Getting caught in the identity trap

Getting caught in the identity trap
April 25, 2018 T

I’m Toni and I am a Scorpio, an instructional designer, a roadie, a Divemaster, a photographer, a gardener, a daughter, a Master of Arts, a surfer, a swimmer, a sister, a friend, a home-owner, a weight-lifter, a writer, a reader, a videographer, a university professor, a Doctor of Education, a scuba diver, a parasailer, a skydiver, a dog lover, a geek, a singer, a dancer, a runner, a lover, a fighter, a motorcycle enthusiast, a girlfriend, a stagehand, a traveler, a cliff-diver, a Texan, a survivor, an aunt, a success, an employee, a learner, a hopeless romantic, a cook, an organizer, a builder, a manager, a helper, an observer, a wife, an artist, a yogi, a meditator, a clown, an aerialist, a stilt-walker, a camera operator, a short person, a blonde, an intellectual, an alcoholic, a nerd, an introvert, a divorcee, a Fire Sheep, a Volvo driver, a fan, a music lover, an emotional mess, an analytical creative, a spiritual seeker, an adventurer, a migraine sufferer, a dreamer, an imp, a hopeful romantic, a woman, a child, a Deadhead, a puppeteer, a barista, a producer, an addict, a researcher, a hiker, a webmaster, a tree climber, a tree hugger, a health nut, a caretaker, a marathoner, a consultant, a coach, a helper, a healer, a hugger, a freak, a climber… well, you get the idea.

You may have noticed that there are so many words here, such a long list.  As you read it (assuming you did actually read the whole thing,) how did some of those words make you feel? Or react? Or respond? Did they color, shape, mold, or change your thoughts of me? How many of these do you relate to? How many of these do you wear too? If you took that list and crossed out all of the “not you” ones and added “you” ones, what would it look like? Would it be a much shorter list? Or a much longer list?

I am all of these things and so much more… but I’m none of these things, really. I am beyond all of these words that I have used at different times to identify myself… both to myself and to others.  I have left out all of the words that others have used to say who I am, or who and how they think I should be. But let’s face it, those can have the same effect. I AM what’s behind all of these labels, that defies being neatly put into a box. And so are you.

I bring this up because one of the greatest blocks to change (big or small) that any of us can have is the idea of who we are. How we see ourselves.  What we call our identity.  And what we think those pieces mean.  You know, what we think that “kind of person” does or doesn’t do…. is or is not capable of… what we think other’s ideas of what that “kind of person” is or should be. Let me take a moment to illustrate this in a bit simpler terms.

We all know a guy that bought a motorcycle one day and the next thing you know he only wears Harley t-shirts, leather jackets, starts getting tattoos, and simply buys into the whole “lifestyle” thing… you know, he and his bike are covered head to toe in HD logos, chrome, and black.  Now, I’m not saying everyone who rides falls into this… but c’mon, we can all think of at least a couple that this description fits… for a while at least… At least until he gets bored and decides to become a fisherman, mountain climber, or surfer.  Then all the accessories change to fit the new “identity.”

Or the really cool woman we knew that got married, had kids, and is now the absolute stereo-type of a soccer-mom. She used to be so interesting to talk to… she travelled, took amazing photographs, always had the most interesting take on recent events in the world, knew all the latest and greatest artists and music, had great insight on business dealings, etc.… but now she has little else to talk about except the latest recital, field trip, PTA meeting, church bake sale, or what her offspring and husband are doing. She used to have wild hair, wear ripped jeans, fishnets, and combat boots… but now she’s strictly collared shirts, loafers, with a simple bob haircut.

It’s not that there is anything wrong with either of these… if we consciously evolved into and chose these changes. But riding a motorcycle doesn’t mean you have to be a “biker.” Any more than the idea that you have to dress a certain way just because “you’re a mom now.” And I get it, there are huge societal pressures to fall in line and follow the group… we are social creatures, we don’t want to be alone, we want to be accepted.  But at what costs?

And of course, it is much easier to follow the well-worn path of others as we navigate changes in our lives.  Hacking away with a machete at a new way through the world is a lot of effort! Why re-invent the wheel? But at some point, we all wake up (usually suddenly) to find that maybe this wasn’t exactly the destination we had in mind… maybe there are other things we want in life too… but there doesn’t seem to be room for them in the current identity we’ve been clinging to. Then what?

This is what I’m talking about… what do we do then? I’ve been through this a few times. In fact, I am going through this again right now.  So, I will share with you what I have experienced, seen, and maybe learned up to now.

After college, I moved to Hawaii (long story) and all of the pieces that made up who I understood myself to be were suddenly gone… student, work, friends, contacts, career, etc. At first, it was confusing and terrifying. I didn’t even understand what was happening to me. I wasn’t a “college student” (among other things) anymore. All the people that I knew in my media production career were hundreds of miles away on the mainland… so the identity of that career was up for grabs. And I hadn’t been or worked as a “Dive Master” long enough for that to feel like me yet.

