Week 2: Identity
Hey! It’s February y’all and that means another month of FebUp (#febup2020).
Each year in this particular month I try to pick a theme that speaks to the mental health concerns of people I work for and live with. I post something on Instagram most weekdays with the hope that they will spark ideas, suggest practices, or create space for figuring life out together. You can check it out @gottasecond.
In January 2020 I canvassed clients, bartenders, and friends about the two themes most on their mind. What would be most helpful to talk about? What were the questions people had? Turned out to be: anxiety and identity. This weekender blog will be a compilation for Week 2 of February with the theme of “Identity”.
EXP-EMP-EMB (Part 1)
“What should I do with my life?” “How do I decide?”
This post is a tough one because of the complex factors pertaining to the question so I’ve broken it into a few posts, the first of which is today. This will be a simplistic framework (very, very simplistic) using three possible factors: Experiences, Employment, and Embodiment.
First, some proposed definitions as I will be using them:
- Experiences offer us pleasure, happiness, can satisfy curiosity and dreams, and increase inclusion and diversity in thought and practice; they can also elicit social comparison and prioritize consumption over contribution, and elicit ennui, burnout, and angst.
- Employment speaks to what we do to earn income and other rewards, including direction, meeting basic needs, security, and stability; it can also be soul-sucking, meaningless, exploitive, and exhaust resources—you, loved ones, community, earth.
- Embodiment offers full immersion into our current place and space: mind, body, spirit. It’s about finding and living into our ‘right fit’ and areas of wholeheartedness. It can show up as flow, mystery, spirituality, intimacy—in our senses, bodies, and intuitive knowledge. The shadow side: overwhelm; numbing-out; rumination, cynicism; and, disconnection.
All three could potentially offer up what most of us want: happiness, fulfillment, meaning, and purpose…aaand…each is also capable of hoovering up everything in us until we’ve collapsed, which is why a balance of all three might be helpful.
Today, consider how to bring all three of these areas together, with an expansive sweet spot in the middle. The sweet spot is not going to be THE answer to “What should I do with my life?” but it could indicate a starting point.
Some exercises you might consider:
- Construct a Venn diagram similar to today’s post and determine how things are going in the three areas. Add in everything you are currently doing but also any longings, dreams, and possible directions.
- What’s missing? What area needs beefing up or slimming down?
- Pull in some ideas from the VALUE post (Feb 4) and add them.
EXP-EMP-EMB (Part 2)
I have thought a lot about the identity that I used to live out. It was not really ‘me’ but it governed me for a long time. I called it the ‘Culture of Nice’ (CON). There were systems and contexts that supported it and I trusted others to know what was best for me. Bad decision, it turns out. ‘Nice’ people are not necessarily the best mentors.
I found that the CON didn’t allow for much authenticity, engaging with diversity, or ways to heal its internal viruses. It seemed like a difficult, confusing game I had to learn, with rules about how to cover up or ignore things that might jeopardize status, power, or comfort.
Thinking back, I’m not proud of my time in the CON; I participated in it and even perpetuated it at times. There were penalties for resisting the game: labelling, shunning and shaming. But there were also costs to staying: people-pleasing and believing I was weird- or wrong-wired.
So, how do you gather courage and bust out? For me, it was a slow process more about reclamation than reinvention. Some ideas:
- It was easier to think about what I didn’t want to do/be. The opposite was often what I did want to be/do.
- Re/discovering my core values & beliefs meant I could re/orient around them.
- Small explorations created small shifts that created a different trajectory.
- Trying things on: What was less like me/more like me?
- Being gentle with myself in liminal phases & unexpected slips & slides. Old habits died hard.
- Changing where I lived helped a lot. Changing how I lived helped even more.
- Accepting that others could think different, do different, & not like who I was becoming.
- Grieving the relational & opportunity costs was one part; believing in new opportunities and options was another.
Obviously, I’m still working on this identity stuff and I’m in the awkward stage, again. And yet, I hope to never finish the job. Some security would be welcome but at what cost? Maybe identity formation is more about recognizing and participating in movement than it is about making the big jump and sticking the landing.
LIST OF GOODNESS
After posting yesterday, I was starting to feel a little serious, a little down, a little too ‘in my head’. There is a highly responsible part of me that often needs a gentle prod to lighten up. So, I went for a walk in my neighbourhood to see where I could find beauty. Why a beauty-search and not just exercise?
A few years ago, I created a list of core values for myself. I knew that if I lived into that list as much as possible, a lot of the What? And How? questions would resolve themselves and I would experience the best possible setting for flourishing.
Simply put: more list = more life.
