When we do anything for a long time, that title—teacher, parent, daughter, sister, spouse, manager—becomes a major part of our identity. That role is one of the primary ways that we see ourselves. For people who know us closely in one of those roles, it’s how they identify us as well. My friends from teaching don’t necessarily identify me as a writer and most don’t know me in any of the roles I play in my personal life.
It’s all pretty simple, really, until we stop playing one of those parts. Then, it is no longer an aspect of our identity. It’s who we used to be. The real task at hand becomes embracing a new identity. What I’m finding as I make my way through retirement is that this is easier said than done. We change our identities many times in our lives, of course. We certainly don’t still identify as the best reader in third grade or the star of the baseball team or even the homecoming queen. As we grow and change, we take on new identities. But even then it isn’t as simple as it sounds. If we grew up with a poor self-concept related to some aspect of our appearance or our personality, it’s hard to shake that, even when we’re very different now that we’re grown.
It’s like secretly wanting to be something but not really donning it like a beautiful new coat.
This complicated transition from being one person to being another is also evident when we want to change a behavior. It’s hard to see yourself in a new light and even more difficult sometimes for the people in your life to let you change. When we identify as a certain person with particular behaviors, and then we want to change, it has a ripple effect throughout our lives. I know it’s one of the reasons I go back to my old job when I’m asked. That was an identity with which I was familiar. It was comfortable for me and my co-workers. That’s who I was when I was in that arena. When I’m away from that, I’m faced with letting that go and allowing myself to become someone new.
I’ve been thinking lately that this issue of identity is also directly related to our level of confidence in certain areas of our lives. If I’m going through the motions of some new task or interest, but not really embodying it as part of my identity, it’s easy to question myself. It’s like secretly wanting to be something but not really donning it like a beautiful new coat. That's what I think we all need to do if we want to create or develop or embrace a new identity in any area of our lives. Even if we want to be more patient with people, to really achieve that goal we need to take it on as who we are. “I’m a nice, easygoing person. This is who I am.”
Because I spent a lot of time in my life lacking confidence, being a little sheepish and apologetic is part of how I identified myself for many years. That image of myself is so ingrained in the picture I have in my head of me in my life that I often see it before I see the person I am now. It’s hard to feel confident and grounded and self-contained when we are still running old films of ourselves as wallflowers. I get it now that if I want to see myself differently, it has to start with me believing I’m different. Just wishing for it from afar isn’t going to get me any closer.
These days, I’m a retired teacher and administrator, but I’m ready to put that in its own scrapbook. I need to focus on who and what I want to be now—a writer—and not in a longing-for kind of way. Instead, I need to embrace it, enjoy it, take it seriously, do the work and be the thing I want to be. The same is true with behaviors. If I don’t want to be seen as the person everyone turns to when they need assistance, I need to remove that from my own self-concept first.
Like most things in life, it obviously all begins with us. It’s hard enough figuring out how we want to live. Really doing it is a whole other step, and a giant one at that. But I’m beginning to feel the real pleasure that comes from embodying a new identity, and that, it turns out, is a great motivator.