Mirror mirror - who am I?
The changing phases of our identity
When I was a child and growing up in a somewhat dysfunctional family, I consistently felt isolated and invisible. I spent much time alone in my bedroom, where, in my imagination, I created a whole family of fairies, with whom I had dialogue, felt companionship and experienced a sense of belonging. I often picked up a hand mirror and would look at myself for long periods of time, not in admiration but in proving to myself that I was real, a person, with emotions, authentic and with an identity.
During my life, I have experienced many phases of identity change, which have informed me, moulded me, stretched me, hurt me and offered me huge challenges and possibilities. Qualified and experienced counsellors and Gestalt therapists can call on this bounty of self awareness to help other people deal with their identity issues.
Bereavement is a painful process and the loss of a relationship, a lifelong friend, a family member, can change how we feel about living without them, feeling alone and empty. That person is not there to confide in, to laugh with, to inspire us, to listen and share dreams and reality. Learning to act alone, not isolate, think as a single person again, is a crisis of identity.
Sometimes a relationship will come to a watershed moment of no return, and sometimes a client may have been in an abusive relationship and want to be free but terrified of leaving the other. It feels like it's better to have someone than nobody, even if the relationship is destructive. This is a huge challenge for re-establishing identity, self worth and a new life, sometimes with a family to consider.
The exciting and terrifying moment when a parent sees their child leave home, start university, become independent and free to make choices, taking with them the ideas, tastes, wisdom and love that we have offered. They discard those parts which they feel will hamper their progress in the quest for finding their own identity. For the parent, a time of celebration of memories and perhaps a sense of loss and no longer being needed. Another identity re-shuffle, more time to explore other creative ideas and coming to terms with a sort of ending too.
Retirement can be a huge shift in identity. Many people feel that their work expresses their identity. They have a routine, may wear a uniform, have challenges, deadlines, colleagues who rely on them, get appreciation and fit their spare time and household tasks and family around this timetable. Suddenly they retire and feel that they have lost who they are, are not valuable, have no routine or schedule and can't think how to become the person who has choices; can do whatever they like, when they like. Maybe lethargy sets in. “What is there to get up for”,“Oh I won't bother to go out and meet friends”, “I think I will open a bottle of wine”.
Getting older is also a time of identity crisis. Having to pace ourselves, keeping motivated, keeping fit and interacting. Giving ourselves permission to be alone, when it feels good and trying new activities, may seem both scary and exciting. Self valuing, being supported and knowing our boundaries are also expressions of our need for identity.
In my work with clients with gender dysphoria, the search for identity has a huge impact both for the client, in exploring potential transition, and for the partners and families involved. Gender issues have very often been kept under wraps for years and can cause much unhappiness and stored resentment, until fully clarified and explored. The partner of a person in transition can also find themselves questioning their own identity.
Labelling has been a way for people to categorise, put people into boxes. This is no longer acceptable.I have worked with clients who have thought long and hard and decided that they have a perfect right to stay in the grey area and refuse to be labelled black or white, gay or heterosexual, but identify as fluid.
How does a disabled person, a deaf person, find their identity? How can we help to enable them, rather than affirm their disability? Someone comes to mind here – Gareth Gates, the vocalist, who could not hold a conversation because of his stutter. Thankfully he did receive support for this dilemma. How did he find his identity? By being the most amazing singer of a poignant song - “Unchained Melody”.
We need to have faith in the value of movement and our changing identity.
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