4 steps to transform your identity and emerge stronger and more beautiful

When I hear transformation of identity, I think about the caterpillar. How it eats and eats, and then sleeps itself into a cocoon, and out of that cocoon emerges a beautiful butterfly. A beautiful reminder and metaphor for the personal transformation that we are all capable of.

Humans may not weave themselves into a pupa to emerge, but it is important, now more than ever, to examine and understand better the concept of personal transformation better.

Let’s take a look at a composite character – Sally. I am sure you have seen some version of her, or perhaps been a version of her in your own unique way. Sally Hodgkins was thirty-three years old, a Harvard Business School Graduate, a model student throughout her life, a high-performing management consultant. Recently, she and her husband – let’s call him Dave – had a baby. A beautiful baby boy. After three months of maternity leave, Sally is back to work, and she gets assigned as an associate in one of my engagements. I know Sally from before, I am thrilled to have her on my team, she is diligent, smart and wonderful with clients. Three weeks into the engagement, Sally requests to have a 1-1 chat, and we sit down to talk. It turns out that she is struggling to cope, and she wants to hear from me all the different ways that a young mother can survive in the hectic world of consulting. She has already talked to many of her peers, her project manager has already counselled her, she has a list of tips and tricks she has compiled on how to make it work after a maternity break. She takes me through them, and I smile.

From a task point of view, she is doing everything right. She has set clear boundaries with her team – she leaves office at 5.30pm, takes a 2-hour break, to be with her family, before logging into work again after 8pm. She arrives a little later than the rest in the morning, to allow her to drop off her son at day-care. She has a schedule for pumping milk that seems to work, and the right set up in the office to do that. Etc etc.

I realize soon enough that her sense of her own identity has not caught up with who she had become. A mother. A working mother with a young baby, in an intense job. Not that this is the entirety of her personality, but in the context of the workplace, it was an important change. Equally important is, who she no longer was. It was not just that she seemed unaware of the change, she was actively trying to ignore it, and trying to remain as she used to be. A young carefree high-performer. One with a normal hormonal balance. Who was free to dedicate every working hour willingly to her job, and who prided in always being able to deliver every task assigned, over and beyond expectations. She and Dave were thrilled with their new son, no doubt, but she was not yet ready to give up her old identity. Or to embrace the new one. 

Let’s look at another example.

A digital transformation in a bank. Let’s say we are redefining the credit risk management process – essentially how the bank processes their credit card applications. Let’s meet Ram Shankar, another imaginary character. He is an experienced credit analyst, whose role for the last ten years had been to evaluate the risk of credit card applicants and assign them credit limits based on their propensity to default, limiting the bank’s exposure but at the same time maximizing the profit potential. With the new digital transformation planned, this process will be automated. The team driving the project has made a detailed plan for the role changes everyone in the team will face. The company is a people-centric organization, who has taken Ram through a robust process and has already found him a new role, where he will use his analytical skills to reconcile and report on the output of the AI-driven processes to senior management. He should be thrilled. But two months into the change, after the process has been in place, the initial excitement of the new role has worn off, I sit down with Ram to interview him – as part of a post-mortem on the success of the digital transformation, which on paper has been a tremendous success thus far.

Ram is glum. After spending five minutes telling me how wonderful the changes are, we go through an uncomfortable silence after which the words come pouring out on how he struggles with the new role. I am surprised, as I had seen his two months’ reports, and they were perfect. He was clearly adept at his new job. The problem was the identity change. Ram had not just changed what he did, but who he was. His old self – the ultimate authority on approving or declining credit card applications. A powerful figure, albeit in a small and specialized kingdom. And now, in his own mind he was – a number-cruncher, a data analyst, a cog in a wheel that he did not understand how it turned.

Identity changes are far more common in our lives than we would think. Sometimes they are small parts of our personality, and we slide out of the old and into the new one with relative ease. But most of the time, it is not as easy as that. A recent study by MIT Sloan, titled “How Organizational Change Disrupts Our Sense of Self” says that most managers size up the management challenge all wrong. They end up focusing on the task and skill changes, while wholly ignoring the role and identity changes.

In a recent workshop, we assembled a group of managers involved in large-scale digital transformation initiatives in their various organizations. As part of the discussion, we first asked them how they would describe their roles in those change initiatives. By roles, we didn’t mean job titles — we did not need to know that someone was a chief technology officer or head of HR. As we had already clarified for our participants, we were looking for more archetypal roles, such as “problem solver,” “dealmaker,” “functional expert,” or “idea person.” Next, we asked them to imagine the digital transformation really taking hold and to name roles that would be most valuable in driving that success. And here was the interesting disconnect: For the most part, their answers to the two questions were different.