My Current List of Goodness
- Embodied practice
Referring back to the List, a walk was more than just my exercise for the day. It was also about beauty, creativity, adventure (a tiny one), embodied practice (sensory walking in my neighbourhood), and light.
And, so I went looking. For a half hour, I traded being responsible to being response-able until I was restored enough to return to work. Sometimes figuring out the basics of what you need is enough of an identity statement to see you through all the different life situations you will find yourself in.
My list has evolved through the years but the basics keep showing up. If you were to boil things down to their most elemental essence, what would show up on your list? Keeping it short and vital will serve you well as a navigational aid.
Meanwhile…aren’t flowers glorious? I often marvel at how much beauty can be packaged into such familiar, but always original, creations. I want to always feel this way about people, too, because relationships are high on my List of Goodness, along with beauty.
This morning, I woke. Not in the cool way (one day) but in the jarring way of nightmares and twisty toss/turn cycles of sleep, all of that ending via a noise outside my bedroom window. Awake, but not present. I needed grounding and coffee. And birds.
I ate some toast, drank coffee, watched a design show. All things I don’t do in the morning. I watched a robin couple fly around my balcony railing, the water that I adore as their backdrop. I mused. I meditated. And, gradually, I came back into my body. My mind lost its tilt and bobbed back into its usual place.
Today, I contemplated changes in identity; its effects and what this about. This is stuff of my recent nightmares and angst. Knowing your truth is one adventurous overcoming; living it out is another.
It requires heaps of courage. Fears lurk in the bushes; doubts dangle; tongues wag and nag. I can feel the collective squirming of others in my brain. I am not a brave person. I am not a full-faith person. But I walk another step.
Changes in identity are not simple or easy; they are arduous and ongoing. This morning I worked through them in one way. I have other strategies and I suspect you do, too.
Today, I won’t be offering an exercise or question. Instead, I extend to you the deepest compassion and en-couragement I can muster and I hope you can feel the warm vibes resonating in the space between us.
Don’t give up. Gather what you need around you and keep on truckin’ for truth. It’s worth it. For yourself and for all the others around you cheering you on, and for all the small boats in the big sea buoyed up by the rising tide.
I’m off now for art therapy i.e., painting in my studio. I haven’t done any for a while and there is a hollow place in my soul. Peace and love to you and your household today.
“How do we follow our heart?
First, I’d like to propose a couple of simplified (read: simplistic) scripts I’ve heard. Maybe you have heard a version of these too.
- The goal in life is to live up to your potential: be productive & efficient; pair up & be committed to one person and one job/career; have kids, a career or both; maximise earning potential; climb up the success ladder; retire in comfort and security.
- The goal in life is to live into your portfolio: live your best life now; pursue multiples of experiences (including relationships); follow your passion; you can do/be anything so don’t settle or sell out; value travel and time-off over extra work and pay.
Both scripts are generative and oppressive in some way; both can be fulfilling and limiting. Both cannot provide us with THE answer to the question above.
So, what is the answer?
I don’t know.
I know, I know…how very not-helpful of me. But, to be fair, your answer will be about YOUR heart, your preferred future, and you are the expert on your life, not me.
I’ve changed my mind a few times on this but I’m wondering if identity is more a by-product of a life well-considered and well-lived and less a following of a rigid script or a role. Maybe it’s more about knowing in your ‘knower’, listening to your heart, a gut feeling, intuition, sixth sense…yes, well, all of that is pretty hard to nail down into a plan so here are a few love-handles to grab onto:
- Draft a ‘preferred future’ manifesto. Include as many vital parts as possible.
- Create some life goals for all areas of your life. Break them down into next steps. Then, get going on at least one of them.
- Ask others to weigh in. But choose mentors wisely & avoid the plague of amateur expert-knowers.
- Set intentions but adapt, reconsider, & recalibrate as you go. Don’t let doubts or difficulties stall you out.
- Make the most of what you have and exercise gratitude. Avoid soul-sucking comparison.
That’s the only way I know how to do this right now (subject to change).
Remember that the map is not the territory and that detours and failed experiments are a part of the plan, as are surprises and serendipity. Change happens. A lot. Some of it good; some not-so-good. Identity formation is a fluid, flexible finding out or we become stagnant and drift off into the Land of Nod.
That’s the full weekender edition for #FebUp2020. You can follow me on my IG account for daily posts on all sorts of subjects related to counselling:
Peace to you and your household,
Shari van Spronsen, MC, RCC, CCC
IG account: https://www.instagram.com/sharivanspronsen/
Previous FebUp posts: #febup2018; #febup2019
Current posts: #febup2020
For this web blog, use the search terms “anxiety” or “identity”