The two weeks bookending the close of one year and the beginning of the next are a special kind of purgatory for me. Not in the hellfire/damnation sense, but in its Latin origin: purifying.
I typically spend these two weeks cycling through a predictable pattern: wake up, read, journal, walk, spend time with family or friends, watch a movie, read, sleep. Some shopping. Lots of puttering around. I seem to have no other ambitions. I deliberately do very little work. It’s boring, but exactly what my body and spirit seem to need. This year was no exception.
If this purgatory sounds like “recharging,” you’d be right except for one minor detail: I seem to forget who I am. I forget what I do. I forget where I’ve come from. I forget where I’m rushing to go. I sometimes forget my own value. The idea that people pay me to do things feels funny. My own ambitions feel funny. Sometimes I forget why the projects I’m working on matter to me. I quite literally lose myself during those weeks.
Is this my ego dissolving? Maybe a tiny bit. Hardly close to an Ayahuasca trip I’m sure. But ever so subtly I feel my own significance slipping away. I’m simply an eyeball attached to a body observing a moment in time. It’s frightening, but familiar. Like being lost in a foreign town when you have nowhere particular to go, nothing particular to do. Getting lost is the task. As I’ve learned time over, losing yourself is usually the first step to discovering new exciting new territories, within and without.
And I’ve lost and found myself a hundred times. Whether it’s losing a friend, a vision quest, or a career pivot, I’ve experienced a handful of mini identity deaths. It’s always unsettling, but I’ve been here before.
Here’s what I’ve learned: it’s a lot easier when you’re less certain about who you are.
Jordan Peterson, author of 12 Rules for Life, talks about the importance of holding your identity lightly.
People with a death grip on their identity – those who are hellbent certain about who they are, what they believe, what they do, and their place in the world – are more likely to experience a radical identity death when/if a big, dramatic event shatters their worldview (cue: identity crisis). They’re also less likely to evolve and mature and truly know themselves.
Meanwhile, those who hold their identity lightly – those who stay open to the idea that their “truths” might be false, their worldviews could be inaccurate, who they think they are might be incorrect – can let go of identities and adopt new ones with greater ease. If practiced often and voluntarily, dramatic identity-shattering events are less likely to send them into a crippling existential crisis.
The obvious place I see this cropping up time and again with career changers. The longer someone identifies themselves as a noun (lawyer, banker, consultant, marketer, teacher, etc.) the more painful the proverbial identity bandaid ripping is when they attempt to try something new.
The freest people, identity-wise, associate more with a verb than a noun. “I’m practicing law” vs “I’m a lawyer.” “I’m writing a book” vs “I’m a novelist.” “I’m working on this XYZ project” vs “I am this XYZ person.” Seth Godin describes his career as 30 years of projects. That’s freedom. I’m not this kind of person, I’m doing these kind of things.
We can help each other. One way is to stop asking people “what do you do?” (which is technically asking for the verb, but many of us habitually answer with the noun). I’ve adopted the habit of asking either “What are you working on right now?” or “What are you most excited about workwise right now?” Maybe it’s an inconsequential subtle shift. But it helps remind me to focus on – actions in the world vs identity in it.
This time of year, many people conduct end-of-year reviews and upcoming year goal planning (I’m no exception). But maybe what we need is not grasping at, but a letting go. Identity loosening. A temporary forgetting of who we think we are. Deliberately getting lost. And being open to rediscovering who you really are, what you really want, in this moment in time.
It’s like psychologist Dan Gilbert says:
“Human beings are works in progress that mistakenly think they’re finished.”
Ironically, being less certain about who you are makes you more self-aware in the long run.
This week: Try holding your identity lightly. Maybe there’s new territory to be discovered by forgetting who you feel like you are or need to be.
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