How to rediscover your identity

Losing our identity can happen for many reasons. It can happen quickly or gradually, for known and unknown reasons, and be personal and professional in nature such as divorce and redundancy. A loss of identity changes our relationship with the world around us, detaching us from old certainties and transforming our once-familiar world into a strange, sometimes scary place. There is a whole category of language for losing our identity in the form of words, metaphor, imagery and story. This language becomes how we try to make sense of what we are going through, and herein lies the way back. For this language only exists because so many people have gone down this path before us – and found themselves again. How they did so is the subject of my blog, ‘How to rediscover your identity.’

How to rediscover your identity: photo is the smiling face of Mark Evans, the blog’s author. It shows Mark as approachable and kind.

How to rediscover your identity: conversations

One of the first places to look when someone loses their identity is their conversations, those they have with themselves (self-talk) and those they have with others. You can hear it in their words, phrases and expressions, and in moments of awareness, no doubt they can hear it too.

  • “I don’t know who I am anymore.”
  • “I feel lost.”
  • “I don’t recognise myself.”

The conversations of people who have lost their identity also lack certain qualities and characteristics. There is an absence of trust, belief and acceptance, and references to goals and objectives, dreams and ambitions. And it isn’t only the quality of conversation that can suffer through a loss of identity, but the quantity too. Someone may have more or fewer conversations than usual, e.g. they become overly talkative or withdrawn, or experience a change of type, e.g. they talk more to themselves and less to others. Learning how to rediscover your identity means looking objectively at your conversations to:

  • generate a more positive vocabulary
  • find more of the qualities and characteristics you need (see the next section)
  • redress the balance in the type of conversations you are having

One way to find a more positive vocabulary is to list the most common negative words you use and find their ‘positive’ opposites. Opposite-meaning words are called antonyms, and a good thesaurus will list these, providing you with a ready-made positive vocabulary to start trying out. Similarly, to redress the balance of your conversations, firstly list their types and then commit to their opposites, e.g. if you talk to yourself a lot, talk to others, or if your exchanges are always virtual, switch to in-person.

Conversations With Impact Questionnaires

Start by listing your existing conversations, including your self-talk. Then, looking at the list below, consider the importance of each quality or characteristic to you. Choose a number between 1 and 7 (1=none at all, 7=all that you need) that reflects the degree to which a conversation possesses each quality or characteristic. If one is not essential to you, i.e. it makes no difference one way or the other, give it a 7. For those that are important to you, score it appropriately. For your self-talk, replace ‘the person’ with ‘myself’ for the first statement, and then replace the pronouns for the others. For example, ‘I trust myself,’ ‘I understand myself and what I need from me.’

  • I trust the person
  • They understand me and what I need from them
  • I feel respected by them
  • They have the ideas, skills and knowledge I need
  • They do not judge me and accept me for who I am
  • They have the ideas, skills and knowledge I need
  • The conversation follows my agenda, not theirs
  • They believe in me and my potential for change
  • They give me the time that I need
  • I feel challenged by them in a good way
  • They respect my need for confidentiality
  • I feel they genuinely listen to me
  • I can say what I really want to them
  • They are truly interested in me
  • They help me to make sense of my situation
  • They help me set clear, realistic goals and strategies
  • They help me find solutions
  • My conversations with them make a difference
  • They have the X-Factor

What did you discover? Are you having positive conversations that can help you to rediscover your identity? If you are, then great, but if not, how can you change your conversations to find more of the qualities and characteristics you need? 

Using your emotions

A loss of identity can reflect a change in one or more critical areas of our lives. Put another way, no longer knowing who we are can be a symptom of something else, not a cause. However, caught up in the immediate aftermath of adversity, when we can be emotionally ‘all over the place’, a loss of identity is easy to miss. Life challenges such as separation and divorce, redundancy or illness, tend to demand a focus on practicalities. Thinking of ourselves at such times can seem irrelevant or worse an indulgence. The trouble with this perspective is that it relegates identity in terms of its importance, and this matters. It matters in the same way ignoring a flat tyre makes cars harder to steer. Yes, we can still make progress, but it will be bumpier, a lot slower and short-lived. Promoting the importance of identity alongside the other areas of our lives affected by setbacks and misfortune does not harm our recovery, it injects energy into it.

