Personal identity plays a huge role in how we interact with the world. It informs how people and systems see us, treat us, and relate with us. It defines the opportunities that come knocking on our doors. Our personal identities are like perfumes that will never go away, the fragrance is entirely ours to decide. It could stink so bad that subordinates can find you irritating to work with and it could smell so pleasantly that you become a magnet at the workplace. When you step into the workplace, you do not shed your personal identity this is because your personal identity is the framework that guides the expression of your workplace identity. For this reason, it is crucial to take time to ensure that all employees have an understanding of personal identities and their relation to the workplace.
The term “personal identity” means different things to different people. Psychologists use it to refer to a person’s self-image—to one’s beliefs about the sort of person one is and how one differs from others. In philosophy, the term normally refers to philosophical questions about ourselves that arise by virtue of our being people, questions that may otherwise have little in common. Some philosophers use the term more loosely and include such topics as the nature of self-knowledge, self-deception, rationality, and the will. For the purpose of this article, I define personal identity as a person’s understanding of who they are and the uniqueness that makes them stand out from others. This is especially important to know because personal identities impact work and relationships with colleagues and organizational policies.
The home is the first building block for any human. The reason we all agree with the quote, “charity begins at home” is because we know that the foundational blocks for the moral compass, self-esteem, and identity of anyone are first developed at home. We are all a compendium of our growing up experiences. You are suspicious of that colleague at work maybe because when you were younger, mommy told the 4-year-old you to go back inside to put on your shoes so that you can both go out but when you returned in your shoes, she had gone, leaving you behind with broken trust. This trust that was damaged from your young age becomes the lens through which you see others so, you go around with suspicion. If you take a deep breath and look inward, you will find out that certain thought patterns you possess today are contingent on your home experiences. It is no surprise therefore when David Richo, a renowned American psychotherapist said, “the untreated traumas of childhood become the frustrating dramas of adulthood.” If parents are not deliberate in helping their children cultivate a healthy identity, these children will grow up using external factors like their work, their class, etc in defining who they are. When these things are taken from them, they lose themselves.
Let me share a quick story with you. It is the story of Beor and how his growing up experiences defined his sense of identity.
It all began as a rude shock when Beor realized that Zach’s proposal was chosen over his. It had never happened before where his suggestions, proposals, or contributions were not implemented. This was a first and it was devastating. Beor was a 27-year-old male who had attained great heights in his career. He was the youngest partner of an advertising multinational and was gunning to become the youngest Country Manager yet. Everyone at work knew that Beor had an uncanny talent to create frameworks and strategies out of thin air and make them into something grandiose. His organization had made great profits from this uncanny ability and they had not only saved a lot of money but made revenues that improved their standing in the stock market. Beor was of course pompous because he was literally untouchable. He was the organization’s ticket to stardom/becoming one of the “Big 4”. The “Big 4” is the nickname used to describe the top 4 Advertising agencies in the world. Many companies had tried to make it into the big 4 but these 4 could practically not be overthrown. Yet, Asheville Ltd was rising geometrically and were beginning to threaten the position of the top 4 all thanks to Beor. One day, Beor noticed a new face in his department. It was surprising for him because nothing happened without his knowledge. He dug into the matter and discovered that the new face was his competition for the position of Country Manager. Beor knew everyone’s ability in his department and knew that no one could successfully contend for that position but he knew nothing about this new face and decided to watch him closely. Eventually, it was the final strategic meeting for that fiscal year. A new focus was being set for the subsequent year and as usual Beor’s input had always been the game changer in helping the company grow. In his usual pompous state, Beor made his suggestions backed with irrefutable proofs and expected a unanimous agreement as always. But the new face, Zach, raised an objection and proposed a counter offer. The board went in the direction of the new face. Beor was devastated. His word had never been opposed before. Right from childhood, he was always in the right. This was the first time he was rejected and it hurt badly. When he got home, he hung himself.
This story might seem drastic but it really did happen. You might wonder why Beor reacted in that manner, after all, healthy competition in the workplace encourages growth, not just for the employees themselves but for the organization as a whole. So, why did Beor commit suicide; a permanent solution to a temporary problem?
The first was in his sense of identity. Beor had no life outside work. His sense of identity and self-worth was enveloped in his work. He did not understand that workplace identity is not the same as workplace identity [check out the difference here] so when his idea was not acknowledged, it was a direct assault on his sense of self; his very core.
The second was in his growing up experiences. His parents had no idea that they were raising him up to become competitive in order to gain their love. In High School, Beor did not start out as the best in class but it was a major improvement from his primary school grades. Still, his parents always berated him. He came second for the first tie in High School, really excited to show his parents how his hard work had paid off. Instead of sharing gin his joy and encouraging him, he was asked why he couldn’t be first. When he put in more effort and eventually came first with a percentage of 98%, a feat no one in his school had achieved, he was asked why he couldn’t make 100%. It was a never-ending cycle of him feeling inadequate and not deserving of his parents’ love.
