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How Knowing Your Midlife Identity vs. Your Role Can Help You Avoid A Midlife Crisis (Empty Nester, Retired, Caretaker)

Today we're talking about midlife roles and our midlife identity. I'm going to talk about the difference between the two, give you some examples, and explain how we get into trouble when we start blurring that line too much. After that, I'm going to leave you with one thing you can start doing today to help you get clear on your identity.

One of the big things about midlife clarity is understanding the difference between roles and identity. I've been quite intentional about giving you information to help you get clarity on your midlife identity, not your midlife role.

That's because roles change so much during our lives. They're fluid. They come and they go. So let's define the difference.

A role is where you are in life. For example, you had children and then you became an empty nester, or you were working and now you're retired. These are simply roles that we play throughout our lives. They change regularly.

You've made this transition many times throughout your life. It's not a new thing. For example, you went from being a child to becoming a teenager and moving into young adulthood. You went from being a high school graduate to a college graduate to a young professional and, at this point, you're probably moving into or you're already at a senior level of experience in your career.

These are roles. Roles are what you do. They're generally external, and they're something others can see you doing, like being a parent or a business owner.

While a role is what you do, your identity is who you are.

There can be roles connected closely with your identity, but they're not the main thing. Your identity is always the main thing.

What is identity?

Your identity is the view you have of yourself. It's your perception of yourself, your self concept. When you ask yourself the question, "Who am I?", what answers do you give?

Your first impulse may be to give a role-based answer like "I'm a caretaker" or "I'm an employee." But if you take a moment to go deeper, you'll find some of the juicy, delicious bits and pieces of your own identity. Those are things like:

  • your personal characteristics
  • your values
  • your beliefs
  • your tendencies
  • your motivations
  • your habits
  • your experiences in life
  • your preferences
  • your skill sets
  • your areas of weakness

Knowing these things about yourself makes you even more aware of your identity and who you are, and this simply helps you become stronger in your identity.

That's why I keep telling you: be aware of your thoughts. Be aware of your emotions and your behavior. I'm telling you to become more aware because the more aware you are, the more grounded you become in your identity. Here's an example:

My roles at the moment are things like podcaster, writer and friend. These are roles that refresh me and bring me joy, but they can change.

However, as a practicing Christian, my primary identity comes from my relationship with God through what Jesus did on the cross. This isn't going to change. This is a decision I made over 35 years ago so by this point, it's pretty much who I am. It's ingrained in me.

From this identity comes my core values, my beliefs, my decisions on where to spend my time, my decisions on who to spend my time with. It also informs how I want to improve myself, the goals I want to go after and how I want to help other people.

This identity is key in how I live my life.

Along similar lines, you may answer the "who am I?" question with "I'm a kind person" or "I'm a compassionate person." Knowing this about yourself will inform any decisions, goals or direction you take because you want to live out this part of yourself in your life experiences.

Where we get into trouble with role vs. identity

We get into trouble with this role versus identity thing when we get so wrapped up in a role that we start confusing it with our identity.

This can be any role, but the two roles where I see most midlifers struggling is when they retire and when they become an empty nester.

When you put yourself into a role for a significant amount of time, what happens when that role changes?

What happens when you move from being an active parent to becoming an empty nester? Or when you're actively in the workforce and then you retire?

From my own personal experience, you feel lost and directionless. It feels like the rug has been pulled out from under you. The foundation that you spent so many years standing on is cracking, and you have no idea what to do with yourself. Your purpose is in limbo, and you have no idea what's next for you. 

The longer you stay in the role and the more passionate you are about it, the harder it is to distinguish between the role and your identity.

With your child, that role could be 18, 20, maybe 25 years before they leave the house. With your job or career, it can be double that. It can be 40 or 50 years, even 60 years.

So it makes sense that that line gets blurred...but it doesn't have to.

Easy Ager, at this point, I wish I could say, "It takes three little steps in the next two weeks to make sure that you are not falling down that hole of the role that you are currently in."

But alas, I cannot say that.

Honestly, it gets down to one thing and that is simply paying attention. You pay attention to how you're feeling. You pay attention to your thoughts and your emotions.

Here's a great way to find out if you are falling down the "role hole" too deeply. When someone asks, "How you doing?," do you immediately begin talking about your kids or your work?

Some of my conversations go like this: I say, "Hey, I haven't seen you in a while. How are you doing?" Then this woman immediately dives into what each child is doing, giving me every detail of their activities and their accomplishments and how proud she is of all of them, etc.

And I say, "That's great, but I didn't ask how the kids are doing. I asked how you are doing."

This generally evokes a blank stare. Sometimes it's a second or two. Sometimes it's longer. But the reality is that most of these women don't have any idea how to answer the question. They're so wrapped up in this role, they've lost their own identity and have no idea how they're doing.

It may sound like I'm picking on the parents here, but I also hear the same thing from those folks who are engulfed in their careers, especially men.

This can happen in just about any role out there. You're giving 100% to the role and not paying any attention to your identity.

However, if you're paying attention on a regular basis, you can avoid falling into this trap...

And it takes only two minutes a day.

Stop for two minutes a day and check in with yourself. This can be the difference between strengthening your identity or falling more deeply into the role you're currently in.

Do what you need to do. Pray, meditate, journal, step outside, enjoy nature, get some sunshine. Whatever it is, take just a few minutes every day to care for yourself in short little bursts. Don't make it a big deal because it's not, especially if you're doing it regularly.

It's all about being consistent. Previously, I talked about how consistency is power. That's what's going to make the difference, so you don't get lost and have a midlife crisis when your role changes.

Now that you know the difference between a role and your identity, I hope you take some of this to heart, friend. Make a commitment to yourself to simply pay attention and check in with yourself on a regular basis, okay?

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