How to build a new identity
My New Year post was all about the different roles I have played and was starting to think about the roles I’d like to play in the next decade.
I was talking to someone at a cross-roads in their life and got to thinking about identity and where we get it and what it means.
Identity seems to me to go beyond roles, to a deeper part of our self, something we are attached to and find meaning in. For example, I’m happy to have ‘mother’ as part of my identity. Yes it is a role I play with functions and actions and social responsibilities, but it also something I feel is a fundamental difference in me. I know what it is to love unconditionally and have another human life 100% dependent on me and that has changed, not just the role I play, but the person I am, my values and how I live.
Similarly, the role of ‘teacher’ of course started off as a role, a job I did, something I did a course to learn. I see the student teachers I work with grow into that new role, find it difficult at first, especially if they have come from another career; it is hard to shed one skin and be naked and vulnerable once again. Now ‘teacher’ is not just a job I do, it is who I am. I love to learn and share what I know, I seek to understand, to explore and then, to those who are interested, to share what I am finding out. It shapes my understanding of the world.
As I was listening to the person at the cross-roads talk, I started to think about who we acquire identity. I chose to be a mother and a teacher. But were they a thought or a feeling? No one in their right mind would do the sums on parenting and decide to take it up; long hours, no pay, no feedback, very little support, no sleep, and in the end, if we are successful, they will leave. Of course applying for a teaching course was cognitive; I had to think about the application and the interview and I see how hard the student teachers of today work to understand it all. But the urge to teach? Apparently I was teaching teddies and dolls, torturing my younger sister with blackboards and alphabets. It was something I was doing before I knew I wanted to do it.
So identity is not just a cognitive enterprise. It might have thought involved, but there is feeling too, emotion, desire, something less rational which calls us forward.
But the call is not enough. We have to actually DO the thing. I could have thought about mothering, read, every book, watched births, but I only became a mother by doing it. My identity as a writer has only come because I dared to write even though no one really read; but I did it anyway because it was a thing I had to do, something called me. For ages, I couldn’t say ‘I am a writer’, it felt like a coat too big to fit, but the more I wrote, the more I grew into it. Then saying ‘I am an author’ got easier with every book. I think it was Into the Woods that finally helped me step into those shoes and claim them as my own.
It all takes time. I am a yoga teacher now after a two year course, but this feels like a new part of my identity, because although I practice yoga a lot, I teach it less. Partly it’s not something people necessarily see me as or know me for, but of course, that’s because I’m not doing it very publicly, it’s not yet integrated into who I am and may not be, I can not tell yet, only when and if it happens.
I can’t believe I did my coaching training ten years ago. I did the training and started coaching, but I didn’t let anyone at school know, I kept my coaching life a secret, scared of being found out, of not being good enough, of failing. So I did it quietly until a point where somehow I started to blend the areas of my life and start to coach in schools. I don’t remember it being a decision, just the next step on an unclear path. Now I coach a lot, I feel like a coach, it is part of my identity.
I have also tried out roles which have not stuck. I have tried to be an on-line entrepreneur, a red-tent facilitator, a National College of School Leadership facilitator, a ballroom dancer, an academic. The first two roles were not successful and the last few didn’t fit so didn’t stick. I did them, I tried them, I gave them energy and attention but they were not for me, they are not part of how I think of myself.
So what does all this mean for my future identity. At some point people might see me as an ’empty-nester’, and sooner or later people will see me as ‘old’, but it is down to me if I integrate these perceptions into my identity, because we become what we do and what we do is affected by how we think. So if I focus on being old, I will do old and so be old. I’m not denying the biology, but my Nonna was lively and interested until the day she died and my uncle is still involved in his business in his 90s.
It also means if I want to take on new identities, I have to start by feeling the call towards what attracts me and then ‘doing’ the thing. Too often we over think and plan and never get around to doing because we think our self out of it. I have just finished reading the glorious Salt Path (below). It is a story of people who lose their home, their health and their livelihood and so, not knowing what else to do start to walk the sea coast path. It is only as they walk that they find themselves, they start off feeling lost.
And so it is with us all, when we are drawn to something new, whether it is a new person, new work, new habits, lifestyles, ways of eating, hobbies or new adventures we have no idea at the start if it will work out, if we will like it, if it’s right for us. But the only way we can find out is by taking the chance and starting out. We need to date the new person, try the new work, the new habit, the new life style. We have to take the first step and see how it feels and see if it grows. It is a doing and feeling thing, not just a thought.
So I said in my New Year’s blog that I want to be a horse woman and the only way that will happen is by being around horses; not just learning to ride, but learning to tack up, muck out, read their language, watch them move, know their smell. And is only by trying this that I will ever know if the identity is mine to stay or just a phase that passes through, which is also OK.
I don’t want to wait until the kids leave home to adventure out, I do not want to wish my time with them away, instead we are going to adventure together, to build our travel courage, to face whatever the journey brings.
So for sure, muse and dream and doodle and talk about who you want to be next, what new you want to add into your identity, but don’t over think it, just get started, do it, feel your way, go where the positive energy is, try, experiment, play.
Because our identity tomorrow, is the sum of the things we do each day.
If you enjoyed reading this please share it with friends. You might also be interested in talking to me about coaching , or maybe try some of my online courses (some are free), or treat yourself to a climate protecting pamper with vegan friendly, organic Tropic which supports the planting of forests and education in deprived areas.
Thanks for being here.