many more forms of trial and error, of research and application, of pain and integration.
I can talk about how in middle school I had a moment of recognition when I learned what a paradigm shift was (and about the thinkers and inventors and scientists and writers who caused them to happen for humanity). I was only twelve, but I knew this concept meant something important for my life.
I can tell the story of how I came to see that our well of inner wisdom is where the leader in each of us lives— and how my experiences have taught me to bring that wisdom forth in myself and others in unexpected ways, which give rise to better self-leadership, richer inter-personal relationships, more effective work management, greater team cohesion and impact, more harmonious team cultures, and more successful organizations.
I can tell the story of how I still get scared— very scared and stuck and confused, in fact— and how that does not make me less of a leader, it simply makes me human.
I can tell the story of how slow I feel at times, wanting to create more, faster, in an always-on world, and how I sometimes trust my process and sometimes don’t, but how I keep putting one foot in front of the other, hoping that eventually it will lead to creating works of meaning and impact.
I can tell the story of how I forget to play and laugh sometimes, and then remember to lighten up when I am with friends, or dancing, or out sitting in the sun and watching the water, or brainstorming without a specific end-goal… and within those moments I rediscover my most passionate, emphatic, and powerful self.
In these stories I see that I am an explorer, transformer, empath, and creator, who is seeking ways to bring out our deep but playful human wisdom, which I know is what enables us all to lead with powerful, positive impact.
This new story of mine is not exactly elevator pitch ready, nor is it all-encompassing (realistically, we all contain infinite stories). Still, it’s a lot more expansive than trying to describe who I am by the jobs I do.
What is your story about?
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