So how do we become aware of the importance of concentrating equally on our identity? The answer is to use our emotions. Emotions are messages sent from our ‘emotional self’ containing vital information about our thriving and surviving. And what our emotional self needs us to know is that we can’t ‘thrive and survive’ if we ignore ourselves. If it sees that we are downgrading our own importance compared to other areas of our lives, it will let us know by sending emotional messages in the form of anxiety, depression or anger. It is for this reason that new relationships, new jobs or rehabilitation from illness can only take us so far. We have to rediscover who we are as well. In the section below is an activity that can help you assess whether you are neglecting yourself.

The Meaning Map

The Meaning Map connects emotions to key life areas. Completing the activity will help you identify which areas are getting your focus and which you are neglecting. Using a 0-10 scale (10=lots of focus, 0=no focus), choose a number that represents the focus you are giving to the areas below. 

  • Identity: self-esteem/worth, role and status
  • Home and family life
  • Relationships
  • Work/Career/professional
  • Health (mental and/or physical)
  • Financial
  • Lifestyle
  • Social and cultural
  • Environment
  • Past, present or future

As a general rule, scores of:

  • 7 or more indicates areas you are giving a lot of focus to
  • 5 or 6 indicate areas you are giving moderate focus to
  • 4 or below indicate areas that you are neglecting

What did you discover? Where does ‘identity’ rank by comparison? If it is 6 or below, commit to improving your score. Rediscovering your identity depends on it.

Rebuilding your patterns

I said in my introduction that a loss of identity can negatively affect how we think, behave, feel and relate. This is because identity governs how we use these four abilities. When we become disconnected from who we are, we lose control of these abilities, which is problematic because they play a crucial role in laying down the patterns that determine the course of our lives. I think of it in this way:

  • how we think generates the material from which our patterns of thought are made
  • how we behave generates the material from which our patterns of behaviour are made
  • how we feel generates the material from which our patterns of feeling are made
  • how we relate generates the material from which our patterns of relating are made

A loss of identity, therefore, generates negative material, which in turn produces negative patterns. And the longer we lose touch with who we are, the more entrenched our negative patterns become. Learning how to rediscover your identity gives you back control of your ability to think, behave, feel and relate, resulting in patterns that can positively reset the course of your life. The activity in the next section can help.

The Pattern Builder

Answering the questions below can help you build a detailed picture of your patterns so you can better understand the loss of your identity. 

  1. When, where and with whom were you when you lost your identity?
  2. What stressors or changes were occurring in your life when you lost your identity?
  3. How long has your loss of identity lasted?
  4. What significant persons are present or absent when your loss of identity is most noticeable?
  5. Where are you when you feel your loss of identity most acutely, e.g., at home, at work?
  6. Can you identify when you go from a complete loss of your identity to reconnecting with it? What stages do you go through?
  7. Are there times, even brief ones, when you truly know who you are?
  8. What do you think other people know about your loss of identity, e.g. friends, family or colleagues?
  9. What are your beliefs about your loss of identity? For example, I can never rediscover it, or it’s my fault.

The Pattern Builder activity is worth repeating as doing so can help you to build up a helpful level of detail.

Th role of acceptance

There is a critical moment in the life of our identity, and that is when we realise we have lost it. This realisation can hit us hard, especially if it dawns on us that it is the culmination of a process, not the beginning. For some people, loss of identity can occur over substantial periods, decades even. How we respond at such times is crucial. If we ‘fall apart’ at having to re-evaluate who we are, our critical moments can quickly morph into something more permanent. So how do we avoid this outcome? Luckily, there is somewhere we can retreat to while we come to terms with our revelation, a place of safety called ‘acceptance’.

