Identity Conversations Tips and Strategies

Our three core identities (Am I competent? Am I a good person? Am I worthy of love?) are the foundation of our psychological makeup and that it’s normal for us to question them sometimes.

Avoid the All-or-Nothing Syndrom

  • Don’t cling to a purely positive identity. It leaves no room for us to deal with negative feedback. You can be a good person AND act out of frustration and anger.
  • Don’t exaggerate. Not being perfect doesn’t mean that you are worthless. I just means you’re not perfect.
    • Don’t act and think as if another person’s feedback is the ONLY information you have about yourself.

Ground Your Identity

  • Step One: Become aware of your identity issues.
    • Observe if there are patterns to what tends to knock you off balance and ask yourself why.
      • What about your identity feels at risk?
      • What does this mean to you?
      • How would if feel if what you fear were true?
      • What are you afraid of?
      • What’s the downside?
    • Step Two: Complexify your identity. Adopt the AND stance.
      • Move away from the false choice between “I am perfect” and “I am worthless.”
        • You can be loyal AND leave a job for higher paying work.
        • You can be a good listener AND tell someone you need to talk with them later.
        • You can be there for your children AND let someone else take them to the big game.
        • Recognize that life is to complex for all-or-nothing thinking. Showing that you know this helps others realize that they know it as well.
      • Accept these three things about yourself:
        • You will make mistakes.
          • People are seen as MORE competent when others know that they can see their mistakes and learn from them.
        • Your intentions are complex.
          • It’s normal to have wants, desires, reactions, etc. that are honorable as well as imperfect.
        • You have contributed to the problem.
          • Often the most difficult to do, exploring our contribution can be the most transformational.

During the Conversation: Learn to Regain Your Balance

  • Let go of trying to control their reaction. Adopt the AND
  • Prepare for their response.
    • Instead of focusing on how badly it will go, focus on what you can learn about how the other person might respond. Are they likely to cry? Sulk and withdraw? Pretend everything is fine? Attack or reject you?
    • Consider if their response implicates identity issues for you.
    • If so, work through it in advance.
      • Is it okay for me to make someone cry?
      • How will I respond?
    • Imagine that it’s three months or ten years from now.
      • Someday it will feel better.
      • What advice might the you of the future give the you of today about how to handle what you’re going through?
    • Take a break. Maintaining the charade of participation when the you’re too close or the quake is too debilitating is unlikely to be helpful to anyone.
      • Ask for some time.
      • Take a walk.
      • Get some air.
      • Check for distortions.
      • Spend some time weighing their attack against other information you have about yourself or the situation.
      • Check for denial. In what ways is what they are saying true?
      • Check for exaggerations. What is the worst that could happen here?
      • What might you do right now to turn the conversation around?

Their Identity is Also Implicated

  • When we are wrapped in our own Identity Conversation, it can be difficult to remember that the other person may be grappling with identity issues of their own.

Raising Identity Issue Explicitly

  • Sometimes your identity issue is useful for you to be aware of, but talking about it explicitly will not be useful to or safe in the conversation. Identify it in your own mind and recognize that it’s something to work on.
  • Other times making the IdentityConversation explicit can help you get directly to the heart of what’s going on. It’s astounding how often difficult conversations are wrapped up in both people reacting to what the conversation seems to be saying about them.

Find the Courage to Ask for Help

  • Sometimes life deals us a blow that we can’t cope with well on our own. It may be rape, war, physical or mental illness, addiction, profound loss, or simply something that would not disturb most other people but does disturb you. Identity issues aren’t easy. Talking to a friend, family member, colleague, or a professional can be helpful.

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