When You Lose a Piece of Your Identity


I am still every age that I have been. Because I was once a child, I am always a child. Because I was once a searching adolescent, given to moods and ecstasies, these are still part of me, and always will be. Because I was once a rebellious student, there is and always will be in me the student crying out for reform. This does not mean I ought to be trapped or enclosed in any of these ages, the perpetual student, the delayed adolescent, the childish adult, but that they are in me to be drawn on; to forget is a form of suicide; my past is part of what makes me the present Madeleine and must not be denied or rejected or forgotten.

~ Madeleine L’Engle, A Circle of Quiet

If I asked you who you are, how would you answer?

Many of us would respond with our job title or our family role. Maybe a particularly strong interest or hobby. Perhaps a defining trait.

An accountant, so-and-so’s daughter, a basketball player, a painter, an introvert, a lawyer, a gardener, a Texan…

Of course, it makes sense to simplify our identity, especially when meeting someone new. I couldn’t come anywhere close to fully describing who I am—no matter how much time I took or how many words I used.

Like you, I’m a complex, ever-changing blend of strengths and weaknesses, likes and dislikes, values and beliefs, things I’m becoming and things I’m outgrowing, accomplishments and failures, fears and dreams.

We’ve talked before about identity and about continuing to discover and become more of who we are . But what do we do when a piece of our identity that we’ve used to describe ourselves changes or seems to be gone entirely?

Those pieces of our identities impact so many parts of our lives. They may influence what we eat, how we dress, who we associate with, how we spend our money, what we do with our time, our beliefs about certain topics, where we live, how much we sleep…

A change to an important piece of our identity doesn’t just mean that we lost our way of describing ourselves when meeting someone new. It can also mean that we need to adapt aspects about the way we live to fit our new reality.

Maybe you lost your job or left a corporate career to start your own business or raise your family.

Maybe you spent your time training, practicing, and performing as an athlete, and now find yourself working a desk job.

Maybe you were the smart one in high school and then went to a good college where you feel like a mediocre mind in a sea of bright students.

Maybe you loved making art or music or dancing, but your days have become too busy with more urgent things.

Now what?

Changes to our sense of identity aren’t necessarily easy. It’s important to acknowledge how we are experiencing the transition. We can continue to draw on who we were, even in different circumstances. At the same time, we may be clinging to aspects of that old identity that hinder us from embracing where we are now. Try answering the following questions as you navigate your transition.

How do I feel?

Give yourself time to grieve or rejoice. Acknowledge that you feel uncertain. Or angry. Or relieved. It’s totally normal to feel afraid. Changes tend to bring up a lot of complicated emotions. Even the most joyful change comes with a loss of what was .

How has that identity served me?

Take the time to appreciate the good things that part of you has brought into your life. The ability to provide for your family. Challenging and cultivating your mind. Moving your body in beautiful, powerful ways. Belonging to a community. Opportunities to make a difference in the world. Sparking relationships. Learning something about yourself.

What do I fear to lose?

Thinking about how a piece of identity has served you can lead to fears of what you might lose as your identity changes. A reputation. A title. A sense of certainty about the direction your life is headed. Your place in a community. A level of mental or physical discipline. Financial security. Respect—from yourself or others. A dream.

In what situations might I draw on that part of me again?

Apply what you’ve learned about hard work and discipline to new endeavors. Use your attunement to your body to stay healthy while adjusting to a new lifestyle. How can what you’ve learned about working with people help you in this new role or environment?

How can I adjust aspects of who I was to fit my life today?

Instead of asking how I can maintain that athlete’s body in spite of a more sedentary lifestyle, what does a strong healthy body look like for me in current circumstances? How can I adjust my wardrobe to a more casual setting while still feeling confident and put together in my clothes? What are some creative outlets that fit with my current schedule and priorities? How can I make and maintain friendships now that I’m not surrounded by colleagues every day?

While some pieces of our identity are only at the forefront for a time, the lessons they’ve taught us stay with us all our lives. It can feel like a loss to change the labels we have for ourselves, but those pieces of ourselves are always with us.

I’d love to know…what is a piece of your identity that you feel you’ve lost? What helped you through the transition? What changes did you make in your life as a result? When do you draw on that past version of yourself today?