Sometimes you realize a word you’ve been using frequently is one you poorly understand. Such was the case with “identity” for me a few years ago. I knew one’s identity was the answer to the question “Who am I?” Yet, the answer to that question only begged for more questions. So I set out to create a framework for understanding the concept and for coaching a person to be clear in their identity.
Let’s start with three things identity is not.
First, it’s not one’s personality. Personality is a set of preference and patterns that heavily influence our perception of the world and our behaviors in it. But personality is not the deepest part of a person, it’s the surface filters and expressions. Knowing my personality cannot tell me who I am, why I exist, and my purpose in life. Discovering truthful aspects of personality can be valuable and lead to growth, but we shouldn’t be tempted to settle for personality when much richer truths reside deeper within a person’s identity.
Second, identity is not found in biological or circumstantial characteristics such as race, sex, or citizenship. Like personality, these contribute to how we see ourselves in the world, but they do not and should not define us.
Third, vocation makes for a poor definition of identity. While it’s grammatically correct to say, “I am an airline pilot,” or “I am a nurse,” these statements concerning one’s professional role should not be confused with deeper understandings of identity that form a much more substantive conclusion to any “I am…” statement.
My coaching work with leaders starts by focusing on identity. I do this because the degree to which a person can influence others hinges in great part on how solid and confident a person is in their own being. If a person is not comfortable and confident in who they are, they will lead from a place of need, weakness, or fear. So we start with identity, but what it is it?
First, identity is best understood in terms of narrative, or story. Not just one’s personal history, but one’s understanding of the story they find themselves in and the part they play in the big story of life. While the postmodern philosophers scoff at the idea of a metanarrative, each of us needs to be connected to a larger explanatory story of what life is about. And when you think about it, even the deconstruction of metanarratives is a type of metanarrative.
As a Christian coach, many of my clients identify with the true story of God, his love, and his interaction with people that is found in the Bible. The Bible reveals the story of God and invites each of us to find our identity as someone created by God, created for the purpose of loving God, and destined to love God fully and be loved by God fully.
I help my coaching clients locate their life within a larger story by first asking them to share with me their own story. Where did they come from, where are they now, where are they going, and what does it all mean? These questions call for deep reflection and bring to the surface truths that have often gone unexplored in a long time.
I sometimes assign homework for the client to write out their story, preferably on a legal pad with a pen (not on the infinitely editable word processor). My instructions go something like this:
Over the next few weeks, take some chunks of time to write out your life story. Think in 5 to 7-year chapters. Don’t rush it. And write it for your eyes only because this is for you, not for anyone else. Be honest and take your time. For each chapter of life, consider what was going on, who were the people you were around, and what was important to you.
The life story exercise allows the client to knit together their life in a whole and integrated way. Life has a way of pulling us apart and preventing us from seeing or experiencing the big picture of our story, and the story exercise helps restore perspective. Very often the client’s life story will reveal the higher, prevailing story they believe they are in. My goal is to support them in identifying with the highest, most significant story with which they can connect. Sometimes this is the story of their personal journey. Other times, they can reach higher to a story of family or community. And many clients are able to frame all the smaller stories within a larger one of God’s reality and activity in the world. At the end of the story exercise, a client can often finish the sentence “I am _____” in a way that demonstrates they are part of a larger, meaningful story.
Second, identity is connected to meaning and purpose. This aspect of identity is not all that distinct from the narrative perspective, but it can sometimes provide a handle for the truths that story and narrative have revealed. Depending on how philosophical vs. practical the client, there are various ways to explore purpose and meaning.
Sometimes I borrow a bit from Aristotelian philosophy and invite the client to explore the telos of his life, that is, the end goal or reason. According to Aristotle, everything has a purpose or final end. If we want to understand what something is, it must be understood in terms of that end. For example, the purpose of a knife is to cut. The purpose of an eye is to see. The purpose of a car can be to get from Point A to Point B, or it can be to provide a sense of status or joy to the driver. Clients get the most benefit from exploring their ultimate and highest purpose, which often involves prioritizing the various purposes that pull on them. One way I describe the relationship between various purposes is that of alignment. For example, if my highest purpose comes from my relationship with God and doing his will, I can locate my purpose as a husband and father beneath and aligned to my identity as a member of God’s family. And I can further locate my role as a leadership coach beneath both God and family. Lower-level purposes must always be aligned to higher level purposes. It sometimes helps clients to illustrate this with a simple sketch drawing.
Third, identity is informed by our roles and relationships. Again, roles and relationships are not terribly distinct from story and meaning, but it can provide a perspective that fleshes out these more philosophical concepts into practical living.
A valuable coaching exercise involves inviting the client to list out their most important roles and relationships, making sure to think about the realms of family, friends, colleagues, and spiritual. This can be done using notecards, with the client listing the name of the person or persons to whom they are relating. For example, they might have a card for God, a card for their spouse, a card for their children, a card for company (or their boss), a card for their parents, etc. Next, I have them write the nature of their role. For example, parent, child, spouse, etc. Next, I will have them sort the cards into order of importance and responsibility. While they will want to function well in all these roles, which ones come in service or sacrifice to the others. Often this is a point when a client admits their relationship to God is a means to the end of being a good parent or spouse. This awareness can be convicting.
Finally, identity is expressed in personal values. A person’s values describe what’s important to them as well as the norms and principles by which they want to live. Sometimes I describe this as a client’s definition of success in life.
There are several helpful methods for exploring values. Two I frequently use are the Six Lives Exercise and the Values Cards Exercise.
The Six Lives Exercise is borrowed from a course at Penn’s MBA program that describes six different people, each with a short paragraph. The client is asked to read the lives and to note what aspects of each life is appealing to them and what aspects they find off-putting. Then they are asked to rank the lives in order of preference from 1 (the life they would most want to live) to 6 (the life they would least want to live). The exercise is very good for revealing what a client considers a worthwhile life and the kind of life they want to live.
The Values Cards Exercise utilizes a deck of several dozen cards, each of which has a personal value and description. For instance, Achievement, Adventure, Loyalty, and Responsibility. The client sorts the cards into three stacks: not important, important, and very important. Then they are asked to cull the very important stack until they arrive at their eight most important values. The exercise is rich for learning. Not only is the final array of values insightful, but so is the process. Clients often realize they have not clarified their values and have been indiscriminate in trying to honor too many competing values.
When possible, I support my clients in writing an identity statement. This is helpful but must be approached with caution. Some clients get way too focused on the wording of such a statement. Wordsmithing tends to reach the point of diminishing returns quite quickly. I prefer to have my client jot down what’s important and most meaningful to them about their identity. If it’s a sentence or a statement, fine. If it’s a list of words, that’s also fine. And if it’s a jumble of words (and sometimes pictures), that’s also fine. The main thing is that a client is clear on the places to look for identity (story, meaning and purpose, roles and relationships, and personal values) and what they see about themselves when they look in those places.
When a client is clear, certain, and secure in her identity, she is capable of standing firm in the midst of challenge. She is also much more likely to initiate change.
Best of luck helping your clients clarify their identity!