Holding on to your identity during a transition?

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Published: 08th May 2020
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Maybe you shouldn’t be.

Transitions – in life or in career – are tough. One of the hardest parts is the seeming attack on your identity when you no longer fill a given role, a role you may have played for years, even decades. People who have had to change careers for physical or health reasons, retirees from work to which they have dedicated years of their lives, mothers whose children have grown up and fled the nest, all struggle with this identity crisis.

I know it well: I was a very dedicated ballet dancer when I was young. I lived and breathed ballet: my companions, my choices in food, clothing, entertainment, the décor in my bedroom, all pivoted around my focus on dance.

Then I had to stop. Ballet isn’t something you do forever. But when I did, I had this vast, empty cavern inside of me that I couldn’t seem to fill. If I wasn’t a dancer, how would other people know who I was, relate to me in a way that I felt comfortable? What did I have to be proud of? What would I talk about, and to whom? Would I become invisible? I felt invisible.

The problem was this: I had identified myself as a “dancer.” So if I wasn’t being a dancer, who was I?

As a wise friend remarked, “No, you’re a person who dances. And when you are no longer dancing, you will still be a person.”

In other words, if the identity you have constructed hinges on a specific label, you will be in trouble during a transition. If, on the other hand, you have identified the qualities that made you so good at what you did in that role, then you can search for other ways in which to express those qualities.

My problem was that I was a performer: I loved it, even craved it. And yet, as a shy introvert, I couldn’t get that thrill on a day-to-day basis: spontaneous social contacts left me receding into panic. I needed that stage.

I also loved to wear costumes and the special way they made me feel. Finally, my body needed to feel the freedom of movement.

Most of all, I love to share all the things I have experienced, and from which I have learned, with others.

So this is the story of how I became a professional speaker: someone who, dressed a little more elegantly than the audience, sways people emotionally and provides them with information and the positive energy they are seeking. Making broad, sweeping gestures and using body language appropriate to the content of the speech is a necessity to inform, motivate, and yes, entertain people.

And guess what, I can do this the rest of my life! Aging joints and muscles and less-than-vigorous energy levels won’t deter me.

I didn’t make the change overnight, though.

So, if you are in transition, take stock of what you do well, those great qualities you may not even recognize in yourself: headily directing a team of people to reach higher goals, nurturing individuals to help them become their best, providing the optimistic outlook that troubled people seek, being the “bridge over troubled water” that we desperately need in this world … and more.

One of my clients was very concerned about a new job she had, as manager of a restaurant. How could she cope? What did she know anyway about managing people? I had observed her with her grandchildren, where she was both warm and decisive in her manner, leaving them no doubt as to what she wanted from them – and didn’t want. She was perfect for the job; she just didn’t realize it yet.

Whatever you find out about yourself, recognize that, in one way or another, you may be able to do this for the rest of your life. If not, once you have transitioned successfully, you will have developed the skill to look for a new role that will explore your talents and refresh your spirit, and to recognize it when the opportunities appear. And they will.

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