As I signed my departure papers and updated my LinkedIn status, anxiety tried to creep in. As I register for a conference next month, I realize the organisation field is mandatory. It is part of who I am. But what am I? What now?
Identity: the fact of being who or what a person or thing is. (Dictionary.com)
Multi-layers of me
For years my identity was multifaceted. In fact, my bio required quite a few lines to go through, even if I was only referring to work. And work was indeed a great part of it, as was the charity and then the blog, the motherhood, the expat existence. All part of a picture built over the years as bricks in a Hundertwasserhaus. Each tile not obviously fitting together with the next, but ultimately all coming along in a work of love and commitment to my various passions.
Deep inside, I always thought (or hoped) that it would grant me some protection against losses or failures in any individual part. That no single part could define me. Or defeat me. Or make me feel lost. Deep inside, I always knew it would be unlikely to work, at least without some ups and downs.
Shaping who I am
Despite multiple personas, overtime I sought to be a single self, with all these multifaceted layers. A single persona constituted by its full components, bringing my whole self to the whole of these parts of my life. Intense, no doubt but also more transparent and above all authentic. At the same time, this meant that each part of my experience shaped me and was a large part of me. Especially work. Because I always brought my whole (and best) self to work, it ended up being a key contributor to my existence in the last 20 years. And therefore a large piece of my identity.
It shaped how I viewed being a professional, how I viewed and lived career progression, how I thought of leadership and managing people, how I viewed businesses outside in, how I embraced the power of a team alongside the power of an individual. It also shaped how I thought of myself as a woman at work, a mother at work, senior female leader at work. It shaped every single aspect of me as I poured every aspect of my existence into it as well.
So what is left?
If such a large part of me is suddenly not there, then is that all gone? In a way everything is still left, as all these parts became part of me. They don’t need to exist today to be there. However, the structure that was at the core, that helped give it a name, that created the outputs, is no longer.
Like when you take a cake off its mould and trust all the different elements still hold, that its shape is still unique with some scrapes that fall in a corner or two, with some edges different from what the mould predicted, but ultimately with a strong heart beating at its core.
Identity and self-worth
Is the crisis one of identity or one of worth? Identity is hardly a standalone concept. Rather it is a definition that comes from a string of human connections. I would even dare say from a string of human actions. Ir is often about what you do. And it comes with a sense of worth.
Humans attach a great deal of worth to the work they perform, as a measure of the value they add to society, to their families, to themselves. They dedicate their full lives to a career, or rather jump from one to the other, as a way to ensure the identity is filled with a corporate definition. As the only definition
Psychologists use the term “enmeshment” to describe a situation where the boundaries between people become blurred, and individual identities lose importance. Enmeshment prevents the development of a stable, independent sense of selfHarvard Business Review
When I lived in the US, question number 2 of any conversation with a new acquaintance would be ‘what do you do?’, just after they asked your name. That was the way to define whether that was a worthy conversation. And to assess the identity fit.
Loss of worth
As such, it is no surprise that the end of an era brings with it an identity crisis attached to loss of our own sense of value. With it come all the rushes to filling the void – admin, organising, learning, planning. Things with a value attached that ensure there is still a list of things we complete at the end of each day. Things we can tell people (and ourselves we did). And ideally not much space to think. Or seating. Or doing not very much.
Knowing I would likely suffer from this, I defined from the early days of my career break, that I wanted a long break. Not because I wanted to lazy up (God forbid!) but because I knew I too would be looking to fill that void. 3 months in, as I find myself with an unexpected increase in my volunteering, I am forcing empty days around it to ensure I do have the space to feel the loss, feel the void, and sit on it. To ensure I have time and space to see I exist still, even if under a different name.
I tell anxiety it has no place to be, no room to grow, no door to enter. I know what I am and what I have become. I just can’t name it yet. I don’t even know that I have to. If I never did define myself with a single thing before, why now?