Some dictionary definitions of identity are as follows:
· The state or fact of remaining the same one or ones, as under varying aspects or conditions;
· The condition of being oneself or itself and not another;
· Condition or character as to who a person or what a thing is;
· The state or fact of being the same one as described;
· The sense of self, providing sameness and continuity in personality over time and sometimes disturbed in mental illness.
The origin of identity comes from the late Latin word ‘indentitas’, which means repeatedly, again and again. The synonyms are individuality, personality, distinctiveness and uniqueness.
How do these definitions and explanations of identity relate to you and how do they determine who you are? Another question might be, ‘Where does your identity come from and does it come before or after my character and personality have been developed by events and situations’.
The reason I am writing this article is to explore how our identities can be changed, for better or worse, during periods of mental ill health and how or whether coaching can help individuals understand how their identity can affect their wellbeing.
It is generally true that our capabilities and our identities are inextricably linked. However, it is also generally true that our identity can impose limits on our capabilities and it must follow, therefore, that by expanding or changing our view of ourselves we can increase our levels of capability. For example, if we see ourselves as having low confidence and self-esteem we act accordingly whereas if we see ourselves as having an abundance of confidence and self-esteem we will act much differently. So, as well as being linked to capability, identity is influenced by the beliefs we have about ourselves.
Our identity is not just as a result of how we see ourselves but is also affected by how others see us and how we internalise these, generally, perceptions and the beliefs we then generate based on the inner-dialogue we subsequently have, whether this is true or false.
The most important fact to remember is that we all have the power to influence our own and others identities. But what about when we are mentally unwell, how does this change our identity and what can we do about it? This is a significant question that I am asked frequently when I am coaching clients. Having been challenged myself with mental ill health for over 30 years, I can empathise with the view that just surviving is a major challenge let alone trying to figure out who you are and how you might work on your identity.
The reality is that we will act consistently in accordance with our beliefs of who we are, whether these beliefs are true or not. If we have a belief that we are mentally unwell, there is a great danger that we will assume the identity of being a sick person and this in turn becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. The more you identify with your illness over time the stronger the bond you develop with this belief and the harder it becomes to change.
It is true that changing these beliefs, the essence of who we are, can be difficult but it is not impossible as most people think. How many times have you or someone you know said “I am who I am, this is just the way I am”. In many cases I have worked on, someone who believes they have depression, for example, will feel depressed because that is who they think they are. I have coached many clients with depression and they all have said to me when I ask them why they have come for coaching ‘ I am depressed’. My usual answer is that they are a father, mother, daughter, brother, sister, son, husband, wife, manager, cleaner, etc., who happens to be feeling unwell at the moment. By giving themselves the label or identity of being depressed this actually precludes them from thinking about alternative identities. Indeed, when I challenge clients thinking and thoughts about who they are I am usually met with resistance or indignation and they can even become defensive. It is almost as if they can excuse how they feel and behave based on their identity they have given themselves. Unfortunately, these clients, on their own, will not believe that they can change, both in the short-term and in the longer-term.
In fact, a shift in our identity will produce new thoughts, feelings and behaviour. It will create new beliefs about who they are and this will produce profound and sometimes quite rapid lasting improvements to the quality of their lives. In order to achieve this shift we have to change our conviction about who we are by creating a new identity, which will shift all their current behaviours from feeling depressed to feeling well. This, in turn, will generate long-term physiological and psychological changes that will be entirely consistent with their new identity.
One client of mine felt so depressed he could not leave his home for two years and yet he really enjoyed his going to his country club playing golf, swimming, having a sauna and using the gym. Having challenged his identity in the first session I encouraged him to look at himself differently and to take on the identity of someone who was fit and well by acting as if. He came to see me on our third session two weeks later to tell me that he had been to his club, played a round of golf, had a swim, used the sauna and the gym. He did admit that it had been really difficult for him but having done it he really did think and feel he was getting better. After seven one-hour sessions he went back to work and has been making plans for a long overdue holiday.
I shall be writing more about identities soon but in summary, identity and its associated beliefs have a powerful influence on how you think, feel and act and yet your identity is a choice. What are you going to choose?