Have you ever faced a really radical change in your life and felt like you had to reinvent your identity? In The Five Ways We Grieve, author Susan Berger emphasizes that her book is not just about loss or the grieving process, but rather about the importance of “the process of forming a new identity and mission in your life after a major loss.” I love to think about how people form identities, so this concept really resonated with me.
At some level, every choice you make comes with some loss. When you take a new job or marry someone or choose to live in some location, you’re losing the old thing in favor of the new one. When you switch careers or have a baby the way people see you and the way you see yourself undergoes a tremendous change. Obviously these are not bad things, but when you give up one thing to gain another you do go through an identity shift and a mission recalibration to some degree. That can be a little unnerving. The challenge is to navigate the loss with an eye toward what lies ahead, and thoughtfully work out the changes to your identity and mission in a way that is consistent with your values and priorities.
There are a lot of factors involved in navigating a major change or identity shift, but here are three I think are really key:
- Embrace the change as positive and focus on the possibilities. Any change in life offers you a chance to grow and learn, and opportunities to do new things and experience life in a new way. Even if the cause of the change was bad (losing a loved one, losing a job, etc) the change itself might be a really positive turning point in your life if you can let yourself see it that way.
- Remember that who you are at your core stays the same, even if some of your titles and distinctions change. No matter what your job or economic status is, no matter how many kids you have or how you educate them, no matter where you live or what you look like, it’s important to have a good grasp on the core identity that comes from your deepest values and beliefs. For me this comes down to my faith that I am a child of God. All of the other details and personality traits and circumstances can fall in a million different ways and I’ll still be who I am at the very center. That helps. I would say the core also includes your highest priorities and your life’s passions and gifts. You can apply a passion or gift to a number of different callings in your life and still feel grounded if you keep a firm handle on who you are at that deep level.
- There is more than one way to skin a cat. At least that’s what my grandmother told me. Growing up I had to reinvent myself every 1-3 years when we moved for my dad’s job, and since I hit adulthood I’ve had several major changes that required reinvention, so finding my identity in the midst of a major upheaval is kind of par for my course. The downside to constant reinvention is that I often wonder if I’m overlooking some key piece of myself (“Wait, is this really who I am? Am I someone who does this?”) but the positive side is that I tend not to get as stuck as more constant people do in one mindset or way of doing things. As you go through a life change, it’s helpful to remember that your old way of looking at the world isn’t the only way. Learning a new way of approaching life helps you grow as a person and also gives you more empathy for others. Again, change can be positive if you let it.
If you can think of a time when your identity shifted in a major way, what were some of the other lessons you learned or things you found helpful in the process?