The elements of identity


This week I left something behind that I have been holding on to for too long. For almost 12 years now I have been driving a very nice BMW. Every three years I would get a new model as part of my leasing contract. This week I gave back my three-year-old car, having driven it less than thirty thousand kilometres, and did not pick up a new one. I will now be carless and see how that goes. To be honest for a while the car had become a symbol of my success. The fact that I could afford to drive such a nice car seemed to represent something for me psychologically so I was not sure how I would feel about getting rid of it. It was reflecting on the honest reasons why I had been holding on to it that confirmed how important it was for me to get rid of the car. 

My work takes me to many interesting places but it also keeps me away from home which means my car sat unused for long periods. I also live in a city with an amazing infrastructure and the neighbourhood that I live in has everything I need within walking distance. For anything I can’t reach I on foot I can ride my bike. Beyond that, I can use car-sharing services and if the situation really called for it I could rent a car. So why has it taken me so long to give up something I use so little? Sure there was an element of convenience and comfort but more than anything my BMW had become part of my identity. I have been the successful guy who drives an expensive car. That had become part of who I was. 

I had a similar experience at the end of my marriage. My relationship had become part of my identity and my new identity as a divorced man in his forties didn’t seem that appalling.  We identify with certain things in our lives and when we lose them it can feel as if we are losing a part of ourselves, When we are strongly identified with the work we do, the things we have or the way we look, for example, then we may feel a sense of loss when we can no longer do things, have things or look a particular way. Being so strongly identified with such things and situations leaves us vulnerable to the extent that it can cause long term unhappiness.

Everything in life is in a constant process of change. If we are too strongly identified with things or the events of our past we will be left unhappy and unsatisfied. Sometimes it is important to leave things behind to remember who you really are or to acknowledge that you are far more than your accomplishments and the things you own. For some, the solution is a process of constantly reinventing themselves and we admire people who do this well. However, something we can all do it to recognise that all those labels we give ourselves or others give us are just concepts, judgements and transient states of being. Holding on to them too tightly is a weight that will cause you to struggle to keep afloat in the sea of life.  Experiencing change or loss does not change your value so learn to identify with your inner values and experiences. Remember that you are more than what you do and what you have.