Some of the most common measuring sticks people select are things such as being successful at work, being well educated, making boatloads of money, being a great father/husband, being pious and faithful in religious life, being socially and/or sexually popular, desired, for being physically attractive, and the list goes on and on. We all decide what is important, or not.
Regardless of the manner in which we choose to judge our self-worth, we are each of us, every day, selecting the way we want—and need—to receive validation. Each of us selects how we want to feel good about ourselves. Like a mosaic, all the things you choose to value and gain validation from grow—and ultimately become—your total identity. You decide what is important to your life. What is important to you.
Most of us, predictably, are inclined towards aspects of our identity reflecting how we grew up and what attention or praise was heaped on us for what the reason. The validation we receive growing up basically governs how we value ourselves as adults.
Lots of us experienced upheavals and emotional traumas early in our lives, resulting in fixation on certain parts of our identity at the expense of others. Young and old alike suffer from pressures forcing us to over-identify with a particular aspect of our character, obscuring other areas of our lives.
The validation we receive
growing up basically
governs how we
value ourselves as adult
The Hazard of Over-Identifying
For instance, when I lived in New York, I had a business associate (let’s call him Jimmy), who led a less than legal life. Publicly, Jimmy owned a contracting company but in reality, Jimmy had a questionable lifestyle. Jimmy grew up in a poor family in an unpleasant part of Brooklyn, with a father who was in and out of prison. Although he never went hungry, his father’s associates always paid the family bills and Jimmy knew it. As a result, Jimmy grew up identifying unreasonably with earning money and being rich; doing what ever it took to get there, with no regard for the legality.
Once he entered that “other” business world in earnest, the social pressures of those around him, the lifestyle, and how he lived, served to strengthen his choice. He received increasingly strong validation from amassing money, wealth, and power. I’m sure you suspect how this ends. Regardless of how lovely his Upper West Side apartment was, the clothes, or the girls, etc., it’s obvious that eventually his life unraveled along with all of the relationships that mattered to him; think of Tony Montana and once his fall came, he fell alone.
A client of mine over-identified with sex and the validation received from that affection. This led to him becoming depressed and live an unacceptably lavish lifestyle, given his income. This is something that I, too, suffered from so when I met him for the first time, it was like taking a walk through my own history. When he changed careers, and building his new business he was working 14-16 hour days simply to make payments to vendors. The simplest of refund requests, or a couple of days with flat sales would send him into a major downward spiral. This all comes from investing himself completely into two few areas—affection and business—and forsaking other important areas of his life and his individual identity.
This constant reinforcement and lack of diversity in his life eventually warped his perception of himself as being a father, a husband, a friend, and a role model, and instead, he saw himself as a walking income generator. That’s all that came to matter to him—his identity, sex, and sales. He had nothing else going for him because he never invested in any other aspects of his life and relationships. And when the sales went, so did his self-worth.
What Do You Love?
You could interpret all of this as suggesting you will be happy if you are simply a well-balanced individual. Here’s the rub; people can be well balanced and still not have a stable and broad-based identity. You can join in on a lot of different activities, and still gain the preponderance of your validation and self-worth from just one source.
For instance, let’s say, like me when I owned my nursery farm, you’re a well-balanced individual with a successful nursery, a spouse, some fabulous hobbies, and you just love reading in your spare time, particularly out by your pool (yep, I had one). But in reality, your career, like mine, dominated your identity. I worked so much that I didn’t have time to relate to my wife in any way other than money and work. My hobbies all involved your co-workers or vendors. My reading related to growing trees or business management. I did it all by the pool work had paid for; I had no diversity.
When you invest all
of your identity in one basket,
you put your self-esteem
and emotional well- being at risk.
A lot of people I knew in horticulture were like this. Their friends are their co-workers. They rarely trusted anyone else. The hobbies they enjoyed almost always related to their job. Their social activities were work functions. The dates they went on and people they met were usually doing work-related activities. Think trade show parties or dinners with clients. There’s no expansion or depth in where they’re receiving their validation. Therefore, their emotional stability and self-esteem is constantly at risk. Face it, folks; when you invest all of your identity in one basket, you put your self-esteem and emotional well- being at risk. If you lose it, you lose yourself. Take my word for it; it’s a long way back from that place.
I read an article the other day that discussed American football player Junior Seau who recently committed suicide after retiring. A lot of discussion has taken place about athletes and how they can regain their lost identity once they retire. It is difficult for most of us to imagine what they must feel, having gone their entire lives since childhood being recognized for being great at a single activity, and then once they hit their 40s, in spite of their best efforts, it is all lost.
Seau is not the only casualty. There’s a disturbingly sad article about Hall of Fame football player William “Refrigerator” Perry and his descent into depression and alcoholism after retirement.
For some people, the thought of their business going under terrifies them. It sure did me! They stay up entire nights worrying about if a new web page, business program or model will make money or not. When it works, they moved on to the next issue, and when they fail, they lose sleep trying to figure out why. Isn’t 4 a.m. such a good time to think?
Ironically, happier people with successful businesses don’t invest their identities completely in them. For many people, if they failed tomorrow, they wouldn’t be devastated. Why? Because they’ve diversified their identity; they travel, speak multiple languages, have a wide array of friends of varying lifestyles, enjoy good music, etc. If their business crashes, it surely sucks and would be stressful, but emotionally they hold up much better than the other kind of person.
So I ask you—what do you love, what do you really care about? What do you invest yourself in? Is it in a wide range of areas or not? If you like music, start going to concerts or learn to play an instrument. Don’t just travel on a vacation, but rather, invest a little of yourself in learning about the culture you visit. Learn a second, or third language. Make time for old friends. Pick up new and interesting hobbies that don’t relate to the old ones. Get competitive in something…anything. Let yourself grow beyond your work and your current relationships. Go out for no other reason than to be with your friends. Take some time off.
And don’t just do anything; do something you can care about, invest yourself in it.
That is who you are.