Finding Your Holistic Identity

In the last two posts I have alluded to your identity extending beyond a single dimension of your life such as career. Today I want to elaborate on this concept; I want to explore your holistic identity.

Who are you? Quick, pick a word that conveys your identity.

Whatever word surfaced for you – mother, writer, and analyst, American – represents your primary mental model of yourself.

What is identity? It is so much more than just your given name.

Identity is a person’s conception and expression of their own (self-identity) and others’ individuality or group affiliations (such as national identity and cultural identity). ~ Wikipedia

I am a huge fan of YA fiction. In the dystopian trilogy Divergent, the protagonist is a teenager in search of her true identity within a society that defines its citizens by their affiliation with different factions.

At first blush, a world in which individuals consciously choose their communities based on their values seems ideal. But readers soon learn that there is a price to be paid when society forces individuals into limiting constraints of identity.

Although we live in a world far removed from Divergent-verse, many of us secretly struggle with defining our identity. However, it is crucial to understand our holistic identity, because it is at the core of how we live our life, the choices we make and the risks we take.

Taking the time to understand who we are in all of our dimensions can help us be informed role players in the game of our own lives. Our physical freedom may be fairly guaranteed but understanding our holistic identity offers another kind of freedom, the mental freedom to be exactly who we are even as we grow into who we are meant to be.

Our identity changes throughout a lifetime whether or not we choose to undergo the process of personal development. It is shaped by many facets of our life.

My Self-Identity
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Identity and needs

Over 70 years ago, psychologist Abraham Maslow postulated that people are motivated to achieve certain needs. He defined a 5 stage hierarchy of needs model that differentiated basic (or deficiency) needs (ex. physiological, safety, love, and esteem) from growth needs (self-actualization). This model still holds true in the 21st century.

Maslow was convinced that everyone had the capacity and desire to move up the hierarchy toward the highest levels.

However, he observed that individuals sought to satisfy lower level basic needs before progressing to higher level growth needs. He noted that failure to meet some needs could lead to regression to lower levels in the hierarchy. Also, life experiences such as losing a job or divorce could cause an individual to fluctuate between levels in the hierarchy.

Maslow found that only a small percentage of individuals even came close to achieving self-actualization. Our society by its very nature rewards motivation based on esteem, love and other social needs thereby affecting an individual’s identity and drive for continued growth.

Awareness of the hierarchy of needs can help you plan for and anticipate setbacks in your journey towards your highest potential. Also, it becomes evident that in order to achieve self-actualization, you need to forgo the tendency to define yourself through limited references. Ironically, accepting who you are and that you are more than enough opens up greater possibilities in your life.


Identity through roles and groups

More than any other dimension, the roles we play define who we are.

These roles could include being a parent, a partner, a sibling, a colleague or a friend. For better or for worse, there are responsibilities and expectations that accompany these identities. They consume a lot of our time and govern our attitudes and behavior.

Assuming a new role, such as that of a partner or a parent can change our view of the world. Similarly when we discard one of these roles, say by becoming an empty nester, it can drastically alter our lifestyle.

Our nationality or our culture can influence our behavior and our beliefs too. These affiliations can sometimes constrain our abilities and alter our path to self-realization.

To complicate matters, some of the groups that we belong to can conflict with each other. For example, Indian culture places great emphasis on mothers caring for children, whereas in America, spouses share equal responsibility for their kids. This may lead to conflict in multi generational families raising the issue of balancing cultural values and individual needs.

Depending on where you live and the groups you associate with, you may be able to selectively adhere to values that resonate with you. The key is to avoid succumbing to generalizations and to figure out which beliefs serve you in leading an authentic life.

Identity through work

Many of us define ourselves through our profession or work. When introducing ourselves in any setting we may lead with what we do for a living – I am a consultant, I am a writer, I am a teacher… and so on.

The problem with basing your identity on a profession is that it oversimplifies the complexity of your being.

