I wonder if like me, you frequently hear phrases such as: “change is the new normal”, “we are living in a VUCCA world”, or “change has never happened so fast”. On some level, these phrases- though true today- have always been true.
I wonder if what has always been central to change is its impact on my sense of who I am in the world. Coaches and facilitators often use the word transition to describe the moving from one thing, role or state to another, but what is the real transition? I am becoming ever clearer that the transition is always internal. It’s about dancing between different roles. It’s about discovering new ways of being in the world. It’s about changing senses of purpose. It’s about the morphing of relationships. Think, for example, about the team member who is promoted to leader. It is rarely technical learning that causes the greatest stretch. It is the changing relationship with team members; the reality is that friend and peer are sometimes in tension with manager and leader. Strongly held values of
transparency, equality, and shared power do not always resonate with the new organisational role and the privilege of knowledge. There is sometimes even a sense of community created from cultures of them and us; now the team leader is them, not us.
We all have some historical sense of identity that we bring into our roles, our sense of being in the world. This is usually sourced from our childhood, culture, education, experiences and sense of gain and loss. Our formation is unique to us. Although we may recognise our life story reflected in others, our life story will always be just that, ‘ours’. Our sense of self and identity seem to allow us to develop a level of security. I know who I am in relation to the world around me.
To make this real let’s dip into a personal story (please keep this confidential). As I tell a little of of my story, maybe think about your own story: what formed you? What beliefs do you hold about your identity? I grew up in a family and community where Purpose was part of an ever-present narrative. I grew up with the narrative that you are here for a reason, and that everything you do should reflect the path designed for you by an ultimate and omnipresent being. Later in life, I was also deeply informed by Carl Rogers, who says that we are the experts on our own lives and the journey of becoming who we truly are. This person-centred approach acted as a balancer for my formative years of living within a divine design culture.
However, I have realised that as life continues these narratives both potentially unravel, that while in some sense both have meaning; I begin to transcend and integrate. It seems that my identity moves, morphs and merges.
So, let’s try an example: I travel with my work and increasingly this has meant being away from my family home for days and sometimes weeks. My wife and I have experienced that the transition back into family life is sometimes uncomfortable and challenging for both of us. When I am away our roles are different, we both move out of the symbiotic patterns that we have created for ourselves. For example, I have no responsibility for cooking and need to be less available for family members for whom the family space is one of reflection and acceptance. When away a different facet of my identity becomes more present. My identity is that of a free spirit, a creative, a loner. It’s not that these are not part of my family role but that they become more accessible in some way. It’s not that one is better, they are the Yin and Yang of my life. The same is happening at home; different roles are becoming more present, some more distant.
So let’s take this one step further into real life; here I am in Amsterdam working on a team sprint with some truly inspirational practitioners. I am in free flow, somehow being held by the role that I am inhabiting; content creator, facilitator, peer, colleague, innovator etc.
It’s fun, partly because I know it will end after a week and I will return to a space where other identities are more present; partner, dad, gardener, cook, friend, cyclist, walker, wild swimmer… and then… A storm hits Northern Europe, and other team members manage to leave for Berlin and arrive home before all flights are cancelled. I have travelled by train and so book the earliest train out of Amsterdam… but, of course, all trains are cancelled…and again the following day. I am no longer a sprint team member, and neither can I access the physicality of my family role. That identity is a twelve-hour train journey away. I have been invited into a new role; tourist, visitor without purpose, loiterer and slightly anxious traveller.
I wasn’t anticipating this new role and a slight shift in identity. I had planned an afternoon and evening to explore some of Amsterdam, not forty-two extra hours. I began to notice a longing in myself for a place where I could recognise my own identity; the coffee shop where they
would be happy for me to stay all morning working or reading; the friends and family I could share experiences with. I watch seasoned travellers look comfortable, flexing and bending within their clearly defined role and wonder for myself what within my identity is being stretched and
challenged. I don’t fully know who I am in this context and others who I meet do not know who I am either. I feel myself become curious about who I am when the identity that was present needs to change with the context; what roles and persona are loosed or amplified?
While exploring the canals and streets of Amsterdam I move between the enjoyment of being in a moment that is uniquely mine, I love the feeling of being somewhere where no one else I know can see me. I am also aware of the part of me that likes to share an experience, to people watch together, to decide together what we will do next. One role is wanting to become more present here, but it can’t, maybe that is what all change/transition
is; my identity trying to locate itself. I sense a longing for familiarity, feelings that I recognise.
Maybe that is what all global coffee chains are selling – a longed-for connection to a constant identity.
As I write this it seems like this could be an endless search or chase for identity…yet as the formational ideas of my life have loosened I am amazed by what enters in.
Ideas from Gestalt suggest that identity; our sense of self, is formed at the edges and boundaries of our relationships with An Other, the place and moment of transitions. For the past few days, the Other that I have been relating to is Amsterdam. Later today it will be with my wife and children, tomorrow, the rivers, the moors and the garden. I wonder if my identity as an individual and a constant is an illusion; I only exist in the context of we and us, not I.
Amsterdam taught me a lot. Thank you.
Thank you Amsterdam