Do You Have “Identity Paralysis”?

April 19, 2022

Do You Have “Identity Paralysis”?

May 29, 2023

Have you ever felt like a P.I.P. -- A Previously Important Person? It’s a common condition around old-school country clubs where people reminisce about their past glories.

According to this HBR article, PIPs may be suffering from “Identity Paralysis.” The researchers “conducted hundreds of interviews with people who lost their desired identity, such as former white-collar professionals forced to move into lower-status careers, as well as with people trying to shed an undesirable or stigmatized identity, such as former prisoners working to reintegrate themselves in their communities.” Whether the changes were ostensibly positive or negative, there was a common feeling of stuck-ness — a phenomenon they call Identity Paralysis — which often leaves people feeling angry, frustrated, and hopeless about their current situations.

The researchers had a top-five list of ways to remedy Identity Paralysis that mirrors much of what we do at MEA:

1. Mark a Distinct Break with the Past
People often say there’s a tipping point when the switch flipped, something that symbolically represented the end of a chapter in their life. At MEA, our “Great Midlife Edit” ritual at the firepit facing sundown is that kind of seminal experience.

2. Craft a Story to Tie the Past and Present Together
Creating a new narrative allows us to let go of a past identity and embrace a new identity. Whether you’re upwardly or downwardly mobile, creating a “reframe” can help you see a clear set of breadcrumbs that can make sense, especially if you have a new set of priorities. Our “reframing aging” exercises help people rethink how midlife is a bridge from their younger past to their hopeful future. And with that bridge comes a new mantra, “My best years are ahead of me.”

3. Acknowledge and Work Through Challenging Emotions
The researchers suggest, “Part of what makes identity paralysis so difficult to overcome is that it isn’t just your mental or intellectual idea of who you are that gets stuck in the past. It can also cause you to get stuck in the emotions associated with that past.” This is part of the value of a cohort of strangers going through similar emotional transitions. Wisdom— especially that which feels very personal—isn’t taught, it’s shared.

4. Focus on Meaningful, Non-Work Identities
HBR is a business periodical, so they’ve focused primarily on career identities. God knows, many of us define ourselves based upon our business card, and when that card goes away, we can feel lost. MEA’s focus on “humaning” (becoming a fully-embodied human with many interests and talents) takes us off the incredibly limiting corporate treadmill.

5. Don’t Be Afraid to Fantasize
The researchers found that some of the people who were most comfortable in their new identities were those who imagined that their current circumstances were only a stepping stone on the path to their ultimate (if objectively unrealistic) future. One of the benefits of visiting “Fantasy Island” (as some returning alums call MEA) is that they find our Baja campus to be a midwife of epiphanies as they think and dream differently than they do at home.

If you’d like to explore this topic further, come hear how a former Super Bowl hero Aaron Taylor had to cure his Identity Paralysis in “You Are NOT Your Title: Finding Joy in a Career Swerve” (June 12-19 in Baja). Next week on April 26, I will host a free online event with two of MEA’s guest faculty members Aaron Taylor and Janis Nakano Spivack called “Get Unstuck and Find Joy in a Career Swerve.” You can register HERE.

Go deeper with a workshop, in person or online.

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