For years, when I introduced myself as an analyst, I would be met with knowing nods, “Oh yes, I understand you are one of those IT people!” Yes, I was a person who just happened to work in IT, but I was also so much more than that. I was a scientist, a writer, a teacher and an artist. Building my story around my work alone stunted my self identity.

Let your LinkedIn profile continue to reflect your title, but when contemplating your personal identity ask yourself this, “Why do you do what you do? How do your disparate talents and interests inform your work? Who are you becoming through your work?”

Identity through personality

There are many personality tests available that will assess your personality by rating the degree to which you reflect different characteristics. Personality tests are used in a number of contexts such as career or relationship counseling and employment testing. However, they can also be a useful instrument in understanding your identity.

For example, community may play an important role in your life. But the goals you set in this dimension and how you choose to pursue those goals may differ based on whether you are an introvert or an extrovert.

Here are a few well known questionnaires that can help you gain a better understanding of your personality:

  • DISC assessment rates an individual on the traits of Dominance, Influence, Steadiness and Conscientiousness
  • Big Five measures degree of Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism
  • Myers Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) measures how people perceive the world through sensation, intuition, feeling, and thinking.
  • VIA (Values in Action) takes a different approach by measuring how our strengths manifest themselves in our character. It is a very different test compared to any of the personality tests mentioned above but may be far more valuable in helping you on your journey.

Personality is influenced by many of the previous dimensions. If identity is the inner core of our self, personality is the outer skin with which we clothe ourselves.

Identity, personality and character are inextricably intertwined. To lead a happier and fulfilling life, it is worth the effort to understand where the outer layer ends and our unchangeable inner core, our self-identity emerges.

Define your identity

All of the above dimensions are but generalized descriptions and can reduce our identity if viewed in isolation. The problem with each of these dimensions is that their definition is external, they are beyond our control. Moreover they are non-specific; they are based on sweeping assumptions and may hinder rather than aid our growth as an individual.

Our identity is more than the roles we play, the groups we are affiliated with and the work that we do. Our identity is who we are, our values, beliefs, strengths, talents, needs, wants, goals and all. Even our imperfections, weaknesses and flaws define us inasmuch that they allow us to shed pretensions that we are anything other than who we acknowledge ourselves to be.

If we want to achieve our highest potential and build a happier, healthier and more successful life, we need to gain clarity on our self-identity.

Far from being self indulgent, it can be argued that asking powerful questions about our identity is a purposeful reflective practice.

Knowing our true identity is the greatest freedom we will ever experience. Once we learn to be honest with ourselves we can survive any hardships, face any adversity with equanimity. Nothing will deter us from achieving the fulfillment and success that we desire.

Identity Exercise

Block off time on your calendar to take the tests listed above. What did you learn about yourself that were unaware of? How does this inform your identity?

Take a blank piece of paper and a pen. Set a timer for 10 minutes. Write down all the words and phrases that occur to you about your identity through roles, groups, work and personality.

Reflect on what these words and phrases mean. Do they really define you? How do these definitions serve you? Could you be more than this? Who is defining who you are – is it you or the people in your groups and roles? Is that how you want to define your identity? How could you align your perception of your identity with who you want to become?

Use your newfound knowledge to articulate your beliefs – on roles, on work, on health, on wealth. How has understanding your identity affected your beliefs?

Don’t stop now! Set aside another 15 minutes to craft affirmations that reflect your identity and assert your beliefs.

Wheel of Life

Coaches use another simple yet powerful exercise called Wheel of Life with their clients. This exercise will help further refine your holistic identity and assess your level of satisfaction in all areas of your life. Furthermore, it will clarify your priorities and assist you in setting SMART goals.

Download the pdf to learn more about the Wheel of Life exercise.

How has this post changed your views on self-identity? How can you apply this knowledge in your own life? What questions do you have about the Wheel of Life exercise? How can a coach help you gain clarity on your identity?

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