I won't even say how I've lost a big chunk of my identity, and perhaps that speaks volumes to how devastating what I've lost the past few months. Of course, I'm not the only person that feels this way. Any person undergoing some major transition or loss in their lives, form losing their jobs to moving to another place to losing someone close to them feels, to some extent, that their identity was taken from them. So what should we do when it happens?
According to psychologist Guy Winch, in a 2013 TED Talk, the pathologies of a loss of identity are eerily similar to heartbreak after a breakup. From his 20 years of private practice, what he learned was this: "when your heart is broken, the same instincts you ordinarily rely on will time and again lead you down the wrong path. You simply cannot trust what your mind is telling you."
Winch tells the story of one of his patients, Miguel, who completely lost his identity after a breakup with his girlfriend, Sharon. "Miguel didn't just lose his girlfriend; he lost his entire social life...He lost his identity as a couple. Now, Miguel recognized the breakup had left this huge void in his life, but what he failed to recognize is that it left far more than just one."
The last point, in that a loss of identity is more than just a singular loss, but a holistic loss, is critical. That explains why it is so devastating when we have huge transitions in our lives. Those gaps in our lives need to be filled so we can heal, and not just one of them, but all of them. "The voids in your identity: you have to reestablish who you are and what your life is about. The voids in your social life, the missing activities, even the empty spaces on the wall where pictures used to hang."
I found Winch's TED talk to be a great place to start. The more devastating losing something is when it's gone is a sign of how all-encompassing that thing is in our lives. But filling those voids in identity are easier said than done. When you lose your identity, you need to answer the "who am I?" question again, and try to find that again.
I still do not know how to handle the question of distance. I know I cannot cut the people I love completely out of my life, but I also know that the relationship I have with them has evolved and is no longer the same. There will always be people in our lives that love us despite whatever labels we put on ourselves and our identity, and one thing that has saved me during this time is holding onto those people. I hold on to them in a different way than I used to, just like after a breakup, an ex-partner becomes a close friend.
What now, though?
One thing is very clear: to regain a sense of identity, you have to accept that your new identity is going to be different. And that's not a bad thing. We don't move on. We move forward, carrying the person we lost. We cannot shut out our past lives, but we need to look back on them to grow from them. Likewise, we cannot shut out the loved ones from our past. According to Eleanor Haley, "trying to go back to how things were before the loss just isn't possible." Haley goes on to say that "though there will always be a deep sense of grief around the people and things in life that we lose, this does not mean there will not be other things that bring a sense of purpose, joy, and contentment and that will slowly become part of your identity."
I am in a transitory state of identity and loss, and so are many people, including some of you reading this article. One thing that is absolutely necessary is to take more time for ourselves to reflect on our identity, according to Haley. "Consider how your identity has shifted. Make an effort to focus not just on the losses, but also on gains. This may be the new relationships that have formed, positive changes in perspective, [or] new skills or growth that have come." Moving forward means not only focusing on parts of our identity that we have lost, but also how we have changed. "This means bringing pieces along, acknowledging pieces that will never be the same, and establishing new pieces of the self that are built on things that came before."
Applying this mindset to myself, I look at pieces that I have built in this transitory state, and the one thing I have gained is hope. It's not hoping for outcomes or positive circumstances anymore; those are expectations, and expectations so often fail us. My faith in Christ has grown substantially in this point of my life, and I believe that it is God's plan and design to gift us in our suffering. I have hope for how I treat others and how I see people. As someone who wishes to be an educator, seeing others and particularly young people as capable of doing anything, I believe, is the most important gift I've gained throughout my recent struggles. God kept me alive and gifted me in so many ways, and because I'm so lucky, I intend to make the most of it and move forward, even if I'm not the person I was a few months ago.
I've lost a lot of who I am and what I stood for. But I have also gained so much, despite how hard that is to see right now. Because of what I had, what I have, and who I will be in the days to come, I look back and look forward with only fondness. I believe this, to the fullest extent: I am the luckiest person in the world.