Who do you think you are?

April 20, 2021

I’m not issuing that as a challenge, more an invitation for some gentle introspection. The way we think about our identity – the way we describe ourselves to ourselves and to others – has an impact on the way we operate in the world. This is particularly true in our working lives and sometimes that impact is not helpful. So this month I want to look at five situations where it might be useful to think about the way you think about yourself.

1. When you take a step up

If you move into something bigger – promotion, higher profile projects, working with more prestigious clients – it can take a while for your identity to catch up with your new reality. This is where imposter syndrome can creep in: “Who, little ole me, working with people like this?” In these circumstances, some people over-compensate, puffing themselves up to try to project a bigger identity. Others hold themselves back, as though they don’t really have permission to be there. Neither strategy is particularly helpful. It’s better to acclimatise to your new status, reminding yourself, for example, that “I’m a director now” while staying grounded. It’s not about flaunting your status – that’s a sign of insecurity – but of inhabiting it.

2. When you’re developing a part of yourself

Making something part of your identity helps you take it more seriously.  My husband, for example, is an artist. It’s not the main way he makes a living, but using that criterion Van Gogh wasn’t an artist. He’s been describing himself as an artist for at least 15 years and over that time I’ve seen him stretch himself and grow into that identity with real dedication. I suspect that may not have happened if he just said he paints at the weekend.

A client I was coaching recently realised he’d be less stressed if he exercised more but he struggled to do it. We looked at it from the perspective of habit formation – when would he fit it in, what triggers would remind him to do it, etc – which helped but it didn’t stick. Using a perspective of identity, however, he realised that he wanted to be able to say “I’m the kind of person who keeps myself fit” and this made a difference.

Incidentally, this can also help with breaking bad habits. Describing  yourself as a non-smoker, for example, is a more powerful statement of identity than being an ex-smoker. Both are more powerful than ‘trying to give up smoking’.

3. When you have more than one professional role

This applies particularly to people who have a strong professional identity with a recognisable label – lawyers, accountants, doctors, surveyors – who take on broader responsibility, such as leadership or running their own business. The professional identity tends to dominate and the other responsibilities can get neglected. If you’re a partner in a law firm, for example, and think of yourself predominantly as a lawyer, how much attention do you give to your leadership responsibilities? Absent leadership wreaks havoc in organisations.

If you run a business, then an over focus on your professional identity leads you to work in the business, not on the business. Personally, I’ve been on a journey over the last decade to become a businesswoman who sells psychology services rather than simply a business psychologist, as a wise mentor advised me years ago. I’ve learnt a lot and still have more to learn but I definitely see myself differently from how I did 10 years ago.

I run a one-woman business and have had to make this shift but I frequently come across people running quite substantial businesses who haven’t. I call them reluctant CEOs. They think of themselves primarily as engineers, software developers, designers or whatever. They do the work, they may manage the work but no one is managing the business. The tough lesson for them is that they have no exit strategy as they are too integral to the business for it to have value without them. If this is you, it would help to start thinking of yourself as a business leader first.

4. When you have to sell something

This one is quite specific but I’ve included it because so many people are extremely reluctant to take on the identity ‘salesperson’, even when selling is part of their job. There are a lot of negative stereotypes about sales people, some warranted, some not, many of them based on used car salesmen, double glazing reps and estate agents.

In many professional environments, we’re so squeamish we don’t even use the word ‘sales’; we call it ‘business development’. And yet there’s nothing dishonourable about selling. If you have a service which you believe would be of value to some people, then why wouldn’t you offer it to those people? It is possible to sell without becoming someone you wouldn’t want to meet at a party.

5. When things change

When our circumstances change, sometimes our identity does too.  Becoming a parent, for example, changes your identity forever. Some changes happen on a specific day – the day you retire or start a business or get made redundant, for example. You may have had time to prepare for this change or you may not, but adjusting involves seeing yourself as having a different identity, not holding on to your old identity.

Some changes are much more gradual and the identity change is more subtle. You can’t pin down the day you become middle-aged. In a work context, people sometimes hold on to an identity for too long in ways that don’t work for them. When does a bright young thing become someone with experience and authority? What happens if you see yourself as part of the established order only to find that you’re the old guard that the rest of the organisation is rebelling against? It can be worth asking yourself from time to time “Who am I now in my career?”.

All of these are situations where your image of yourself and your reality are not entirely aligned. If you’re thinking about your identity at work and would like some support, do get in touch:  caroline@carolinegourlay.co.uk


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