Discussing the ‘self-concept’ is so complex that it cannot be summarised into a single short blog. For the moment, let’s just have a quick look at the impact of a significant life change, like a job or relationship, on our self-concept.
According to an American national survey conducted in 2010, most of us will make an average of 10 major job shifts during our working life. That is work only. In Australia, with a divorce rate of about 43%, many of us will also change spouse at least once, if not more. There are also many other changes that we will all make in our life, each requiring the relinquishment of a role that we play socially (e.g.: from ‘worker’ to ‘retiree’). These transitions can be relatively painless, but more often than not, they aren’t. We might also know that we want to exit a role or a situation that is untenable or unfulfilling but we do not necessarily know what to do next.
Helen Ebaugh, author of “Becoming an Ex”, and psychologists Alysson Light and Penny Visser, from the University of Chicago, have found that leaving a social role that has great significance in one’s life, being work-related (e.g.: redundancy, retirement) or personal-related (e.g.: becoming an ‘ex’, ‘empty nester’) will likely be traumatic, often lowering the clarity of one’s self-concept and self-esteem. Depending on its significance for the individual, a role exit might even lead to depression. To make matters more complicated, role exits often trigger other social role changes. For example, a young mother who just divorced might have to find a new job to support her family. She might also have to move house, neighbourhood, community, support system and so on.
This complexity is due to the fact that the roles that we play, the meaning that we give them, and the people that we play them with, all inform our self-concept. In our Western societies, we also invest heavily in our careers and on what to “do” rather than on how to “be”, says James Hollis, author of “Finding Meaning in the Second Half of Life”. We can only think of any social gathering where people ask us: “What do you do?” I will not debate whether or not we should ask this question, but we often do, and each time that we respond, reinforces how we define ourselves.
Even though we are much more complex than the roles that we play, our self-concept and our life story plot are ‘thickened’ by our routine interactions with others. When we play the role of ‘parent’ for example, we might wake up the kids in the morning, prepare or have breakfast with them, drive them to school, help them with homework, and so on. All these daily activities and interactions will confirm our role of ‘parent’. They will also validate some of our personality traits as being caring, organised and punctual – or not!
So, with regards to life changes, it is helpful to understand that if we sometimes feel confused or experience low self-esteem, it is not only because we are stopping to do this or that, but more importantly because we are breaking ties with some of the relationships and routine interactions that were informing our self-knowledge. These broken ties can therefore trigger insecurities. A parent whose children just left home no longer shares breakfast with them, no longer drives them to school, no longer helps them with homework, and so on. There might be other tasks that he or she might be happy to relinquish. Yet, the children’s absence from ‘home’ will undoubtedly leave a void.
In my case, I left a human resources corporate role where I managed a large team and interacted with many colleagues and employees on a daily basis. I typically received over one hundred emails per day, dozen of phone calls, attended several meetings and responded to some form of crisis or another. All of a sudden, I had nobody to manage, no colleagues to interact with, no emails but spam, no phone calls except for charities requesting donations and no more ‘fires’ to extinguish. A major chunk of my life’s purpose of over 25 years had just vanished. I’m not surprised that some of my peers who had attempted to go “solo” had returned to a corporate role within months or a couple of years. I decided to stick it out, but I have to admit that it was much more difficult than I anticipated. What helped me was my determination to find out who “I” was at a deeper level than my socially cutout role. My spiritual endeavours, volunteering, meditation and mindfulness practices where also critical to my journey. They still are. Below are some suggestions to help you with a role shift.
- Make a list of all the roles that you play outside the one that you are leaving. It will give you some perspective that you are not only ‘one’ thing. Here are some roles: spouse or partner, closed friend, parent, grandparent, brother or sister, god-parent, aunt or uncle, pet owner, worker, retiree, student, caregiver, neighbour, receiver of care, member of club or association, member of spiritual or religious organisation, volunteer, amateur artist, craft lover, musician, amateur of sport, and so on.
- Acknowledge the many ways that you are contributing to this world through each of your many roles.
- If you are unsure where to go next, consider temporarily ‘thickening’ any of your other roles, i.e.: increase the part that this role plays in your life. For example, spend more time volunteering or crafting, etc.
- Avoid isolation by getting involved in your community or participating in a group or association. ‘Thicken’ any role that include others in your life!
- When you leave a role, shift your attention on the new role that you are entering or on one of the other roles that you wish to become more significant in your life. Again, ‘thicken’ this role by making efforts to establish new relationships and routine behaviours around it. For example, I thickened my role of volunteer by spending more time volunteering but also by attending seminars and functions with my group of volunteers. I then also started to develop close friendships with a few volunteers who shared my values.
Australia Government (2011). Trends in couple dissolution: An update. (Family Relationship Quarterly, No.19). Melbourne, VIC: Australian Institute of Family Studies.
Ebaugh, H. R. B. (1988). Becoming an ex: The process of role exit. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
Hollis, J. (2006). Finding meaning in the second half of life. NY: Gotham Books.
Light, A. S. & Visser, P. S. (2013). The ins and outs of the self: Contrasting role exits and role entries as predictors of self-concept clarity. Self & Identity, 12(3), 291-306.
Van den Bok, A. (2014). Narrative Therapy. Notes of Professional Development People Seminar, Sydney, 5 & 6 March 2016.
National Longitudinal Survey Program. (2010). Number of jobs, labor market experience, and earnings growth: Results from a national longitudinal survey news release. (Publication No. USDL-10–1243). Washington, DC: Bureau of Labor and Statistics.
Copyright © 2016 by Sylvie Vanasse, Parlure Pty Ltd. All rights reserved.