It was an incredible difficult and painful time in my life… I felt completely alone and didn’t know which way was up. (Don’t kid yourself, there is grieving in this process, and I’ll write more about that soon.) Eventually, I realized that I didn’t know what to do because I no longer knew who I was. Everything I thought was “me” was based on externals… my work, my friends, what I looked like, where I was from.  One day, while staring out at the vastness of the Pacific Ocean I realized that I am not what I do.  I exist beyond that.  I am that voice, that feeling, that understanding, those ideas, that consciousness, if you will, that has been here inside all along.  That part of me that watches my life, the one that hears and answers when I am talking to myself… the externals had come and gone many times, but that part never had. I realized that I am.

Once I figured that out, I recognized what an opportunity I had.  If I wasn’t who I had been, and there was nothing tying me to all of that, then I could decide who I wanted to be or become.  Now of course it wasn’t quite that simple… but not far from.  I decided the parts of my previous me that I wanted to continue… so I started making contacts and getting gigs in media production, and eventually another job at a TV station. I started consciously choosing the people in my life that were about exploring life instead of settling for what came their way. And the list goes on and on. But that was the beginning of comprehending how my identity could help or hinder my evolution.

For many years I was a roadie (no, not a groupie,) and then I became a professor at a university.  If you don’t think there was culture shock and an identity crisis in there, well you must not be paying attention. Just the basic “uniform” change was hard to navigate… from shorts, tank top, boots, and a tool belt, to (my idea of a professor at least) polo shirts and khaki pants. Much less the view I had of myself, what I was capable of, or what I had to offer. Understanding what was happening made it a bit easier… but it still wasn’t graceful or comfortable.  I eventually realized that I didn’t have to change to what I thought was the correct “uniform” to make the change. It took a while, but I finally navigated my way to a professor version of me that looked, acted, and dressed much closer to the me that I am on a daily basis rather than that idea of what that “should” look like.

It took me a couple of years to realize all of what was happening.  When I met new people and was asked what I did for a living, I said that I was a professor, but still mentioned the years on the road.  (In fact, even now, sometimes if I am feeling insecure I will throw that in there… and it’s been over 15 years since I was doing gigs regularly! But now I see it for the warning sign that it is. And the sooner I bring this kind of stuff up in the conversation, the worse off I am.) I went through another version of all this when I moved into the corporate world… leading with my “doctoral candidate” identity. But I even had to learn to give that up, because I couldn’t become an actual “Doctor of Education” until I could let go of being a “candidate.” I can’t grasp the next handhold of my journey if I’m not willing to let go of the one I’m hanging on to right now.

Which brings me to current day events… I’ve spend the better part of the last year losing all of the pieces of me that made up who I’ve been in recent years.  Identifying with the job at the giant monolith company, all the respect and prestige that came with it, the stupid high (for me anyway) salary… as if the number of digits was some sort of measure of my value or my worth as a human being. Being “highly employable” with recruiters or HR people contacting me for opportunities on a regular basis and getting hired quickly. Identifying with the relationship I was in, what I was trying to create there, the support and caring that I was looking for (and so badly needed), how I was treated, how I reacted, what I could (or could not) accept, what I was trying to force. This stuff can sneak up on you.  I hadn’t even realized some of this was going on inside of me… but as they have been stripped away it has become crystal clear to me that I am changing again, at a very deep and core level. And as always, it’s not exactly comfortable but I have absolutely no doubt that it will be worth it and amazing in the end.

Much of me will remain the same… the quirky, geeky, goofball, that loves learning new things, adventure, working out, cooking, and my dogs. But there is a great deal of me that right now is up for grabs. I have things that I want to move into, things that I want to try (this blog), pieces that I’d like to keep, or at least revamp into a new version perhaps (instructional design and other parts of my career.)  But mostly right now I am open to whatever may come.  My experience so far has shown me that when I end up in that space of a mostly blank canvas, the most amazing things appear to lead me to places, a life, and a me that I could’ve never dreamed of.  (i.e. the kid that couldn’t get out of high school as a professor, much less a doctor of anything!!?? And a whole new path that led me to where I am today.)

So, I ask you, where are those ideas of who you are and what you are capable of holding you back? “I have a family! I could never load them up in a van and travel through North and South America for four years!”  I know of a family that did exactly that.  “I’m not smart [or educated], so I could never start my own company, write a book, change careers, etc.…” I know plenty that have. “I’m too short to play in the NBA!” I give to you Spud Webb.  The list goes on and on.

Who do you think you are? And who do you want to be? What do you want your life to be? What pieces of identity no longer fit you? What pieces are in your way? I challenge you to ask and answer these tough questions… because every change you ever hoped and dreamed of making is on the other side just waiting for you.

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