So many people have been telling me that they are having a difficult time with this quarantine, and I get it. For one, there are a lot more stressors than usual like working from home, homeschooling children, suddenly being unemployed, or being stuck living with someone who you are in an unhealthy relationship with, and unfortunately this is only scratching the surface of what some people are going through. But there is also an underlying issue going on here that hardly anyone is talking about. When we allow ourselves to go deeper, and look not at what is happening around us but what is happening within us, most people will find that what they are really going through is an identity death.
Identity death happens when the things that you use to identify yourself suddenly cease to exist, and you lose a sense of self, feeling confused about who you are. I experienced this twice in my life, once when my father died because a huge identity of mine was being his daughter, and the second time was after I left California. The second one was so sudden, and so many things changed at once that my whole sense of self shifted and I could barely speak to anyone for several months. I basically went into a self-quarantine so I really get what people are going through and I now have some insights to help people through.
Most people identify themselves in four ways: by what they do, by who they spend time with, by how well they are adhering to societal norms, and by the roles they occupy. When you define yourself by what you do, it is usually based on occupation, achievements, and the amount of things you do. This happens almost naturally because this is how we spend our days. We go to work five days a week or run around ticking things off on a mile long todo list, so it's easy to say that we are the things we do. You hear people say “I am a salesperson, I am a college student, I am a teacher, I am a busy person”. But how you spend your time is not really who you are. You will also notice people defining themselves by the people they surround themselves with, especially if they belong to a specific group or social club. This is where you will hear people say, “I am a goth, I am a Harvard alum, or I am a socialite”. While those are labels that we can use to categorize ourselves, again this is not who we are. Another way people define themselves is by the social/familial roles that they are in, such as mother, husband, brother, daughter. While they actually might be those things, it's not who they are at their core. Lastly, people define themselves by societal norms. You will notice this happening when people only feel that they can say “I am successful” when they are living according to how society says they should. In other words, if you graduated from college, have a job that makes a certain amount of money, are married, and have children, chances are you are seen as successful according to society.
While these identifiers help to categorize people and can make life easier, they can also be detrimental, for numerous reasons, when we base our entire identity on them. Today, however, we are going to focus on impermanence because that is what is coming up for most people right now. So what we are seeing with all of these identities is that they can change or disappear at any moment. In some cases this happens because we decided to make the change, for example, leaving a job or losing weight. In those cases it is easier to accept because the change was self-induced. Even then though, change can be difficult to come by if you have a strong identification with the thing you are trying to change. But the most difficult thing to deal with is when the change comes unexpectedly and has been forced upon you. This is what is happening for so many right now. People who lost their job can no longer identify as their occupations. There are no more societal norms because nothing about this is normal. People can't spend time with anyone else so they are no longer the people they spend time with. When you can't do anything that you normally do, who do you become? This is the definition of identity death and loss of self.
The key here is to focus on what is left when all of those other identifiers drift away. You can begin to identify your personality traits and values that are intrinsic to who you are, but even that can be precarious. I am of the firm belief that you can change any trait or quality about yourself as long as you are committed and really want it. In fact, a growth mindset consists of the belief that you are not fixed in abilities and that you can grow and change in any area. So just because we have certain values and traits now, doesn't necessarily mean that we always will, and my fear is that if you identify with these things, you will not believe in your ability to grow and learn. So what else is left? Who are you when none of your identities are left? When you can no longer say, I am a salesperson, I am a busy person, I am a college student. If you have been paying close attention you will see that there is something that is the same in all of those identities. Can you spot it? It's “I am”. In spiritual texts, “I am” is the metaphysical term for the spiritual self. It is the self that is eternal and never changing. It is our indescribable essence. It is who we truly are.
The only way to really find it is to be willing to let go of all of the identities that you have attached to. It is ok to recognize that you can still use those things to describe yourself as long as you don't attach to them and make them the whole of who you are. Next is to be silent and be still. Listen to what is there when nothing and no one else is around. Let the thoughts come and go. Don't attach to anything. Just practice being with yourself. Practice loving yourself for everything that you have always been and always will be, not the things you have identified with but your essence. And finally, pray. I prayed my ass off when I was going through my identity deaths and it pulled me through. Pray to whomever or whatever you believe in, and trust that you are being held and guided.
If you need more help with this please send me an email and we can set up a time to talk, or reach out to the community and let us all know how you are doing in the comments below. I would also love to know which identity you find particularly difficult to let go of, or what you are finding in the stillness. Be well.