How do you answer the question “who are you?”
It’s actually not so simple. We have many ways we could answer; we have multiple and evolving identities. For example, some identities could be roles we play – like sister, mother, mechanic, musician. Others could be groups we’re born into – based on things like colour, nationality, or religion. Another set could be based on interests – like dog lover, avid skier, runner, aspiring artist. Some of our identities can even be aspirational – things that we would ‘like’ to be like to be one day.
At work we also might answer the question “who are you” very differently than when we’re at home. Of course, some identities will be more important to us than others; our different identities bring us different things. They can bring us self esteem, a sense of accomplishment, belonging, motivation, purpose, even bragging-rights. However, if we lose an identity (e.g. you’re made redundant and can no longer hand out your business cards), if one changes (e.g. you become a caretaker for a sick relative), or if others treat us negatively based on an identity (e.g. you get judged at the office because of your religion), they can also impact your stress levels, well-being and self-esteem among other things. Alas, I’ve put together some tips for managing your identities.
5 tips for managing your identities:
1. Be aware. Take a second to think about the top identities that make you, you. How do you see yourself ? As a parent, a musician, a student, an athlete, a helper of others, etc? Which identities are most important to you? What do they bring to your life? Only if you’re aware can you make sure to hang onto the important parts of yourself, because there are lots of forces out there (e.g. cunning retailers) who would love to get a little piece of you. Also, the more identities you have to draw on, the more you’ll have to fall back in one of those “identity-crisis-I-lost-my-job” moments.
2. Keep them balanced. Our multiple identities bring us different things. For example, your professional identity might bring you intellectual stimulation or a sense of achievement. Your hobbies might bring you creativity, fun. Your family identities might bring you belonging, happiness, peace. This will be different for everyone. However if one identity takes over the others (e.g. if your work identity slowly erodes the others), it can throw everything out of balance. It may make you resent the identity that devoured the others. Of course, sometimes one identity might consume you for while – ask any new mom, or someone who has started a new job. But remember, in the long term if an important identity is missing you’ll notice it, and usually the impacts are negative.
3. Don’t become your possessions. Be careful of letting the things you own (or, in fact, would like to own) become who you are. If your answer to the question “who are you” contained words such as “Apple, Gucci, or Porche”, you have made some marketers very happy people. Of course, I’m not suggesting there’s something wrong with owning products (I confess to obsessing about the latest iPhone)… but try not to let the products own you. As mentioned, we get self-esteem from our identities. So if you have the latest iPhone you may indeed feel very pleased with yourself….for a short while. That is until five new models come out and you’re scrambling to keep up, and never really stay up long. Yay for Apple, but not yay for you. Try to keep your sense of self based on something relatively stable, from which you get self-esteem, for free!
4. Share them with others. Research shows that the more you think others see your identities, the more you’ll like those others. That is, you’ll be happier working with people who you think ‘get you’, and who, in fact ‘know you’. Sounds pretty logical doesn’t it? Well that doesn’t make it easier to put yourself out there and really get to know others for more than their professional capabilities. Does that co-worker have really interesting ancestry? Do your colleagues take an interest in your latest iron-man pursuits (obviously I’m not referring to myself with that one!). It works both ways – people will like you more if they think that you know them. Win-win!
5. Be open to change. Our identities are constantly changing and developing – sometimes you don’t get much choice in the matter. Things happen in life: you lose a job, you get married, you get divorced, you have babies, you might lose your hair, you travel, you take on new hobbies. Some change is good, and some is bad, but if you’re tied to an old identity (and subsequent way of thinking) that could use a re-fresh, it might be holding you back from the next phase in your story. If you’re slogging at your old job and need a professional-identity refresh, think about it (strategically, that is, don’t go telling your boss you need an identity re-fresh and sprint away today). Recently I gained a new identity called “mother”. Although I wanted to be a mother, I didn’t realise how tied to my professional identity and old ways of life I was until the mother-identity consumed me (for a while). It really took some soul-searching to make space for and incorporate the new “mother” role into the other set of ingrained, established identities that I cherished. Now it’s fitting nice and snugly among the others, but it was definitely an internal negotiation.