One of the most common challenges that people have in the time we are living in is when a person feel lost or uncertain about her/his own identity.
“I don’t know who I am anymore”
“I don’t know what I want”
“I don’t know what to believe in, in the midst of all of this noise”
“I don’t have a purpose or I can’t find a purpose for myself”
“If it weren’t for my job I wouldn’t know who I am”
“If it weren’t for my kids I wouldn’t know what to do with my life”
“I don’t know what my passion is”
“I lost my passion”
Maybe you too have said or thought of one or more of the statements above, or maybe you heard someone else saying such statements. Very often such statements are an indicator for an identity crisis as in “I don’t know who I am anymore” or “I forgot who I am”. It is that moment of uncertainty and confusion in which a person’s sense of identity becomes insecure.
I coached a lot of people who had identity crises and managed to summarize the main reason of it, approaching the subject from my experience and not from a philosophical or academic point of view.
I believe that confusing our identity (who we are) with our functions (what we do) is the reason behind experiencing an identity crisis.
Let me clarify with an example:
When I asked my coaching client (who, for the sake of confidentiality, I will call Bob) tell me about you (who you are) this is how he responded “I am 64 years old, I am the CFO of xxx company (a 600-million-dollar company), I am a father of two boys and I am a Canadian”. As I am listening to Bob I reflected about his answer -what I call an identity statement- for a moment, and this is what I was truly hearing:
- I am 64 years old- I have been alive for the last 64 years. To me, the act of living is a function.
- I am the CFO- A job is a function.
- I am a father of two boys- I am parenting two people. Parenting also a function.
- I am a Canadian- I was born in Canada, I am living in Canada or I feel like a Canadian. Being born, living, and feeling all sounded to me like functions.
Ok, Bob, what would you like us to work on? I said. Bob responded: “I am retiring very soon and I don’t know what to do after that. Intellectually, I know that retirement should be my time to rest, have fun and do all the things I didn’t have time to do before. But to be honest I am afraid that I wouldn’t know who I am anymore after leaving my job.”
For a moment, let’s think about Bob together. He is a person who built his identity based on his actions (functions), which doesn’t sound like a bad thing: why then is he showing identity crisis symptoms?
From my experience, I believe that functions are very important to help us identify ourselves. Yet, they are not enough by themselves. Surely, something is missing? What is the secret ingredient that needs to go hand in hand with those functions? The ingredient that will enable us to have a sound identity, that can endure all the changes that we constantly face in life?
Our functions are the action-oriented roles that we play in life, it is our way to impact life. We all know that each action must have a reaction, which means that for each input we put in life, there must be an output, a result, a response. So, if my actions are the input, what is the output? Could the output be the results of my actions (i.e.: I work to get paid, I do sports to get fit or win a competition, etc.…)?
I believe that you will get the answer if we go back to Bob’s case study, and look closely into why exactly is he having an identity crisis?
During our conversation, I learned that Bob lived a long life of achievements. He achieved almost any goal he set to himself: from being an athlete to graduation with excellence, from marrying his dream girl to having the job that he always wanted, from having financial freedom to becoming a leader and a father of two kids. “I had it all, I should not be feeling this lost” Bob said.
Bob is excellent in setting goals and reaching them, he is a master in moving to action, to the extent that his identity became completely dependent on his excellent functioning abilities.
This is why, when he was forced – because of his approaching retirement – to ask himself “who I will become when I cannot do this job anymore?”, he panicked. He tried to convince himself that he is still a father and a husband but he was not convinced: his children are all grownups and they have their own lives; his wife also has her own life routine, and the idea of just resting and having fun as a retirement plan is becoming more repulsive as he thinks about it.
To him, “I have a function” means “I exist!”. Bob’s pattern has always been setting a goal, working for it, achieving it, setting another goal and repeat. He reached
He reached success but never bothered to give himself the chance to be fulfilled by it. His mind was constantly gravitating to future goals, to the extent that it made him bypass living the present.
He didn’t have the ability to stay still and sense what was happening around him, just for the sake of being present and witnessing life happening, without thinking about what to do next.
Bob’s way of life developed his identity when he was actively sending input to life yet completely bypassed developing an identity when he was passively receiving output from life, which led to a fragile identity that is conditioned by his ability to function. Metaphorically, it is as if he learned to exhale deeply, and forgot to learn how to inhale properly, which led him to a gradual suffocation that took him years to realise.
Bob is not the only person who suffered from an identity crisis: there are moms, dads, wives, husbands, company owners, cleaners, abled people who become disabled and young people who became elderly, all of whom may happen to suffer an identity crisis.
What all of these people had in common is that, at some point in their lives, they lost the function that was the anchor of their identity. A mom who lost her function as a mom when her children left home; a wife who became single; a person who lost his sight after an accident; a daughter who discovered that her father, on whose example she modeled herself and her ethics, is not the superhero that she always thought him to be. The list is extremely long!
Working with Bob and a lot of people like him. The answer to my questions became clear to me.
The output of life is the information that life is constantly sending and a person can perceive through his senses. If that person’s attention is constantly depleted by his function, by what he should do, could have done or may do. Simply he will not have the energy to sense what is happening in him or in his life.
I call this ability, Being present with life.
Conclusion: To have a sound identity, one that can endure the changes of life a person will need to embrace and empower both his Functioning abilities and Being abilities simultaneously and equally.
Using the breathing analogy, a person will need to exhale (functioning) and to inhale (being) with equal depth and rhythm for him to gain health and balance.
Living in such way will allow your functioning to validate and feed your being, and in return for your being to validate and feed your functioning. The result of such balanced interaction would be a sound identity.