Identity and Change
I work with people who are in transition… or who want to be in one. It might be they’ve left a job or career, their work has taken them past the horizon they oriented by, or the vitality they’ve felt buoyed by in the past seems to have drained away. Maybe they’ve left a relationship—or been left—or they feel alone in the relationship they have.
The answer for them isn’t about creating a list of pros and cons or learning a new skill set. The ‘problem’ is that despite all the change around them, they aren’t changing. I’m fascinated by what it is that stops change, and it seems to me if we just look at the nature of life, we’ll see some pretty obvious clues about what’s going on.
There are a couple of properties anything living must have. One is an enduring identity. Consider the simplest life: a single cell. Its identity, the thing that distinguishes it, that literally separates it from everything else is its membrane. Without it, the wonder of that living being simply dissipates into the environment and it’s no longer alive.
Another is that it must always be open to change. If that cell’s membrane is completely impervious so that nothing can get in or out, it can’t be alive. Either it starves or is poisoned by its waste.
The balance between these two properties isn’t usually a problem. In most organisms, it just happens. There’s enormous wisdom in life about generating just enough identity to endure, but not so much to choke off the process of living. Except in humans: with our conscious self-awareness we’re able to create all sorts of identities and we generally choose to hold onto the ones that make us feel good or make us feel safe. And when we do this, we’re able to stop whatever change is trying to happen in our lives.
If my identity as a good man, for example, is based upon making sure you’re happy with me, I’m going to end up saying yes to too many things, or resentful when you don’t seem to know what it is that I want. If my identity hinges on authority or power, I’m going to end up isolated and alone. Or if my capacity to express love depends on being a provider, I’m going to live in the constant fear of not having enough.
In the kind of coaching I do, my job involves understanding what identity my clients are holding on to that’s blocking the change which otherwise would happen in their lives. What’s their particular way of protecting themselves from change? Maybe their strategy looks like staying confused about what’s going on, or choosing ambivalence rather than making choices, or maybe it’s acting from a commitment that nothing is allowed to threaten the identity they’ve come to cherish.
Sometimes in this work, it’s enough to simply help a client see what’s below their see-level: how they try to protect themselves, so they can have a choice about it. With other clients, the coaching has to include helping them build a greater capacity to tolerate their fear, or be with whatever they’re experiencing, rather than try to escape it.
And sometimes it involves what the poet Galway Kinnell was pointing at when he wrote this:
St. Francis and the Sow The bud stands for all things,
even those things that don't flower,
for everything flowers, from within, of self-blessing;
though sometimes it is necessary to reteach a thing its loveliness,
to put a hand on the brow of the flower and retell it
in words and in touch it is lovely
until it flowers again from within, of self-blessing;
as St. Francis put his hand on the creased forehead of the sow,
and told her, in words and in touch, blessings of earth on the sow,
and the sow began remembering all down her thick length,
from the earthen snout all the way through the fodder and slops to the spiritual curl of the tail,
from the hard spininess spiked out from the spine
down through the great broken heart
to the blue milken dreaminess spurting and shuddering from the fourteen teats into the fourteen mouths
sucking and blowing beneath them:
and she remembered the long, perfect loveliness of sow.