Creating a new identity in the divorce process is part of letting go of the past and focusing on the next chapter. If you don’t take charge of creating your new identity, then you will be stuck where you are. And perhaps destined to repeat the same choices you made in the past and getting the same results that you got.
In relationships, we have to take responsibility for how things go, even if they aren’t from actions of our own doing. We always respond, even by not responding; and our responses causes others to respond to us in a particular way – in part because of our actions and in part because of their identity.
Marshall Goldsmith describes this whole concept of identity as having four sources and I think these are very important to consider in the work of coaching. I’ve taken his descriptions and applied them to what we often experience in relationships:
- Remembered Identity: Remembering events in your life that helped form your sense of self. Whether they were good experiences or negative experiences, they’ve left an impact on you and show up in how you see yourself every day.
- Reflected Identity: Other people remember events in your past and they remind you of them – both good and bad. Feedback from others is how we shape our reflected identity.
- Programmed Identity: Your programmed identity has many sources: family, culture, community, education, profession, among others. Each of these shapes your view of yourself. The programming starts early in life and has the potential for limiting our view of ourselves or expanding it.
In marriage, these three parts of our identity can have a significant impact on our ability to trust, to communicate, to share in decisions about finances, children, property; and in the meshing of two lives into a mutual commitment that evolves as individuals and the environment in which they live evolve. In divorce they have an even more significant impact on the same decisions.
So much of our thinking is impacted by the past, in part because the brain is great at creating connections between events and response. The moment something happens, the brain tries to match it up with something that has happened in the past in order to determine how to interpret the situation, what action to take, and how to feel about the situation. The more the situation feels like a threat to our safety and security, the more likely that the response will be generated from the emotional brain – in a fight, flight or freeze action.
In a divorce situation, the emotional brain often takes charge of the first response. The identity is looking for danger and finds it in what it perceived to be insults to their competence, sense of belonging, status, autonomy, reliability or fairness.
As coaches we cannot undo the remembered, reflected or programmed identity. However, we can help the client to develop awareness about how each of these sources impacts the choices they make each day. And that is where the importance of created identity comes in. Marshall Goldsmith describes the fourth part of our identity as follows:
- Created Identity: The identity that we decide to create for ourselves. It is the part of our identity that is not controlled by our past or by other people but rather made of the choices we make daily about who we want to be.
And in this identity, we can support the client in taking the good, effective, satisfying parts of the first three identities and incorporating them into their created identity. They can create an identity that reflects who they are at their best – their best as single parent, their best as friend, and their best as family member; and yes, even their best as co-parent! And they can make it all up from their heart, their values, and what is important to them. They have the power to decide who they are being in any moment. They have the power to define how they react to any circumstance!
Divorce calls on all participants to go through so much change that perhaps you as a coach cringes at the thought of encouraging your client to create a new identity. Consider this question: Do you want your client to think of themselves as damaged, broken, and not able to trust themselves to make the right choices ever again? Or do you want your client to come out of the divorce with the view that they are capable of being their best self and making good choices as they move forward?
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