The third but definitely not the least was that Beor never had the opportunity to discover his purpose. Everything he had ever done was to prove to his parents that he was not a failure. That he was good enough to earn their love. His parents had no idea that their method of parenting was stripping their son of his sense of identity. They did not know that they were doing something wrong [which is why we have all of these resources to help parents on this journey of parenting in the 21st century]. By the time they found out, Beor was long gone.
Erik Erikson’s Stages of Psychosocial Development brings a powerful perspective to the role of the home in identity development. He emphasized the social nature of human development postulating that personality (or identity) is developed through 8 major stages and at each stage, there is a conflict or task, that needs to be resolved. Successful completion of each developmental task results in a sense of competence and a healthy sense of identity but failure to master these tasks leads to feelings of inadequacy. The first 5 stages occur before age 18 when the child is still legally a dependent (or minor) in many countries. So, if there is improper guidance on the part of the parents during any of the stages, that child, like Beor, can get stuck developmentally even though he chronologically matures. The fifth stage which is the stage of identity consolidation occurs during adolescence. Successful resolution of the crises in this stage leads to an ability to stay true to oneself, while failure leads to role confusion and a weak sense of self. This stage plays an essential role in developing a sense of personal identity which will continue to influence behaviour and development for the rest of one’s life. During adolescence, children explore their independence and develop a sense of self. Those who receive proper encouragement and reinforcement through personal exploration will emerge from this stage with a strong sense of self and feelings of independence and control. Those who remain unsure of their beliefs and desires will feel insecure and confused about themselves and the future. This is where you come in as parents.
Table Adapted From Erik Erikson’s Stages of Psychosocial Development
If you have children, you can start adjusting your parenting methods to ensure that they know that you absolutely love them whether they fail or not. This is not an endorsement for you to smother them with love and turn a blind eye to discipline. Your goal is to raise an emotionally agile adult whose sense of identity is well-rooted and developed. Love and discipline both work hand in hand but it is important that you understand what discipline truly means. It also does not mean that competition is bad. There is, however, healthy competition and toxic competition. Beor was raised to be toxically competitive. For some of us that did not have strong parental guidance to help us successfully navigate the stages proposed by Erik Erikson, chances are that we might have rooted our identity in the work we do. Just like Beor. Here are a few tips to ensure that you do not reduce your humanity to a single professional title:
1. Re-conceptualize success and achievement.
Taking pride in your professional achievements isn’t wrong. The job you got, the promotion you received, the company you founded, you’ve worked hard for them all. However, you need to remember that success is a multifaceted endeavour, and achievements outside the workplace matter as well. Society teaches us to think of success in terms of money and status but you must always remember that the true test of success is to live a happy and fulfilled life, to be comfortable in your own skin and understand who you really are. We will undoubtedly see a shift in the way that we view mental health as well as success as more people define themselves by these measures.
2. Develop your social circle outside work.
You can develop non-work interests and values if you spend time with friends with no connection to your professional life. The benefits of this are that they remind you of who you are regardless of your professional success or failure. Of course, you can be a supportive friend, a gracious mentor, or an innovator for far longer than it takes to become your office’s “Employee of the Month” and it is much more valuable. Don’t you think so?
3. Work stays at work.
Is your dinner conversation always about what’s going on at work? Be mindful of how much work worries intrude on your peaceful evenings. It’s okay to vent about work frustrations, but don’t let them dominate your conversations at home. Even more, you can set a rule which forbids work-related conversations within 30 minutes of arriving home leaving you room to bond with children and spouse at home. It is important to acknowledge that talking about work at home is not an issue in itself. The time it consumes is what is important. So, try not to make work your dominant conversations at home.
4. Maintain work-life balance.
It may sound obvious and cliche, but setting boundaries between your personal and professional lives is extremely important. Most of us know this, but only a few of us actually do something about it. Do you try to take vacations? You should try to take vacations without working during them. Can you take a day n a week off work to simply relax and be with family and friends? This equilibrium between work and life will give you breathing room to help you gain perspective on other wonderful things in life.
5. Reassess your core values.
Your values are what you stand for and what you consider as important. They define your identity and remain relatively constant over time. These values may be virtues like autonomy, integrity, love, or honesty. However, it is easy to lose sight of your values when work and life get busy. As your stresses get in the way, it’s easy to forget why you do what you do. Hence, it is important to always check in with yourself every once in a while. Ask yourself real questions like – has your attachment to work pulled you away from your core values? If the answer is yes, then it is time to take a pause and retrace your steps in order to let your values become the driver of your work goals, your personal goals, and even your family goals. Remember, your work should add meaning to your life, but it should not be the meaning of your life.
In spite of your growing up experiences, you need to remember that your position on the organizational chart does not determine your worth as a person. In other words, when someone criticizes your slide deck, remember that the criticism is directed at the slide deck, not at you. This perspective shift will help you build resilience and protect your self-esteem from inevitable setbacks and mistakes. You will be able to perform better in your role and live a more fulfilling life if you have a strong sense of self. Finally, do your best to raise the next generation right so that the untreated traumas of their childhood DO NOT become the frustrating dramas of their adulthood.