– How Organizational Change Disrupts Our Sense of Self, MIT Sloan Management Review

With the great resignation underway across the globe, millions of people are leaving their current jobs, and either opting out of the corporate workforce or shifting to new organizations and new roles. Our collective change in identity, and change in our individual sense of self has never been this wide or concentrated.

Let’s get down to something practical. How do you navigate a change in sense of self? Here are 4 steps that will help you:

1. Acknowledge

More often than not, we don’t even know the identity change that is required in a particular context. Identity is one of those vague, abstract concepts which may be well-defined for the lucky few, but increasingly in our complex and multi-faceted world, it is becoming a hard one to get a good grasp of. We often confuse who we are with what we do and the way we do it. Admittedly, it is quite hard to disentangle who we are from what we do – and in a truly authentic and aligned life, the two would point to one core truth. But in the real world we live in, a lot of us don’t get to choose our professions or what we do every day. Or perhaps, what we do shapes who we are as much as the other way round. The point of this is not to judge how your identity is shaped, but merely to point out the importance of being aware and acknowledging the extent and type of identity change that is required of you in a particular transition.

2. Grieve

This may sound like an unusual addition to the list, but it is an important one. If I had to pick one out of the four, I would say – do this. Grief is something that we associate with loss, usually death. Time-honored traditions exist in every culture to grieve death. However, we rarely take the time to grieve when there is a change. When you lose a job, grieve. And then move on. When you quit a job on your own accord, acknowledge the chapter that you are closing, the identity you are letting go and grieve. Even when you are whooping your way out of your workplace that has caused you misery over the last months or years, showing the middle finger to your boss – even then, grieve what you have changed. That was part of you for a while and served you a purpose – honor it, and let it go. All emotions, especially strong negative ones can become a part of your identity and letting it go without acknowledging can come back to haunt you when you least expect it.

There is a term I came across recently – “disenfranchised grief” coined by Kenneth Doka that refers to a loss that’s not openly acknowledged, socially mourned or publicly supported. Life changes can, if not acknowledged and understood well, quite easily fall under that category. Go through the five stages of grief, and then you are ready for Step 3 below.

A perspective that has helped me over the years to grieve significant changes and the accompanying identity shifts in my life is to let go of the linear outlook of time. This is a little more profound than the practical tips I promised, so feel free to skip this paragraph if this is not your cup of tea. The linearity of time is one of the most debated concepts in philosophy, and my intent is not to open that can of worms, but merely to suggest a way you can approach grieving an identity change – by remembering that all that you have done in your life will always remain a part of you. The past can be as real as the present, and more real than the future – if only you know how to get your mind to see it that way. From such a perspective, the sense of loss is significantly less. We get excited about a bright future, equally our mind can feel fulfilled about a well-lived past, even if it is no longer our present.

3. Emerge

Every pupa needs to break open eventually. The butterfly emerges and flies out into the bright blue sky, fluttering across lovely flowers in the forest. Ok yes, not every change is as good as that sounded. But remember that to thrive in a transition, we do need to emerge. At some point. And ideally with enthusiasm.

Any change comes with a change story, a narrative that explains the rationale of the change – and as the author of your own story, it is up to you to frame the story as you like. It is also up to you to decide how you emerge after a significant identity change and transition in your life. It was Oprah Winfrey who said, “the whole point of being alive is to become the person you were intended to be, to grow out of and into yourself again and again.” Indeed, a fulfilling life is a dynamic one, one that ebbs and flows, that grows in and out of our self, changing, transforming, becoming. Think of yourself as emerging gradually into your true self, a little more true after each transition.

4. Embrace

This step is similar to the previous one, and initially I considered clubbing the two steps together – after all, when you emerge with enthusiasm, you are naturally embracing who you have become. Forgoing the pleasure of the rule of threes, I decided to put this as separate, primarily because of a subtle nuance.

I have been a student of change for a long time, and I have realized that in many cases, change comes with a sweet initial phase – the honeymoon. Especially when we think of the change as positive. But no matter how positive the change is, and how much we yearned for it, there is an inevitable dip after that initial phase. The same goes for a shift in identity – in fact, I would say it is even more emphasized in the case of a changing identity. When that dip comes, after the initial high of the change, remember to embrace the new you. And be gentle, as you would with a young baby. After all, in this persona, you have just about passed the stage of emergence. If this personality were a baby, that would be about the 9-month stage, where she has managed to pull herself up and take the first steps. Just go ahead and embrace her, falls and all.