So what is identity? I didn’t want to look it up in a dictionary but rather think of what came up for me as my own definition. So, let me share with you what I think identity is. It is formed from our internal perception of ourselves, combined with how the outside world sees us and how we think we need to show up to match this illusion.
Our inner self encompasses many aspects, from ethics to core values, beliefs to needs. The outer self is the layer that people can see from the outside: our looks, clothing, the way we talk, walk, smile… To be satisfied with one’s identity is to feel complete, where both the inner and outer layer are aligned with who we truly are. This struggle has been at the core of many coaching conversations. The actual question has never been as clear as the “who am I?” but more a “what should I do?” in order to satisfy others’ visions of me and avoid disappointing them, ultimately complying with a seemingly acquired identity.
So let’s see how these identity questions and reflections show up in the coaching environment. Instead of looking at one particular client, I will reflect on several instances when the question of identity appeared in different people and scenarios. This way, I will highlight a broader spectrum of situations.
Identity – The Story We Tell Ourselves, Influenced By What Has Happened To Us
“My mum was an alcoholic,” one client told me. Then the penny dropped. “She chose alcohol over me.” Chloe clearly identified herself as an unlovable person, not worthy of love or attention. This belief was so much part of her, that it framed her thinking that she needed validation from others. When I challenged this limiting belief by asking: “How do you know for sure she chose alcohol over you?” I was able to shine a different light on her story and who she really was. After all, yes, she was a lovable person. This conversation allowed her to move forward with her life and make a crucial decision about her future career. Looking at the skills she developed throughout her traumatic childhood made her realise that she was a strong, resilient person and didn’t have to hold on to this limiting ‘victim’ label anymore.
The Loss Of Identity – Identity Reveals Itself Once We Realise We’ve Actually Somehow Lost It
Laura seems shy, quiet and lacking in confidence. She’s still young, undecided on her future and not clear on what route to take to fulfil her dream to become a fashion designer. She seeks approval from her relatives. One session, our conversation got into “what would help you regain your confidence?” After searching, she realised that she had changed something in her daily routine. She didn’t pick her clothes the night before in the same way she used to. She came to the realisation that her confidence was highly linked to this habit of selecting her clothes carefully. Gradually, she had stopped expressing herself through her clothing. The expression of her identity was showing through this. For instance, she had stopped wearing her favourite bright yellow jumper. This is who she was: a girl who wore bright, flashy clothes. This showed her that not going through this daily process any longer was a sign of this loss of confidence and identity. The goal she then set herself seemed trivial at first, but wearing her once-loved yellow top was a way for her to regain her sense of who she really was. She was no longer a girl who wore black clothes, but one who expressed herself with outrageous colours.
The Change Of Identity – A Period Of Transition
When Rita reached 54, having just undergone a major operation, she felt that it was time to reflect. She had clearly lost her sense of identity. She was a mother whose children had flown the nest. Her identity as a mum meant that other people’s needs were put before her own, as she told me how she had sacrificed her work. She cared for her ill daughter and expressed the need at the time to have counselling as she had a feeling of ‘lost self’, her confidence and self-esteem also suffering.Through coaching she managed to change her self- perception, enabling her to reflect and take the time to talk about the process of change she had just seen before her eyes. Her forced time out had allowed her to spend time thinking of what she used to be and what she was to become. Her shift in identity meant she could accept being successful now, and the necessary validation was actually not coming from the outside but within herself. What had been holding her back was that very sense of identity, and allowing herself to accept that she deserved to put herself first helped her to move forward.
Rita’s self-worth was highly connected with earning money. It was once she realised other people who mattered to her could see her as a success, that she not only could remind herself that she deserved success, but that success for her was at least in part about her earning power. Because in the past she had identified herself as a non-materialistic being, she was ashamed about the very concept of earning money. Giving herself permission to earn meant that she could get rid of the negative spin on money she previously had. During our conversation she made the connection that financial success was the missing piece in her identity. Being a financial success in her field of work would allow her to feel complete. Once she rewrote this mental picture of herself she was able to move forward and embrace what was at stake for her whilst feeling her newly discovered, true self.
Rita now understands her purpose and how to feel fulfilled, and this removes her constant need to self-sabotage through accepting how she is now. She also realised that to get there she had to make sure she wouldn’t revert back to old behaviour. One way to achieve this was to have clear affirmations on her mirror to remind herself daily of who she was and keep a clear focus. After a few sessions, she was going forward with applying her idea of her new approach to her business ideas. She felt so resolute that she was happy to take the risk of getting people’s feedback on what they thought of her concept. Her gained sense of self was strong enough to apply the right filters when people commented on her ideas, and she didn’t fear them anymore. Instead, she was prepared and ready to receive them. There was now evidently far less self-doubt about who she had become.
How We Label Ourselves – Identity, An Abstract And Highly Subjective Concept – How We See And Describe Ourselves
Many clients used unhealthy labels and they were not even aware they were doing so. Jenny kept saying throughout our sessions: “I am stupid.” I started making notes of this word and eventually asked her if she had noticed she kept using it to describe herself. Then, every time it showed up, we started laughing about it together. This systematic description of her being stupid was like an automatic means of identification. “I’m stupid.” Where was this coming from? How long had she used this adjective as a form of identity? Again, bringing the awareness to her was a useful way to break an unhealthy and unconscious pattern. By challenging the very use of this label I was able to demonstrate to her how restrictive and negative the effect had been on her, and how she saw herself.
