Look Forward

Adapting to Change: Identity

Toronto, the city I call home, went into a second lockdown two days ago.

When the first lockdown in March began, I had been experiencing painful, difficult change for two years. As I saw everyone around me go through major disruptions to their lives, I realized that difficulty was about to become a lot more commonplace.

One of the things I’d learned about stress is that we talk a lot about managing it. This is necessary, but when the whole world changes around you, we also need tools to identify stressors that can be resolved or negotiated with, rather than just endured.

Stress and Identity

When big changes show up, they tend to disrupt many parts of our identity at once. How often have you heard someone say “I’m not feeling like myself lately”?

This can be lived with for a short time, but if several important things have shifted on us with no way back, we’re likely to experience perpetual stress. We can try to wait it out and adjust to it, but it’s more helpful to have a process for effectively recognizing why it’s happening.

I’d like to share one exercise for this purpose that I took from a different context. (If you are looking for something more relatable, this resource may also be useful to you.) I’ve personally used this exercise to adapt to situations where I felt helpless and frustrated. As a leader, I’ve used it in group and 1-1 settings to help people complement their own stress-management techniques.

I’ve found this particular exercise to be especially helpful with folks who prefer taking a logical view of their emotional state; it seems to resonate with them better than the more touchy-feely stuff.

The Playbook

This is a writing exercise. It requires about 20-30 minutes of uninterrupted time.

Those who are living with known trauma should take the appropriate precautions if attempting this exercise; if you don’t know what those are, please don’t pressure someone in that situation into doing this. You could be putting them in real danger.

Part 1: Inventory

To begin, we’ll list the things that make us feel like ourselves.

On your canvas, take 3-5 minutes for each of these topics and write out as many things as you can think of that apply.

Roles: What roles do you play that define who you are? You might identify with being a mother, a father, a teacher, spouse, Christian, software developer.

Emotions: What emotions do you associate with “being yourself”? For example, if you were to say to someone “I’m naturally an X person” where X is an emotion, which emotions would you most often use to describe yourself? Are you cheerful? Sad? Mischievous? Light-hearted?

Traits: What traits do you use to describe yourself? Are you funny? Honest? Kind? Resourceful? Industrious? Flexible? Cynical? Optimistic? Pragmatic? Competitive?

Comparisons: Some parts of our identity only make sense in comparative terms. These can some of the most surprising and powerful parts of ourselves to reflect on! For example: I’m a strong football player, I’m wealthy, I’m a slow learner, I’m in good health, I’m very sensitive to the needs of others… many of these statements can be looked at somewhat objectively, but they’re almost always used in a comparative sense. What ways of comparing yourself to others are the most important to you?

Part 2: What has been disrupted?

Take a few deep, deliberate breaths. You’ve done a good job :)

Slowly review all the things you identified with in Part 1. Put a check-mark next to each of these parts of your identity that you feel were disrupted by your current circumstances.

When you’re done, look over it again. How many check-marks did you end up with? How critical to your identity are the things you’ve checked off?

Part 3: Expressive Writing

Choose a time and place where you feel safe. Ideally, you do this as soon as possible after Part 2, but it’s most important that you feel at ease to experience potentially difficult emotions while writing.

Set a timer for 10 to 20 minutes.

Look at the list of things that have been disrupted in your life. Write out your feelings about it. It’s more important to continuously write than it is to think about what you’re writing.

If you’re stuck, start the next sentence with “I feel” and write whatever comes to mind from there. Keep writing.

When you are done, slowly re-read what you wrote. Take the time to experience any feelings that arise.

Now, invite your rational brain into the conversation, if it didn’t already show up and take over :) What do you want to acknowledge about the current situation? How might you use what you just learned to show up differently moving forward?

When you’re ready, destroy what you wrote.

Take 5-10 minutes to calm yourself down through some sort of activity like:

  • Sitting quietly and just breathing
  • Listening to music that settles you
  • Going for a walk outside

Wrapping Up

Some people come out of this exercise with many realizations, but they’re not sure what to do with them. My experience is that increased awareness of the situation is generally enough on its own to resolve much of the stress. Reassure them of this.

If you try this out and have experiences—personal or otherwise—that you’d like to chat about, please let me know. I’m curious to hear how others work with this material that I’ve personally found so helpful.