When I walked away from my seven year corporate career, I felt an immediate sense of relief as I released the weight of a professional identity that didn’t quite fit. (Maybe leaving that 10 pound PC, aka: my third limb, had something to do with it.) Unfortunately, this lightness didn’t last and the weight was quickly replaced by a new one… this time, in the form of a simple question:
Who was I without my work identity? For years I had been a brand manager at a well respected company, working on a global megabrand and being responsible for $100 million in business while being compensated with a great salary and generous benefits. But who was I now… without all that?
As I contemplated this existential question, I came to a sad realization. Without knowing it, I had been composing my sense of self over the years with all the things I “did.” The grades, titles, promotions, projects, bank accounts and awards were all tools I used to prove to others (and myself) that I was worthy — that there was a reason I deserved to exist. Without my “doing” identity, I felt socially and spiritually naked.
I did everything I could to quickly redress myself. I made a new set of business cards that labeled me a “Marketing Consultant” the week after I resigned. I brainstormed new business ideas until I was blue in the face. I took on unpaid work at a startup. I registered for online courses. I bought way too many books. I started “passion projects.” I created scripts so when someone asked what I did at a networking event I’d have an answer instead of an emotional meltdown.
But all that effort was just a clever tactic to avoid the original question.
So I paused. I stopped doing. I surrendered to the understanding that I wasn’t equipped with the proper vocabulary to formulate an answer. And then I decided to just sit with the question. It was uncomfortable, but ultimately this act held a rare freedom: to begin again.
Whether you are in the choppy waters of a transition or sailing right along, I invite you to drop your anchor and sit with my frenemy of a question: Who am I? Everyone must chart their own course for this journey, but I will offer a few beacons that might help illuminate your path.
Notice Your Starting Point
When you casually pose the “Who Am I?” question to yourself, what naturally comes to mind? Write this response down. Study it. This is how you see yourself. What does it tell you? For me, it made it painfully clear that my sense of self almost fully rested on my professional identity and my accomplishments.
Challenge Yourself to Dig Deeper
If you had to talk about who you are without mentioning your work, what would you say? If you had to share who you are without referring to the role you play in other people’s lives, what would you say? Notice you have to work a little harder and dig a little deeper to get to your essence. This line of questioning helped me reconnect to my natural state of optimism and a deeply held belief in the goodness of people.
Make Space for the Shadow
We often reject aspects of our Self that we learned early on are “undesirable” based on our family of origin/culture/gender/etc. Maybe you are too impatient, artistic, opinionated, sensual or funny. Feel free to invite what has been cast aside back into the mix and embrace it. With this new lens I was able to see how disconnected I was from my femininity.
Remember Your True Worth
We are all inherently worthy of love and acceptance. No one is more or less deserving of these spiritual rights. There is nothing you can do or not do, or can be or not be, that will change that. Practice seeing yourself in this loving light. Let the pressure of finding a perfect answer to this question dissipate, because ultimately it is of a language beyond words.
Two years after my big leap I have come to trust that these life transitions, professional or otherwise, are simply opportunities to see ourselves more clearly. Chances to pause and notice the spaces and places within us that may have been willfully ignored, toned down or left completely unnoticed. We see where we have overdone, and see where we have been mistaken. We notice the bright spots where we got it right and watch what is waiting to emerge. In doing this we become more whole. So put down whatever weight you happen to be carrying and take a moment to really get in touch with the most important person in your life: you.