When Our Identity Holds Us Hostage (and How to Break Free!)
At 12-years-old, I made an SAT study calendar for my then 17-year-old sister: memorize vocab words in the morning, grapple with practice problems at night. I couldn’t comprehend her resistance to focus and responsibility so figured I’d intervene and show her the light. In shocking news, she didn’t comply. But, the story cemented my identity as ‘the diligent one’ in family lore.
For the subsequent three decades I’ve proven my ability to meet deadlines, knock out a to-do list, and meet self-imposed goals. So, you can imagine my mild panic when two Fridays ago, instead of being at my house at 5:15pm to receive my daughter’s 10-year old friend (whose parents were out of town), I was at the library with my kids in a dreamy state of, ‘How lovely to be together, immersed in literature, with nowhere to be.’
Dreamy state interrupted, I quickly herded my kids into the car, contacted a neighbor to let the poor child know I was en route, and then texted my friend (the child’s mom) a note of shame for my irresponsibility.
What ensues next, after these seemingly uncharacteristic library moments, is a staunch defense of my ‘responsible identity.’ I tell anyone who will listen all the things I’ve remembered to do, say, or follow up on that prove I am that ‘responsible self.’ I slow cooked chicken chili, finished a work proposal, and sent my mother birthday flowers! I saw the dermatologist and got my inbox down to 12, dammit! It’s reassuring to convince myself and others that any outlying behaviors are mere glitches in an otherwise perfect system; it lets me comfortably return to the responsible self I know.
But is that what I want to return to?
If I can stop righteously protecting who I believe I am, ‘responsible’, I can make space to notice who I am becoming. I can accept that flightiness and irresponsibility are me too, and while I do initially feel mild nausea at that reality, I also begin to see myself in a more multi-dimensional way. I begin to forgive myself and others more easily and reduce the desperate and futile attempts to prove my worth.
I see my clients protect a desirable version of themselves all the time and bear witness to how it hurts them.
Take my client, Danielle.* Danielle’s goal is to ‘improve proactive communication.’ Her manager and colleagues express frustration that project deadlines are missed with no advance warning. It blindsides them, requires last minute rejiggering of plans, and erodes trust.
When Danielle recently missed a homework deadline she had set in our work together, I probed, ‘How come you didn’t you let me know?’ She offered valid reasons for not doing the homework: ‘I got unexpectedly pulled into a day-long meeting,’ ‘I intentionally deprioritized it for X reason, etc.’ I persisted, though. ‘I understand you didn’t do the homework, but why didn’t you let me know you weren’t going to do it?’
She paused, a bit confused. Then the defensiveness softened, and she offered, ‘Because I always believe that I can and will get it done.’ That’s her identity: I work hard and have faith. She believes she’ll prevail as a result; that’s noble. The challenge is, shit gets in the way. Coronavirus happens, an infant keeps us up all night and leaves us bleary eyed, a colleague is a bottleneck, or a task takes longer than expected. Various unexpected elements (and expected realities that we deny) infringe on best laid plans. But, Danielle’s staunch attachment to her identity of, ‘I get it done no matter what’ stops her from giving status updates to colleagues on her progress. That annoys them. If Danielle could release the stronghold she has on her identity of ‘I work hard and have faith’ and welcome in a dose of ‘I accept my own limitations’ she could more fully honor her deepest desire: to be a faithful teammate.
Or take my client, Nicolas. Nicolas grew up in a household that valued respect for elders and authority. In addition, competitive sports dominated his life throughout adolescence; he learned again and again that operating with accountability and discipline led to success.
Fast forward to adulthood and Nicolas is ten-months into working at a bio-tech company when I engage with him as a coach. He’s unsettled by a recent interaction with his manager where he requested to work remotely on a twice weekly basis to maximize his time (given a brutal commute) and more effectively manage competing demands at home with young kids and an aging parent. Nicolas’ request felt reasonable given his demonstrated performance to-date, but his manager expressed concern. ‘It’s not a cultural norm here and you’re still relatively new,’ She said. ‘I’m just not sure you’ll be able to contribute at the same level with this kind of shift.’
Nicolas likely blacked out while listening to his manager’s response given his fierce ‘I operate with integrity’ identity. His defensiveness spiraled: Was his manager insinuating he’d slack off while working at home? Did she not trust his commitment to excellence and the company? Was she unaware the he works 10x harder than any colleague regardless of the circumstances?
Nicolas’ self-protection consumed his thoughts and he came to me rattled and demoralized. ‘I can’t believe she doesn’t trust me,’ he said. His focus on defending a ‘high integrity’ identity blinded him to alternative perspectives. In our coaching session, we explored what his manager’s motivations might be (prioritizing in-person collaboration, protecting Nicolas’ brand, or following company policy to ensure fairness), how Nicolas’ interpretation of her decision could be limited or entirely false (she can trust him and want him regularly present). And, we explored the toll of so vigilantly defending who he believes himself to be: exhaustion and disconnection. When Nicolas released his grip on a well curated identity, he saw a more colorful reality that offered emotional relief.
I’m not gunning to be the person who leaves her kid at a playdate or doesn’t return a client call. I want people to trust and rely on me. But I want to eschew the unconscious notion that my worth, belonging, or fundamental lovability relies on me being responsible. I want to deeply trust that I can let myself or another human down and that an honest apology will suffice, no self-flagellation or defensive gymnastics required. And, I want my clients and humanity to know that we are all good enough just as we are. By relinquishing a pursuit of identity perfection, we can all express more complete and honest versions of ourselves that benefits our well-being, relationships, and the impact we’re seeking to make. Who’s in?
In an effort to support this growth, here are a few light, surface-level, inconsequential questions to ponder:
- Who am I regularly trying to prove or reinforce that I am?
- How does that serve me? How does it get in my way?
- What would be incredible about not having to prove or reinforce that anymore?
- What’s terrifying about that? Who am I scared I’ll be?
- How might I be wrong?
- What do I want to do differently to expand or challenge the identity I’m attached to?
*Client names changed to preserve confidentiality and anonymity.