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  • Writer's pictureSheila

"Identities" The good, bad & ugly

I believe that self-awareness is foundational to success. The better we understand ourselves, the better we can assess our thoughts, actions and reactions.

Part of self-awareness is understanding the ways we see ourselves – the “identities” we hold – and how those can help us, or get in our way.

As we go through life, we create identities for ourselves. Identities, plural. I am not talking about gender or race or ethnic identity, but the ways we think about ourselves that influence how we show up in our various roles. Roles like child, parent, friend, sibling, employee, manager, and leader.

As we inhabit our different roles, we and others around us have expectations of how we will behave, and what we will do and say, depending on the role. As we move through time, we get feedback, and this helps to create, debunk, and/or reinforce the different identities or personas we have and that we use to make sense of our place in that world.

Often the identities we create are clear to us – we recognize them and can articulate them.

For example, “I am an organized person who can be counted on to get things done on time”, or “I am a perfectionist”, or “I never understand things if there is math involved”.

Sometimes these identities serve us very well, and sometimes they can limit us.

To share a personal example…

I have always had feedback that I am organized and planful, and I believe that about myself. I am good at getting things done, create great and useful lists, follow the plan, and can adapt and adjust if needed. IMO.

So, I have created an identify for myself. “I am an organized person who can be counted on to get things done on time, (and well!) no matter what happens.” This sits well with me, and since I believe this about myself, it helps me to behave in ways that embody the identity and reinforce it because I successfully do the things that the identity says I will do. This has always served me well at work and in my personal life.

Until it didn’t.

When I was pregnant with twins, I was told over and over things like, “If anyone can handle twins you can”. Or, “you have managed much bigger problems/projects than this – it will be a piece of cake for you.” The expectations others had for me aligned with my own identity of being organized and capable and being able to get things done.

But when the babies arrived a very different scenario unfolded. There was NOTHING within my control. First, the babies arrived much earlier than they were supposed to, and not in the way I had planned at all. (I actually hadn’t planned on having twins either – so that, in itself, involved some regrouping).

Because they were early, and tiny, they needed to be fed every 1.5 hours, 24/7.

I was sleep deprived, they cried, they didn’t have a schedule, they cried, they seemed never to sleep or want to eat at the same time, they cried. On my first day home without support, six weeks after they were born, I managed to have a shower and peel one potato in the 9 hours my husband was gone. I sure didn’t feel like someone who was “organized” and “capable”.

Not only was I not living up to my own expectations of myself, I felt that I was letting a whole lot of other people down. I wasn’t “handling things”, I was barely coping. And some days not coping at all. I was a mess. And I felt guilty – as if it was somehow my fault that this wasn’t the orderly life I was used to managing.

The identity I was carrying was not my friend. It was limiting me. Not only in how I saw myself, but how I thought others were seeing me. It was causing me a lot of emotional grief because I wasn’t living up to my own, or what I perceived as, others’ expectations. Once I was able to change that particular view of myself in that context to something else, all the pressures completely disappeared.

My new “identity” was this: “I am a new mother, whose main job right now, for the next x weeks, is to focus on and respond to the needs of my babies”. Period.

It was okay that I didn’t get the lawn cut, or have gourmet meals on the table every night. I didn’t have to look like a fashion-forward young woman. I didn’t have to run 20 miles a week. Those were outside the things that I felt I needed to do at that point in time, to embody my new identity. Once I was able to re-define myself in that context in a meaningful way, I was able to own that and let the rest go.

In my work, I see a lot of people struggling with identities that they have. They aren’t always aware that they see themselves in these ways. Sometimes they give clues, but don’t understand how they are positioning their own behaviours.

I hear things like…

“I like things to be done well” (possibly… “I am a perfectionist”?)

Or, “others often come to me when they need something” (“I am a go-to person who gets things done?”)

When you have an identity, whether you are aware of it or not, you are setting expectations of yourself and shaping your actions and behaviours accordingly.

Pay attention to the language you use repeatedly – and ways you think about yourself.

What identity, or identities do you have?

Think about how they are helping or hindering you.

Are you hiding behind them? Do you need to change how you frame your thinking to become a better leader, manager or employee?

Paying attention to these identities and the ways that affect you and the people around you is part of managing yourself, in any context.

1 Comment

Jean Ogilvie
Jean Ogilvie
May 26, 2023

Love this Sheila. What a great teacher 'reality' is. I can feel the decrease in your stress level as you switch from 'should' to 'up until now.... but now things are different'. Great lesson, thanks, J.

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