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Identity, transition and wellness: connecting the dots...

Updated: Sep 3, 2020

The ‘noise’ around mental health and psychological wellbeing has grown ever louder and more dynamic over the past few years. We are increasingly seeing campaigns challenging the stigma of mental illness alongside more stories from high profile individuals sharing their inner struggles. For example, elite athletes such as Victoria Pendleton (cycling), Adam Peaty (swimming), Clarke Carlisle (football) and Rebekah Wilson (bobsleigh) openly sharing their experiences of anxiety, depression, addiction, self-harm and other, equally challenging mental health issues.

Many of these stories stem from the struggles of coping with the demands of elite competition, yet many are also related to the battles faced by retiring athletes or athletes whose sporting careers have been cut short through injury. Of less prevalence in the media, yet of equal significance, are stories of corporate executives finding it impossible to settle into life as a retiree; employees feeling lost after being made redundant; new parents struggling to remember what life was like before children; individuals consumed by grief; young people worrying about what their future will hold.

By delving a little further into each of these seemingly very different scenarios, it becomes evident that there is a common thread connecting each of these examples; and that is the word ‘transition’. William Bridges (change consultant) defined transition as:

‘…the inner psychological process that people go through as they internalise and come to terms with the new situation that the change brings about’.

In his 1991 book ‘Managing Transitions’, Bridges proposed a model that recognised three core stages of any transition – (1) Ending, losing and letting go; (2) The neutral zone; (3) The new beginning. Bridges argued that understanding the process of change and recognising these three specific stages would help individuals embrace their own change experiences and navigate these transition phases more successfully.

I like the Bridges model and believe that it helps to explain some of the unexpected and unfamiliar feelings that arise at times of change. It is also helpful when working with others, such as when mentoring or facilitating personal development, as it provides a framework within which you can support someone else to better appreciate and ‘own’ their transitions. In fact, numerous programmes for retiring athletes and corporate executives (either consciously or unconsciously) utilise this model in shaping their content and structure. For example, corporate retirement preparation workshops, ‘athlete to business’ mentoring programmes, some antenatal-style sessions – all focus on helping individuals get themselves ready for the next stage in their life and equip them with the tools they may need for their onward journey.

Yet, despite these interventions and efforts to ‘prepare’ people for their new beginnings, individuals still often struggle to cope in times of change. We witness high profile cases of retiring athletes who find great difficulty in coming to terms with life outside of their structured routines of training and competition; just as we see the more everyday challenge of individuals leaving jobs and careers that have been a significant part of their life for many years, or the parents experiencing an ‘empty nest’ when their children leave home.

There is a certain inevitably about transitions in life. We will all experience them at some point in time, and will all deal with them in our own ways. Some people thrive in times of change, others find it daunting, overwhelming and more than a little scary. The impact of the experience will depend on the unique circumstances surrounding a particular shift, and for some people the Bridges model can help to prepare for, and navigating these periods of time.

Through my research and experiences of coaching, mentoring and developing people, I have begun to view the challenge of transition through an alternative perspective. One of the things I often hear people say when they are struggling at these times is that they feel as if they have lost their sense of self; that they no longer know who they are. This is especially noticeable when talking with athletes who have suddenly been forced to retire through injury and struggle to comprehend that yesterday they were ‘Alex the athlete’, but today they are ‘Alex the ex-athlete’. This brings uncertainty and doubt around personal purpose, and also a great deal of concern over how to define yourself when people ask the familiar question of ‘…and what do you do?’. It is arguably this loss of ‘identity’ that can be correlated to the increase in psychological distress and overall negative impact on personal wellbeing.

Identity is a somewhat complex subject, pioneered in the early 1900s by the psychoanalyst Erik Erikson. Erikson argued that identity is formed when a person is able to merge, and understand, all the different ‘versions’ of oneself (e.g. athlete, parent, spouse, carer, student) into one cohesive ‘whole’, and it is having this strong sense of self that enables individuals to survive at times of stress or unexpected disaster. Erikson considered that there were three aspects of identity; the ego (or self), personal identity (the unique things that differentiate every individual) and social/cultural identity (the various social roles that an individual might assume). Perhaps a simple way to think about identity is to view it is an intricate blend of self-perception (i.e. how we see ourselves) and external perceptions (i.e. how we think others see us), alongside the crucial sense of how we feel about ourselves and who we are.

My belief is that individuals who know who they are, are comfortable with how others see them and feel confident about what matters to them, are better equipped to deal with the challenges of change. They are therefore more likely to feel happier with their personal wellbeing. In contrast, individuals who do not have a clear sense of identity are more likely to struggle during transitions and experience stress or psychological distress during such times. It is important to note that our identities will shift over time as they are informed by our ongoing experiences and growth, though!

I therefore believe that supporting individuals to develop their identities (ego, personal and social) can have significant and positive impacts upon their general sense of wellbeing. I would argue that, whilst a strong sense of identity will never exempt you from going through a life transition, it will potentially provide the required strength and security to successfully ‘ride the storm’. To use another ocean based analogy; having a strong sense of identity is like having a secure anchor to steady your ship whilst through the wildest of tides. It may feel like a wild and scary place to be, but you trust that your anchor will hold you in place until the worst has passed.

Identity matters. Knowing who you are matters. Being comfortable with how you see yourself, and how others see you, matters. For work, for life, for wellness.

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