Fairly or unfairly, all we can do is accept our reality, no matter how bleak it is. When we can’t or won’t, we open up what I call a ‘fantasy-reality gap’, which is the difference between who we think we are and who we actually are. The bigger the FRG, the more trouble we are in. But why should I accept, I hear you ask? Doesn’t acceptance mean giving up? Resigning to our fate? No, acceptance does not mean this because: acceptance is not resignation but the first stage of transformation. Acceptance reveals problems, fantasies hide them, and how can you resolve something you don’t know exists? Acceptance turns your identity into a piece of clay on a potter’s wheel, there to be shaped and reshaped into something you like the look of using the ideas in this blog

Befriending challenge

Losing our identity presents us with a challenge, well, two challenges actually: navigating our day-to-day lives without knowing who we are and learning how to rediscover our identity. It can be effortless to make an enemy of challenge in personal turmoil, so we must befriend it quickly. One way to find the ‘sweet spot’ of challenge using what I call The Goldilocks Principle: not too little challenge, not too much, but just the right amount. There are three ways we can make The Goldilocks Principle of Challenge work for us:

  • changing our view or perspective, e.g. “Until I rediscover who I am, I will treat myself with wheelbarrow loads of kindness and compassion. And even though I don’t know who I am right now, I trust that each day will take me one step closer to my new self.”
  • changing what we do, e.g. “Although I am lost right now, I will ensure that I speak to people who make me feel ok and avoid those that don’t. And while I am cast adrift from myself, I will keep my levels of self-care high.”
  • using our resources, e.g. “There are people who have overcome the challenge I now face. I will speak to them, read their books and watch their videos. And I will also look inwards and draw out the strengths and resources I possess that enabled me to overcome past challenges.”

We can nudge ourselves towards our sweet spot of challenge through patient and consistent detective work – adjusting and readjusting our perspectives, actions and behaviours and introducing more or new resources. When The Goldilocks Principle is working for us, we see and feel our progress. The beauty of The Goldilocks Principle is the hope it instils. There is a sweet spot for all of us, which means progress towards our rediscovering our identity becomes a question of when, not if, we find it.

How to rediscover your identity: transformation

When we lose our identity, who we are is not who we want to be, and to become ourselves again, we must undergo a transformation. How we go about this transformation will determine whether we are successful or not. I encourage people to see transformation as both the journey and the destination, an idea that gives us maximum flexibility:

  • get the journey right, and the destination will take care of itself
  • get the destination right, and the journey will take care of itself

Journeys are made up of our individual steps, destinations our detailed visualisations. One powerful concept that can harmonise our journey and destination of transformation is Personal Branding. People commonly use personal Branding as part of their Personal and Professional Development, and the concept of identity is at its core. Have a look at the following areas of a Personal Brand:

  • image – how do you see yourself? How would you like to be seen by others?
  • values – what is important to you? What would you like to protect, nurture and encourage?
  • vision – what is your vision for the world? How would you like the world to be?
  • mission – what do you need to do to make your vision a reality? What goals and objectives do you need to set and achieve?

Personal Branding offers a clear structure or model and the gentle but repeated posing of powerful questions. The concept can dramatically speed up the time it takes to rediscover your identity by simultaneously placing you at the beginning (journey) and end (destination) of your transformation. To see how effective Personal Branding can be in helping you rediscover your identity, read the story of my client Simon.

How to rediscover your identity: getting support

I hope you have enjoyed my blog, How to rediscover your identity. If you would like support, I’d love to hear from you. My IMPACT Model and IMPACT Programmes have helped many people find themselves again (read my testimonials).

To book an initial consultation, visit my Make a Booking page. You will have the opportunity to tell me about what you are going through and find out how I can support you. Even if you choose not to work with me, I promise your consultation will give you more ideas, knowledge and insight than you had before.

Here is another good article on emotional intelligence.