Updated: Dec 22, 2022
By Rhonda Collins,
I Start Wondering Columnist
A woman in her late 60s pushed the wheelchair-bound man from the exam area into the waiting room, where I was listening to be called for my turn with the doctor. The woman was struggling to make it across the room toward the exit, bumping furniture and barely missing another person’s foot.
I jumped up to open the door to help make their exit a little easier. The neatly dressed gentleman, probably in his 70s, raised his eyes to me with an embarrassed look on his face.
“I used to be a vice president at Exxon,” he said.
“Well, that was a very important job,” I replied. He nodded as he turned his head away.
“Thank you,” his wife whispered as she wheeled him out the door. I wasn’t sure if she was thanking me for my kind reply or for holding the door open.
Many times over the years, I’ve thought about this 10-second conversation with strangers. In that woman, I saw someone who was unexpectedly in the role of caregiver, as I, myself, had recently been for my aging mother. Like me, she seemed to be taking on a new role for which she was not completely prepared.
But the main reason I remember this brief encounter is because of the pain in the gentleman’s voice and eyes when he told me who he once was. His slumped shoulders said he now felt less than he was before, and, perhaps, he was ashamed of who he was now. He was struggling with a new identity that he clearly didn’t like.
The important role identity plays in our lives is a well-research topic. “Your identity is your enduring sense of who you are as a person,” stated Psychologists Eileen Donahue Robinson and Keith Harary, both psychologists, in “The Science of Identity,” which was published in The Science of Personality in 2022. “It includes the associations that connect you to other people and the things that set you apart. Your identity begins forming in early childhood and develops as you learn more about who you are and your place in the world.”
In short, identity is simply how we answer the question, “Who am I?”
My identity includes my roles and occupations – grandmother, teacher – along with my personality and cognitive traits – extravert, adaptable, reliable, intelligent – as well as interests and values – gardener, environmentalist – and other ways I define myself. It also includes how I see my appearance and abilities – short, fat, beautiful, weak – along with other physical/biological characteristics, such as sex and gender, health status, race/ethnicity, and more.
Identity is shown to others in how we present ourselves “through identity markers such as clothing, tattoos or bumper stickers,” state Robinson and Harary. Sometimes a discrepancy exists between how we view ourselves and how others view us. I may see myself as a cool “parrot head” (follower of Jimmy Buffett and the Margaritaville lifestyle), but others may see me as an out-of-touch, silly, old hippie.
When the identity we hold deep in our core is at odds with the person we believe others see, it may cause us some amount of stress. When our core identity differs from what we see in the mirror, it can cause even more anxiety, confusion, and depression. In either case, psychologists refer to a challenge to our sense of self as an “identity crisis.”
Over the years, identity can change as our station in life changes. For example, when a recent college graduate stops identifying as a “student” and starts seeing herself as a “young professional,” that’s generally a positive change in identity. However, when a change in identity is the result of an unwelcome occurrence, such as a sudden health crisis or going from a high-ranking corporate position to being laid off, then you might be more likely to experience an identity crisis.
One way to lessen the feeling of “crisis” is to remind ourselves that most people change their sense of who they are as they age. According to Robinson and Harary, “Identity feels very stable,” but, in fact, research shows the opposite is true because researchers “find that identity is fluid, dynamic, organic and complex.”
Identity is an essential part of our happiness, contentment, confidence, and mental well-being, and yet we give it little attention. Whether you are experiencing a true identity crisis or simply want to improve yourself, it’s worth taking some time to reflect on the question “Who am I?” and explore the answers that help you define yourself.
Navigating Your Own Identity
When we are on a trip, we might pull out our compass – or our cell phone or GPS – and ask, “Where do we go from here?” Before we can find a new way, we have to know our current position. The same goes for our identity. Before we determine our path, we can find our starting point by first asking, “Who are we now?”
Our current identity is where we begin.
To better define or become aware of our multifaceted selves, we need to explore our core identity. Professional life coach and blogger Wacuka Stephen says your core identity “is not what you have achieved on the outside, but the values that lay inside of you.”
One easy way to explore your identity(s) is to simply complete two sentences with as many items as you can think of:
I am . . . (an accountant, fun, a sister, an introvert, a Christian, tall, hard-working, sexy, wealthy, self-sufficient, etc.).
I am someone who . . . (is friendly, values family, is lactose intolerant, loves jazz, hates snakes, constantly wants more out of life, is trendy, has allergies, can’t sing, is self-confident, etc.)
Take a few days to list as many ways to describe yourself as you can. Maybe even ask people close to you to offer suggestions. Then, circle the top 5-10 items that you feel deeply about, that seem to truly reflect the essential nature of who you are. That list will be your core identity.
You can find many other exercises and activities online to assist you in further exploring your core and other identities, such as Identity Wheels or worksheets that ask questions to help define your core strengths, values, and beliefs.
Once you have a good sense of who you are, the next step is to own your unique self and let go of any previous expectations that you must be someone you are not. We must also reject the pressure from media, or even from friends and family, telling us we must be perfect, especially when we are transitioning to a new identity due to a new station in life. Find support among others who are going through the same transition or have similar traits/values as you, especially people your own age.
Remember, change can make you feel completely confused, like you aren’t yourself anymore, especially when it attacks your core identity. Be patient with yourself, and set reasonable expectations for performance and productivity as you incorporate new facets into your identity.
Rewriting the ending
If I knew then what I know now about life transitions and identity conflicts, I would have followed the couple at my doctor’s office out the door and had a longer conversation.
To the man, I would have said: It’s okay to feel disoriented right now. You are in a new role. But, if you were a VP at Exxon, that means you are an intelligent, resourceful manager. Use your strengths and talents, honed in your career, to tackle this new challenge, just as you would have solved any other problem in your days at Exxon. What’s most crucial to remember is that you are still important. You have the wisdom to share, love to give, and lots of new life experiences that can bring you laughter and happiness.
To the woman, I would have said: You will learn to drive that wheelchair better than you could imagine, along with mastering thousands of other new tasks you must learn as a caregiver. Embrace this new role in your life, and enjoy the new relationships you are building. Although extremely challenging, there is no more honorable work than that of helping another.
A change in identity need not be a crisis. Focus on the positive aspects of your new position. Use your unique attributes to get through challenges, and then create new spaces, experiences, and relationships that provide joy and fulfillment. Own your new you.