All of us have heard it. Most of us do it. Some don’t understand it (and I’m jealous of you!). What am I talking about? The “I am a” syndrome. When we define ourselves by what we do, rather than who we are. Lately I’ve been trying to understand where this comes from; that is, the sense that we must accomplish something impressive to be “worthy” of love, recognition, or contentment. For most of my life I’ve identified as an athlete; first, a figure skater, and then as a runner. For the majority of my adult life I’ve also identified as a physician. Others also seem to identify me that way. “There’s the runner! There’s the doctor! There’s the doctor-runner!” And, you know what? I actually LIKED that. It made me feel accomplished. It made me feel worthy, it made me feel like a success. Over the past couple of years, and even more so recently, I have begun to see just how problematic that was. I don’t want to focus this blog on why I feel that I was conditioned to perceive myself this way, but suffice to say, my upbringing was one where success was paramount; and more value was put on whether you were the ‘best’ at something, than if you were a, say, good person, or a generous friend.
As such, I’ve learned to tie my self-worth to tangible accomplishments. Medals. Grades. Ranks. And frankly, this is a problem. You see, the problem with tying your identity to what you do, is that when it is taken away, you end up scrambling to find meaning and purpose in your day. You can struggle to find worth. In a sense, it can initiate a state of panic, of “who am I if I’m not ‘doing anything’”. I am hopeful that that this blog post might help those going through a similar journey.
If you don’t know me well, you’re probably wondering what spurred me to write this blog. So here goes my story: I’ve recently had a major life-altering medical setback, and had to take time away from both of my “identities”: my career and my athletics. Over the past few years, I had already been working on releasing my identity from my running performances; however, I still thought it was acceptable to define myself and attach my self-worth to my career. Some may ask “what is wrong with that? You’re a doctor! You do good things!” Well, I’m realizing that 1. One can never know whether their health will enable us to continue our job and 2. We can’t truly be our best at work (in life?) if we don’t focus our attention on improving ourselves as HUMANS, and look to our inner qualities to improve self-worth. This can mean nurturing our friendships and relationships with the humans around us. By focusing on qualities that enable us to give love, support, hope, and guidance to others, we can still reliably gauge success and gain self-worth, albeit in a less “definable” sense. It is those qualities that are permanent and constant. Those qualities are still there even if you can’t perform your sport, or your job. These are qualities that are innate to WHO you are, not tied to WHAT you do. It seems simple, but it’s actually true – “who you are” has absolutely nothing to do with what you do – i.e. your sport, your role at work – it has more to do with the manner with which you conduct yourself in life. Is it with integrity? Is it with sportsmanship? In your career, do you treat your colleagues with kindness and compassion? Do you work diligently, not for accolades, but for integrity and best practice? When you are not working, are you kind in your interactions with strangers? Do you find small ways to let your friends know you care for them? These are the qualities that make you who you are. These are the qualities that stick with you no matter WHAT you are capable of “accomplishing” in any given time. I believe that this is what is important.
The following is my rough framework on how to develop your identity, without an attachment to accomplishment or performance:
What qualities do you have that enable you to make positive change in the world?
How can you nurture those qualities, and develop them further?
What qualities would you like to have in yourself?
How can you begin to develop those qualities or show actions that are consistent with them?
Let’s say, for example, that you are a very generous person. That is a wonderful quality that will not change based on if you win a gold medal or come in last place! Now, how can you nurture and develop that quality? Maybe you start looking into charities that you would like to support, with a goal to make a change in the world. Maybe you reach out to a friend, to see if they are in need emotionally. Let’s say, you wish you were more patient. How can you begin to improve on that? Maybe you try to spend a week not talking over someone, rather, listening until they are finished speaking. Get the gist? How wonderful would it be if after a year of nurturing these qualities, you were a more generous and patient human being? No injury, race performance, or difficulty at work can take that away from you. And, as a twist, I’ll also argue that your athletic and work performance WILL improve if you work on yourself first.
I’m a work in progress (aren’t we all?), but when you start to beat yourself up about past mistakes, or lack of progress, remember that who you are today is a result of your past. You are exactly where you are meant to be, and you are a lot more than your accolades. Sure, those are interesting tidbits, but it’s your approach to life and life's experience that shapes WHO you are as a person. I hope this blog can help you realize that too.