A Label We Are Given – And The Same Goes With A Label We Have Received From Someone Of Authority, Such As A Teacher
The young man I am coaching wants to become someone great and wants to do extremely well in his business venture. Despite all the positive feedback he gets all around him, an old label emerges whilst he is speaking to me. One day, a teacher called him “stupid”. This triggered in him a strong belief that this was who he was, someone who couldn’t do well in his studies and was good for nothing. After a lengthy conversation with me, it was a revelation to him that this label did indeed no longer apply to him and he could simply decide to ignore it. He said with pride during the session, “This is not the person I am now,” and, “I have proof through all my successes.” Successes which included getting a degree in a foreign country, in a language that was not his first, that proved to reassure him that he was no longer this little boy he described himself as. He had previously accepted the label and now it was time for him to let go and move forward.
How We See Ourselves In The Present
In one magical session with a new client (it was actually the first time we talked) I had no idea about what the client was like or who she was. In a very short and deep session, the client was able to let go of her past and her fears of the person she used to be. In the session, the client realised what her old self was like, and who she didn’t want to be anymore. Just allowing herself to acknowledge who she had become was enough to shift her entire emotional being, allowing her to feel grounded and present. She was talking to me about the fact that she had met someone new. Her whole body was tellingly excited by the experience, as she referred to a tsunami within herself. The next moment, she was explaining that in the past, she had suffered in previous relationships, which was affecting how she was viewing this new one.
She described her past attitude as someone who would sacrifice in the way she would give to the other person, but suddenly she could see that she was a new person and that this didn’t apply to her anymore. The shift in identity happened when she noticed that she was able to have a completely different attitude to this new situation. She could see in this moment that she had changed, and this was when she said she was ready to let go of her old identity. All of a sudden, her rhythm of speech slowed down; she was quiet, still and peaceful. She closed her eyes, I am not sure how long this moment lasted but I could sense her inner peace. The battle inside her had stopped and she was free to enjoy who she wanted to be without fear of her past identity.
The Inner Conflict – Who Am I? Who Do I Want To Be?
This client is in her 40s, and thinks she is having a midlife crisis. We have many sessions in which we speak about her career, what she wants from life, her values, her priorities. She fears she might be depressed and has lost her zest for life. It was only in our last session together that the issue of identity truly presented itself. She revealed to me some traumatic events from her childhood, before telling me that she has a kind of split identity. Describing it as a kind of Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde situation, she seems to be genuinely scared of who she might be, and what she is pretending to be, caught in not knowing which persona to choose. She says that there is the kind one and the bad one inside her. On one hand she is this crazy, highly-sexed girl who loves partying and experimenting and on the other, this calm, tamed, established woman in a relationship.
She explained to me how she used to be so involved in human and animal rights, how passionate she was, and how now she is hiding this side of herself as she thinks it’s not appropriate in the world in which she finds herself. But what she is truly tormented by is how to show herself. She is worried that if she drops the mask of this nice person, she might fall back into her old bad, nasty self. She is even looking for the signs that this person is still there, assuming that it will all go wrong for her again if so. She says it’s like having two incompatible people inside her and admits lying to herself by not being her true self and pretending to be good.
I asked her a simple question. “Imagine you didn’t have the traumatic events in your past: who are you, without this experience?” She actually couldn’t get rid of who she had been, she couldn’t disassociate herself from her past. We laughed about it, as we were going round in circles, and again and again she would go back to her past. As it was our last session, it was clear that I had planted a new seed in her head and she now had all the time in the world to digest and reflect on this question. I do believe that the work during the session is only the start of the process, as the human brain doesn’t change so easily.
To conclude, this is a small illustration of how identity shows up in the coaching space. You might wonder how we end up working on identity; the truth is none of my clients ever came to me with the question “who am I?” or even with a clear goal to work on their sense of self. It just happened within the coaching space, naturally and without the identity question at the forefront of the conversation. But funnily enough, the question from me did pop up a few times: “who are you, and who do you want to be?” And these questions were really powerful as they had probably never been asked so bluntly before.
Being a transformational coach means that we don’t stick to the surface. A client might want to lose weight as a goal, but by questioning the motivation behind it, soon the goal itself disappears as the client realises what is really at the core: self-acceptance. This is the beauty of my work. I don’t just take for granted what the client wants but the clues emerge as the client expresses their fears and doubts…
The very fact that the way you see yourself can be your own barrier, means that being loyal to this perceived identity could generate self- sabotage, avoiding any chance of growth and change.
Looking back at my notes from these sessions has made me realise how identity is at the core of my work, and bearing this in mind will allow me to be more aware of the unsaid and how it plays in the background. It’s only with this greater awareness that I can truly call myself a transformational life coach. My role is to be able to spot and identify issues around identity in the client’s narrative to allow for the client’s transformation to take place.