Two weeks ago I got my hair cut. Not trimmed, but cut. Probably eight inches or so, into a totally new style. I warned the stylist ahead of time that I might get emotional. “I have all these pregnancy hormones, and you can never tell what will make me cry,” I told her.
She saw right through that. “Even if you weren’t pregnant,” she replied, “it’s like ending a long-term relationship.” She was right; having long hair had become part of my identity. Even though I wanted to make the change, I still saw it as losing part of what makes me me. Possibly insignificant, but over time I’d grown accustomed to seeing it in the mirror everyday.
Moving overseas provides the catalyst for a major identity shift. When we’re immersed in a new culture, the way we see ourselves changes. We’re humbled as we rely on others to translate when we can’t communicate. We develop more confidence as we learn to negotiate an unfamiliar environment. Our compassion for others matures as we see people showing us compassion. We learn to embrace differences, and at the same time hold our own on the important stuff.
Learning by experience is something we all do as children, but is often lacking as adults when we stay stationary. When you grow up with the same friends, in the same place, there aren’t as many opportunities for new experiences. There are many positives to this way of life, of course: consistent relationships, extended family and career growth, to name just a few. But when we’re forced out of that comfort zone, we shed part of our old identity. And what emerges is new skin, tender but thicker at the same time.
It seems that we are always trying to establish our identity and then “brand” that to those we know. We’re the Diet Coke addict or the daily runner or working mom juggling everything or the friend who always has advice. But what happens when those things are stripped away? Your beloved Diet Coke is now Coca Light and tastes different–you aren’t sure you like it. You don’t have a safe place for your morning runs. Moving has forced you out of a career and now you’re staying home. Or the one with all the advice now has to ask everyone else about simple (where to shop) and complex things (navigating race issues) in a new country.
Pulling away those pieces of our identities can leave us feeling bare and exposed. It leaves us feeling unknown, even to ourselves at times. We can struggle against it, keeping that outward identity in place: The addict can find a way to ship her Diet Coke at great expense or switch the dependence to Coca Light. A runner can locate a gym and a treadmilll. The working mom discovers another job and throws herself into it. The advice-giver can find someone newer than herself to benefit from her suggestions.
But what if we view those labels as seasons in our lives, not our eternal identities? We get into our “personas” because it helps us know how to relate to the world we live in. We are comfortable in our boxes. We use the people around us as an excuse, but sometimes it’s harder to allow ourselves to change than get our loved ones on board.
Each new place our family lives leaves its imprint on my identity in some way. In some locations I develop more self-confidence or I let go of a little more control. Often the people I meet encourage me to practice a more compassion–both inwardly and outwardly.
I didn’t cry in the stylist’s chair that day; in fact, I surprised myself by loving having short hair. I may or may not keep the style forever, but I can appreciate it right now.
For this season of my life, I’m trying to let go of non-essentials that I consider part of my identity–long hair, advice for everything, not needing help. The pruning is painful, but there’s new growth there as well.
How has this season of life changed your identity?