This morning I was moving along a winding trail on Mt Wellington, my office for the morning. I found myself reflecting on a coaching consultation I had hosted yesterday with a mother in her mid-50s. For the purpose of this conversation I will refer to her as Sarah.
Four years ago, Sarah’s two children had flown-the-nest and now her inner-city townhouse where she lived with her husband felt gapingly large. She now enjoys intermittent exercising and travel adventures with her husband, and finds strong purpose in her teaching work in women’s health issues. Trained in Swedish and Thai massage, and with a strong self-compassion routine, in our consult she still sat across the table from me and said, ‘I know I should try to get fitter, loose some of this…’, she slaps her thighs and next her upper arms, strong and quite lean from her swimming workouts, ‘I practice self-compassion and gratitude. But I am just not as dedicated to exercise & wellbeing as someone like you.’
I have come to learn that whenever someone says, ‘I am…’, this is an identity that they have attached themselves too. In a positive application of this, Sarah had exclaimed early in our conversation, ‘I love my role as a teacher. I am good at teaching.’ So, here she holds the identity, values and beliefs of ‘Teacher’, and this enables her to action her teaching with excellence.
However, there are many instances where the identities we hold are unhelpful. For instances, Sarah slapping her thighs and biceps suggested that she has formed the identity of ‘lazy’. This means that somewhere, deep down, she believes she is fat and lazy, and then as a byproduct of this, she actually values her laziness and weight. Identifying as lazy and overweight has become an excuse to not action fitness, to avoid better health routines & to not set her alarm earlier so she can climb out of bed to pull on her bathers. In many ways, it is an identity that she is hiding behind.
I know this may sound extreme – that Sarah could actually value her fatness and laziness? Yes, I truly believe this and Sarah is not alone. We all hold multiple identities, some helpful and some hindering. If we hold onto our unhelpful identities, never challenging ourselves to break free from them, we will only be reinforcing the unhelpful actions associated with them.
Highlighting this to Sarah was the first step in moving her forward. I then asked her, ‘If you had all the time, money and support in the world, how do you see your optimal life?’ Sarah paused for a while, closed her eyes, and let out a big sigh.
‘I don’t know how to not be a mother anymore. When I was a mother I had routines and I also wanted to be a great role model for my children. I found it easier to take myself swimming earlier in the morning, to make us all a healthy lunch, and spend more time outdoors with the kids in the evening. But now that they have grown up and left home, I know that I am no longer a mother and I am now lazy. I guess if I had all the time, money and support in the world I would just like to be more self-compassionate and maybe to even try some trail running so I can join my friends when they go out on the weekends? I want to feel like I have more invigoration for my work again, and to travel more too. My husband is so supportive and gives me all the support I need, so I feel like I am letting him down the longer I feel like this.’
In response to Sarah’s comments, I asked, ‘Do you still see and talk to your children?’
‘Oh yes,’ she replied and her eyes begun to sparkle, ‘At least twice a week we chat on the phone to share news and what we have been up to. And next week we are off to London to visit Lizzie.’
‘Why do you call Lizzie and what made you want to visit her in London?’
Sarah looked back at me perplexed. ‘Because I want to keep an eye on her, I miss her, love her and want to make sure she doesn’t need me. London is such a long way…’
Sarah then paused, she closed her eyes, took a deep breath in, and opened then again to look me directly in the eyes. ‘I am still a mother, aren’t I?’
I didn’t need to reply. A mother will always be a mother. Just because Sarah’s children have grown up doesn’t mean that she needs to lose this identity nor the positive actions that she adopted as a mother. She can still support them and also be a positive role model through exercise, nutrition and her self-compassion, sharing these when she speaks to them on the phone or meets up with them on her holidays..
Sarah later left the room with a twinkle in her eye, a spring in her step, and goal to join her friends at a trail running event in 3-months’ time.
In conclusion, it is important to begin to hear those inner voices that say to you, ‘I am…’. Try to understand the identities that are helpful, as well as the ones that hinder. Begin to identify with old identities that no longer serve you, but to also rekindle those that need to remain, that can hold you strong, such as Sarah’s identity of 'A Mother'. Finally, ponder on the difference between self-compassion and self-acceptance. Too frequently I work with clients who take baths, change their diets, have massages and exercise – all in the name of self-compassion. But here I challenge us all, ‘is this for self-compassion, or to make me feel better about myself, to mask an unhelpful identity that still grasps me?’ I truly believe that there is not just a difference between self-compassion, but also a sequential order at play. Self-acceptance must proceed self-compassion. In Sarah’s case, self-compassion was a mask hiding a woman who was not yet able to accept were she was at and where she truly desired to be.
So, what identities are you holding onto? What need to be rekindled and which can be gently waved goodbye?
Write something about yourself. No need to be fancy, just an overview.