I’ve never liked labels. It feels so limiting to be put in a box, to form rigid expectations, and then not to be allowed to be any different. On the other hand, labels can also provide an element of safety. You know who you are. You’re single. You’re a senior executive in company X. You’re British. When your life, and career, shift in a new direction, however, that identity can be challenged and you end up on shaky ground. If you strip away those labels and identity as defined by society’s expectations… who are you, really?
Labels and identity in my life
I often talk about being ‘the good girl’ at school. I did well, followed the rules, and graduated top of my class. I applied to Harvard University early action and got a place. When I received the letter of acceptance, there was one key message that has stuck with me ever since. It cautioned us, the prospective students, about the change we were about to experience.
We had all been in the top 10%, the top 1% even, of our schools, probably our entire lives. That’s how we saw ourselves. At Harvard, however, by definition, 90% of us, 99% of us, would no longer be top of our class. (I didn’t end up going to Harvard but, of course, the same thing applied at the University of Oxford.) Having your whole identity and, in a way, your whole worth, be about your academic prowess, only to have that be diluted as you became one of many, was a hit to the ego.
After completing my studies, I took a job in brand management at Procter & Gamble. I was a top performer early on, and, externally, the company was widely admired for being a leader in consumer goods and in marketing. When I left that environment in 2013, I had to let go of the prestige and status that came with the job title at such a big-name company. I struggled in the initial months, if not years, to stop saying that I was a “digital marketing consultant”, and that I “used to work at P&G”. None of the new labels of “entrepreneur”, “coach”, “writer” sat well with me and, I’m embarrassed to say, I still stumble over my words when people ask me what I do today. (My about page and social media bios are continually evolving!)
At a personal level, I spent most of my life being single. I was strong and independent. I was the ‘fun auntie’ to my sister’s kids and to those of my friends. This became even more pronounced as I left my job to work for myself and I was able to freely travel the world and go off on all sorts of different adventures. Becoming a girlfriend, first, and then, even more so, a mother has been a huge adjustment. We’re not married and so here, too, I stumble over the right word to describe “my partner”, “my boyfriend”, or “the father of my children” (the Swedish word ‘sambo’ really fills an important gap here!).
And, by the way, I’ve always identified as being young! I’m the youngest daughter, I was the youngest in my year… Now, though, I find myself having had two ‘geriatric’ pregnancies and, as I enter my fifth decade, I’m not sure that label of being young will ever apply again!
So there are many areas in your life where these labels are used, and where there might be difficult transitions as you move from one label to another.
Probably the most palpable area where this happens, however, is in your work. In our society, your whole identity can be tied up in your career. As you work long, intense hours in a senior role, you neglect the other identities and relationships in your life. And, as that happens, this only serves to reinforce your work identity becoming even more central to who you (think you) are. Perhaps you’re lucky enough to have found your calling in a true vocation, playing sport at an elite level or fighting for your country. And career advancement is often seen as the ultimate goal in life – the very definition of ‘success’, in fact. Who are you, if not a high-powered executive, a professional sports player, or a sought-after expert in your field? It becomes all-consuming.
And, although I’ve long been an advocate of ‘escaping the 9 to 5’ and working for yourself, when you build your business around your own personal skills and interests and passions, your identity becomes all the more tied up with that business.
What happens, then, when you experience a big shift? Or, worse, a perceived failure?
When, as a new parent, you leave behind the office, where everyone hangs on your every word and you are admired as an experienced leader, and you come home to where your toddler (or, I imagine, your teenager!) is screaming in your face and ignoring your well-meaning instructions?
When you retire and, suddenly, that professional person doesn’t exist anymore and no one cares about what you have to say?
Not to mention when you are made redundant and you haven’t even had a choice in the matter?
What happens when your children move out of your home and go off into the world as adults in their own right, and you are left with an ’empty nest’?
These inevitable moments of change and transition can be hugely traumatic when your whole identity has been so closely tied up with who you are at work, or as a parent for that matter.
So what do you do?
Well, the best place to start is to really spend time getting clear on who you are beyond any job title or career (and beyond being a parent, a carer, or whatever other labels you so identify with at the moment). What are your values? What’s important to you? Who are you, and who will you be, when you strip away all those external identities?
Reach out to, and make time for, friends and family. People who know you, and care about you, outside of your professional roles and job titles.
And create room in your life for what Eve Rodsky would call your ‘unicorn space’: allow yourself to rediscover your interests, cultivate creativity, and fully embody the things that make you uniquely you.
What are the labels and identities that most define who you are? How have you experienced these shifting over the years? And do you still know who you are, deep down, naked and bare beneath the surface?
I look forward to your responses.