Mallory came to see me about two years ago, and she felt – in a word – stuck. She had been in what she called a “dead-end relationship” with her girlfriend for five years. She had been at her paralegal job, which she described as “simultaneously stressful and unfulfilling” for seven years. Her life was familiar, her identity was stable… but she simply did not feel stimulated or challenged.
In nine months of working together, Mallory made some hard but important choices. She left her relationship and said she felt liberated. She made a career pivot, and went back to school to become a history teacher. And, most importantly, she stopped feeling stuck. And then, one day, she came in – as people often do when therapy is at its best – and said, “you know, Jennie, my life is so much better than it was when I first came in… I think I’m ready to take a break from our sessions.”
I smiled. “I think you are, too.”
I would miss working her, but all in all, we had done wonderful work. We talked about her therapy journey, identified some “red flags” to look out for in the future, shook hands, and parted ways. I marked her file “inactive”.
Several months later, Mallory called me. I asked her how she was doing, and she told me she wanted to come in for a session.
“On paper, everything is wonderful,” she told me, once in my office. “I’ve started dating a new person, and she’s nothing like Frieda was. She’s warm and kind, she listens when I talk, and I know that she’s looking for something serious. And my classes are really wonderful – I’m confident I’ve made the right decision.”
I felt curious. Had Mallory only come in to give me an update?
“But,” she went on, “I don’t feel like I know who I am anymore. This life I’m living… everything is so new. And it’s great, but where did Mallory go?”
What stays the same, and what changes?
Here’s the kicker: Mallory isn’t a real client. She’s about a dozen real clients, of all conceivable genders, races, sexual orientations, and ages. Some of them have gone from work to school, others from school to work, and others still from one job to another. Some of them have ended relationships, and others have gone from being single to finding new partners. Some have become parents or suffered losses. And some have changed their lifestyle – relocated to a new city, focused on their health, or taken up a new hobby or interest.
The details differ in each story, but the general theme is the same: how do I know who I am when everything in my life has changed?
Most people’s lives change a great deal over time. Think about who you were 10 years ago – are you the same person now? I know I’m not. On paper, everything is different. I was a student, and now I’m a therapist and business owner. I was in an unhappy relationship, and now I’m happily married to someone different.
And yet, I am. My values have not changed, and many of my interests are the same. All of the external pieces of my life have shifted… but at my core, I’m a very similar person to who I was a decade ago.
How about you? What pieces of you are the same as they were 10 years ago, and which parts are different?
Redefining identity as fluid
We like to think of identity as something that’s stable, and that makes sense. How can we ever really know ourselves if we’re always changing? But the beauty of life is that we grow through our experiences.
If you’ve undergone a lot of life changes recently and you’re having trouble recognizing yourself in your new environment, you’re not alone. We think of identity transformation as something dramatic and unusual, but it’s actually pretty common.
When clients like Mallory show back up in my office, here’s what I ask them – and what I encourage you to ask yourself:
- Yes, a lot of things are different. What has stayed the same? Even if it’s just that you still crochet or you still listen to indie rock, there’s usually something you can identify.
- How do you feel about the version of yourself in your new life? Is this a version of you that you’d like to grow into, or a version of you that you’re not proud of?
- Tell me about who you were 10 or 15 years ago. How similar or different is that person to who you are now? Is it okay to change?