Changing identities

Identity - sHow we can adapt to new situations…

For professional athletes, the first few weeks after they finally achieve their dreams or when they ultimately retire from their sport, can be difficult and sometimes dangerous. Often, they will go through a kind of grief, feel lost, bereft of direction, but also feel they have been stripped of their identity.

It’s very easy for them to fall off the rails. And sadly, some do.

Like many of us, through years of commitment and the continual personal investment of time and energy, a large part of their own sense of identity gets merged with whatever it is they do.

You’ll have come across this yourself in subtle ways. Ask someone what they do, and you will most often get a response that begins, not with “I do…”, but with “I am…” – a teacher, a fundraiser, a programmer, an accountant, the marketing director for whichever brand.

“I am” is incredibly powerful. Various studies have shown, for example, that someone who says, “I enjoy running”, will run far less frequently than someone who says “I am a runner”.

This is our self-talk; our internal narrative about ourselves, who we are, what we’re good at and not good at, and it’s what generates all the self-fulfilling prophesies that follow from those beliefs.

And those beliefs are precious to us, because without them we fear that we will lose a bit of who we are and, equally importantly, a bit of who other people envisage us to be.

In my late teens and throughout my twenties, I grew my hair long. Very long, actually. Along with the heavy boots, faded tees and battered leather jacket, I guess I thought it was it was a statement of rebellious identity.

As I passed into my thirties and my career dragged itself relentlessly into the suits-and-ties layer of upper-middle management, the revelation finally dawned that, not only did a two-foot long, thinning, greying ponytail look anachronistic and dated, but actually slightly ridiculous with brogues and a three-piece.

And so, I made the anxiety-inducing decision to have it cut. To “change my image”, throwing myself onto the mercy of other people’s judgement and self-satisfied “about time” remarks.

In truth, absolutely everyone said it looked great. And in time, it came to feel like me.

Throughout our lives we all do this in myriad different ways – we box ourselves into an image we want to portray to others, based on the story that we, and others, tell us about who we are.

And we create a wall of anxiety that imprisons us there.

When I wrote recently about resistance to change within organisations, especially charities, I received more emails than I have for many a month, commenting on and asking about the three factors I mentioned: identity, rigidity, and fear – identity being the cornerstone of the three.

I think the reason for that is because this is not just something that affects “them”, and slows projects or frustrates improvements. This is something that affects “us”. You. Me. Everybody.

We all have our default self-talk, and our own ongoing narrative telling us who we are, and who we need to be for others. But it doesn’t have to be fixed. We can all rewrite the story.

This weekend we were genuinely delighted at Drake Towers to bring child one back from his second term at university, and slightly astonished to hear this previously taciturn and monosyllabic teenager gush with abundant enthusiasm about his new friends, interests, societies, involvement in committees, you name it, he’s in it.

But for me, the most pleasing thing of all was his single-line response to my observation that he’d come such a long way from his, almost painfully, socially awkward time throughout his early teens

“I think I’m quite good at adapting to new situations”, he said.

That’s what I would call excellent self-talk. And maybe it’s a line we should all start to use.

Mind you, I do have to say, his hair is starting to get rather long…

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