Have you ever felt like you lost your identity?
Anyone undergoing a significant life change can experience a loss of identity. New relationships, losing a loved one, childbirth, moving, job loss, and the end of close relationships can lead to an identity crisis. So can an unexpected diagnosis or traumatic event.
It may seem difficult to imagine losing your sense of self, but that’s precisely what happened to me.
One day, I looked in the mirror and thought, “I don’t know who I am.”
Throughout my life, I handpicked labels to define myself. When I was young, I was a confident straight-A student, overachiever, daughter, sister, and friend. Later I became a college graduate, software engineer, blogger, writer, wife, mother, and achiever of financial independence.
For the most part, adding new titles didn’t impact the formerly applied ones; when I became a software engineer, I still identified as an overachiever and recognized my role as a daughter even after I married my best friend.
Personality traits, social roles, attributes, and abilities are the building blocks of our identity. But have you ever noticed how we cherry-pick the words we use to describe ourselves?
We can choose from a nearly infinite list of descriptions, yet we usually select the narrowest subset.
Deep inside, we know our hand-selected words can’t describe the complex nature of our identities, but that doesn’t stop us from trying to apply them.
How Do Other People Describe Us
Imagine asking your friends and family to describe you. What will they say, if you ask?
If I ask my oldest son, he’ll say I’m caring, serious, and intelligent. If I ask my youngest, he will say I’m soft, funny, and tall.
When introducing me to her friends, my mom wouldn’t mention my role as a software engineer. Just like my husband wouldn’t describe us as financially independent to friends.
Your neighbors might say you’re funny, trustworthy, or supportive. While your coworkers might say you’re dedicated, reliable, and intelligent. But very few people select the same words you use to describe yourself.
They also don’t keep a static list. By nature, we are constantly evolving, changing, and becoming better versions of ourselves.
The words we choose today may not reflect the person we wish to be five days, two years, or a decade from now. Yet we rarely consider their fluidity or our ability to change them.
Losing My Identity
For most of my life, I felt confident with the words I’d chosen to identify myself. But, somewhere between leaving my high-paying job and giving birth to two beautiful children, I lost my identity.
My lost identity went missing the way you lose your house keys and can’t find your way through the front door.
One day I felt charming and confident, and the next, I felt uninteresting and mundane.
I kept looking back, trying to find the engaging person I used to be and wondering where she went.
What was causing my identity loss? Was it my layoff, my new role as a mom, or simply my age? It turned out to be all three.
For years, I calculated my value by the totals printed on my W-2. My distorted definition of success kept me focused on the overachieving, driven, engineer part of myself. When I gave up my career, I gave up kudos, raises, promotions, and the feeling of competency that came with it.
Loss impacts our perception of ourselves, and losing my job was more traumatic than I allowed myself to admit. Although thousands of people received pink slips during the banking crisis, I felt personally attacked. I’d worked relentless hours for a company that let me go without a second thought.
When I left work, a considerable chunk of my identity disappeared. Unfortunately, it didn’t just go out for a bit. It grabbed a suitcase, stuffed my self-esteem inside, and walked right out of the house.
I Lost Myself
I wasn’t sure how to recapture the missing bits of my lost identity, but I was pretty sure my new role as mom didn’t offer me time to figure it out.
Rather than dive into the misguided idea that my intelligence and skills were tied solely to my former profession, I ignored the nagging loss.
I signed my kids up for mommy-and-me classes, reading time at the local library, and swimming lessons. When they didn’t feel well, I took them to the doctor and ensured they never missed a dentist appointment.
At the playground, I searched for former software engineers who chose to stay at home with their children. I never found one, but I desperately wanted to find someone in the same situation. Maybe they could help me find my lost identity, I reasoned.
I love my children with every part of my being, but somewhere between diaper changes and birthday parties, I lost my identity.
I felt that loss when my husband returned home from work each evening. I could tell him about the baby’s first steps, words, or the art show we went to, but I had little to discuss beyond the ins and outs of my children’s activities. My life revolved entirely around my children.
As time wore on, I lost pride in myself and my abilities. I was a loving, fully engaged mom, but I missed being the intelligent girl that solved complex problems.
I Don’t Know Who I Am Anymore
I yearned for my previous identity for longer than I’d like to admit. Then one day, I realized my desire was a false illusion.
I didn’t want a career. Writing code and solving problems scratched a former itch, but I didn’t need that engineering label anymore.
I wanted the time and space to do the things I loved and to find the passions that existed outside of my children.
The ones I truthfully began to lose in my late twenties and early thirties as I spent too many hours focused on work assignments and climbing the corporate ladder.
Transformation is a Powerful Process
After many years of searching for my lost identity, I rediscovered it. Of course, it was there all along. It just morphed into something new, bright, beautiful, and different. So different that I failed to recognize it.
I’d spent years focusing on the loss of my career rather than the time and enjoyment I gained from leaving it. My life didn’t go as planned, but the alternative turned out better than I imagined.
I no longer want to be an overachiever or a software engineer, and I don’t need a career in tech to feel confident and intelligent.
How did I discover that fact?
How to Find Your Lost Identity
I tried new things. As a child, I constantly explored unknown activities and pushed my limits. I hopped on scooters and skateboards, invented board games, and played volleyball over outdoor clotheslines.
As an adult, I might not be up to the physical challenge of rollerblading or learning to snowboard, but that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t seek new opportunities.
I can try new hobbies, explore new passions, and wait for bubbles to rise that fill me with nervous anticipation.
If I feel lost or suffer from low self-esteem, I can break free from my comfort zone and push my limits. I can fly to a place where I don’t know the language, sing karaoke before a packed bar, or sign up for a mahjongg tournament.
To do this, I must commit to seeking joy. That begins by focusing on self-care. I don’t need to wait until I complete all the chores on my to-do list. Instead, I need to make myself a priority at least every once in a while.
I must seek out my core beliefs and core values while wholeheartedly believing I don’t need a job to define me.
Reconstruct Your Lost Identity
What makes you feel happy? Do you enjoy painting, writing, running, or volunteering? Figure out what makes your heart sing, and you’ll find yourself. It might be playing the trumpet like you did as a kid, swimming, or journaling.
What do you love to do? Reignite your passion, then share it!
If you struggle to find your true self, create a list of things you are not. For example, saying, I am not pessimistic or lazy will remind you that you are optimistic and hard-working.
Push aside the negative thoughts that make you feel guilty for spending time or money on yourself. Ignore the naysayers that think you should devote more time to your household, work, partner, or children. You can do that and still reconnect with activities that are important to you.
Instead, surround yourself with those who support your endeavors. Look for those on similar journeys, and keep your eye out for uplifting cheerleaders.
If you are a parent, talk to your kids about your passions. My kids perk up when I talk about personal finance and writing. After completing a presentation about aging parents, my kids happily listened to me practice, asked questions, provided input, and applauded my efforts. Show them that it’s important to have interests outside of parenting and start thinking about the ways you can share your passions and excitement with your children.
Lastly, take action. Permit yourself to be ambitious. Carve out time for your passion. Lock yourself in a room or go to the library, but find some way to complete the task you set out to do.
When you do, create a new list of words to define your identity, and remember this list isn’t set in stone. Trust in your ability to change now and from this point forward.
If you lost your identity, I hope you find it soon. In the meantime, tell me, which piece went missing?