We all have many identities. For example, I'm a good, smart, and athletic person. But also I'm not enough, wounded, a failure, and an idiot. And I'm also a coach. I'm a Californian and an American, and a son and a brother. I'm a tennis player and a blogger. Sounds familiar? Of course, you aren't me, you're you. But just like me you have identities - many identities. Reflect for a moment about all the ways you know yourself - about all the identities you have.
Identities are really important. They bring focus to our lives, relationships, and work. They open certain possibilities as well as close them. Anyone who has tried to make a mid-life career transition knows too well the power of identities to open and close doors not only in the eyes of others but especially in our own eyes.
Some identities - like being a Mom or a Dad or a winner - can bring great satisfaction and fulfillment. While other identities - like being a loser, someone who was fired, or someone who made a mistake - can bring embarrassment, shame or guilt. In some basic way, the quality of our life seems attached to our identities.
We get that identity is important from an early age. “What do you want to be when you grow up?” is a common question that we get from relatives and other adults when we are kids. We are also socialized into group identities. That is, we get that there is an "us" and a "them." And further, we get that we have to protect “us” from “them.” I grew up in the cold war era where movies and the nightly news were a frequent reminder of the threat "they" posed - real or imagined.
And we reinforce our identities throughout adulthood. We introduce ourselves as our identities ("Hi, I'm Steve and I'm a leadership coach."). And through our conversations we reinforce our own and other people's identities ("Did you hear that she cheated on her husband?" "She's cute, what kind of work does she do." etc.). We know people and interact with people as if they are these identities.
And notice that even as we pass from this world, we have great concern for how our identities will live on beyond our death through our legacy ("He was so generous with his time and money." "He was the winning quarterback for Superbowl 2007.")
I think that through the lens of legacy we begin to get closer to what identities are and how they function in our lives. Through identities we deny our death. Life is full of change and uncertainty. We've been hurt before and we want to be protected from the threats in our life. We yearn for security and certainty and in our identities we find hope that our yearning is not in vain. And this yearning that identities seem to fulfill, it ties our quality of life to our identities.
In order to provide this security, protection, and certainty identities must be fixed. That they are fixed is what generates the sense of security, protection, certainty, and legacy we desire. Our identities have a "once and for all" quality to them. For example, "Once and for all I am the winner of that race" or "Once and for all I am the President that year."
But are our identities who we really are? No. Fixed identities live in fixed assessments of a fixed world. But the world isn't fixed and neither are we. Our identities veil what is actually happening by projecting their fixations onto what's happening. Our identities are sourced from the past in continual reaction to the past events and circumstances.
Earlier we noticed that in some way our quality of life seems attached to our identities. It follows that if our quality of life is poor then one option is to change our identities rather than trying to buy, accumulate, or consume our way to happiness.
For a long time, we've held changing identities as suspicious - as something done by con artists and impersonators. Changing identities has been on the margin of society, perhaps with the exception of actors who take on identities for entertainment. But there is a shift happening in the world.
Change is being embraced more and more. The world is changing and change is accelerating. We no longer expect careers, employers, spouses, or communities to be unchanged over the span of our life. More and more people are experimenting with virtual identities (avatars) on the internet. The internet encourages us to understand ourselves as decentralized, multiplicitous, and flexible. And we also get that the identity we are in Facebook or Second Life or, dare I say it, Match.com isn't really who we are - its just an identity.
This shift that we are beginning to experience around identity opens up new possibilities for improving the quality of our lives. More and more we see that we have many identities - none of which is truly who we are - and because of this we can construct and reconstruct our identities to heal past wounds, generate more self-esteem, lift the burdens of shame, make a career transitions, and on and on. Changing identities is no longer on the margin of society but is on the move toward the center.
We live in an “age of fluid but stable identities.”