You’re in the middle of a conversation with someone, or you’re going through an event that is particularly stressful. During these moments of crisis, something is said or something happens that completely upsets you in a degree you’ve never imagined possible. You feel shaken to your very core. Welcome to the world of an Identity Quake.
Identity Quakes were first outlined by Doug Stone, Bruce Patton, and Sheila Heen in their book “Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most.” If you haven’t read the book, I highly suggest you pick up a copy as it’s a template for how to deal with some of life’s most important issues. I’m going to give them the hat tip at the start of this post and say that most of what I write here regarding identity quakes is shamelessly stolen from them. Mr. Stone, Mr. Patton, Ms. Heen–thank you for writing a book that should be required reading for everyone’s lives.
Identity quakes are issues that hit us hard because we tend to think of ourselves at any one point in time as a particular identity–or role. We don’t usually view ourselves as the multi-faceted people we are. As an example, I am a father, a husband, a freerunner, a video game enthusiast, an avid reader, a storyteller, a writer, a lawyer, and a businessman. This is usually too much to process at any one point–most people don’t do that as a matter of sensory overload–so we tend to think of ourselves as one identity at a time. In short, we wear different “hats” because it’s easier for us to process our lives that way. Therefore, at any point in time I may see myself as “lawyer,” “businessman,” “husband,” and so on.
Now, my identity with regards to each of the above mentioned facets is fixed in a certain perception. I want to believe the best in myself. When something happens that shakes that belief, and shakes it hard, I begin to suffer an identity quake. These are called “quakes” because just like earthquakes, they shake us to our very core. As an earthquake can destroy buildings and fracture structures, identity quakes can do the same with our own perceived identities. When those identity quakes hit us, they are conceptualized into one of three categories:
1. Am I Competent? This means that we want to feel as though we possess talents and skills to feel worthwhile. We all want to see ourselves as being of value to society and the world in some way.
2. Am I a Good Person? We all want to be good people at heart. This identity quake questions whether we are truly noble in our motives, or becoming the villain.
3. Am I Worthy of Being Loved? We all want to be worthy of love and being loved. This identity quake shakes that question to how we perceive ourselves in the eyes of “love” as a whole.
When I say that each identity quake hits us in one of those three categories, it doesn’t mean you’re ONLY going to suffer from one of the above three quakes at a time. Your quake may trigger all three at once! This is a particularly devastating reaction for people, and the very notion of such a “superquake” can cause severe anxiety, crying, running away, deflecting of the problem, and more.
I think with the very definition of identity quakes I’ve described, you can tell they are not good. You may even look back at your life and pinpoint a couple of identity quakes, or you may be able to tell you’re experiencing one right now. So how do we deal with identity quakes? Let’s talk about how to deal with them personally. I’m going to suggest a multi-pronged approach you may find useful when you experience your identity quake.
First, realize that you are the sum total of all the aspects of your life. The conversation–the story at which you currently experience your quake–is not the defining moment of your existence. You are a person with many stories to tell and many aspects of your life; this particular identity may be shaken at your current moment but it is not the keystone that will cause you to completely crumble.
Second, understand that you are entitled to your feelings. We want to cut emotions out of every conversation, and it’s understandable. They’re hard to pin down. They are messy, polarizing, and inconvenient. They don’t necessarily address concrete issues at hand. However, they are integral to every conversation we have, and if you ignore or deflect the emotions of yourself or another you’re cheating yourself and any other parties involved in the conversation. To put it another way, ignoring the emotions of a conversation is akin to removing the music from an opera–all you’re left with is a bunch of people on stage speaking Italian.
Third, take a break. Give yourself time to compose and process that which you’re feeling. There is no point in continuing a conversation when you’re having a meltdown. If you are actually in dialogue with another person, and you experience an identity quake, you are usually okay to ask if you can take time to think about what the other party said. This may be anywhere from five minutes to the rest of the day or longer, but the break will help you with the next step.
Fourth, imagine yourself three months, two years, and ten years after this identity quake. How are your current feelings in perspective to the long-term view? When you ask yourself this question, and imagine yourself in that future realm, know that your current emotional turmoil may be completely different in a future setting.
The last tool I want to provide you with is a technique taught by Laura Silva of the Silva Life System. Identity quakes are high-stress events, and most stress events are triggered by fear or anger. When we experience fear or anger, we need to give ourselves time to process the question of what is causing that emotional response and when it happened. Are we afraid after a bitter divorce that we will never be loved again? Are we angry at another person because they called us dishonest and untrustworthy? Identifying the source of the situation may give us a reasonable response to frame our reactions causing the quake. This reframing can be key to helping us take the next step in Silva’s response.
Now, give yourself a moment to visualize the first time you felt a response of this nature. Silva theorizes most of our reactions in stress–whether they be fear or anger–are triggered by a defining moment in our lives when we first felt like this. Think back–even if it’s to your childhood–and try to visualize the first time you felt a response this strong to something similar to your identity quake. Try to relive the incident in your mind in its entirety. Give yourself the chance to see, hear, taste, touch and smell every detail of that one moment, pictured in the way that you handled it at that time in your life. This may be a powerful experience for you, so you may want to do this visualization in private.
After completing the above, “jump forward” in time, realizing that you are a completely different person than when you first experienced this emotional turmoil. You have a brand new set of tools, experiences, and competencies that you didn’t have at that time. Give yourself a chance to remove the “old” you from the picture, and put the current “you” in place. See yourself handling that first crucial moment of emotional turmoil from a completely new perspective, with completely new tools, experiences, and ideas than before. Give yourself a way to imagine a new solution to this past problem. See yourself clearly mastering this first crucial stressor in your mind, giving it a completely different outcome in your life. Now jump forward to your current life, and your present mind, and know that you can take those multiple experiences, tools, and facets that make the person reading this blog post to handle your identity quake in ways you never thought possible.
Identity quakes are powerful moments in our lives that can rock us to the core, destroy our perspectives, and cause us to lash out at others in uncharacteristic ways. We can control our reactions, though, and looking at our conflict from a holistic perspective is the first step to internalizing and negating our identity quakes. Work with the complete you, and the personal identity quakes that may affect you can be lessened.