Three Layers of Identity


Identity has been a large theme in our work over the past few months. One of the many paradoxes of passion and performance is when your identity becomes connected to a certain endeavor—be it running, writing, leading a team, pursuing some other vocation, or parenting. It’s a paradox because identity/endeavor fusion tends to be a beautiful, energizing force—until it’s not. When it’s time to transition or retire, or when the kids move out of the house, there can be a real sense of discombobulation. If not this thing I’ve put my all into for so long, than what—than who—am I?

It can be helpful to think of identity as three layers:

1) Superficial you: The activities you engage in day in and day out.

2) Personality: Your deeply grooved habits and the energy they create.

3) Deep you: The awareness, or the knower, underneath personality and superficial you. The part of you that can sense when something feels right or wrong, the part of you that bears witness to it all. 

A lot of distress (if not in you, than certainly in me) emerges when superficial you and/or personality are not aligned with deep you—or worse, when you lose touch with deep you altogether. Something just starts to feel off. It may seem as if you are going from one thing to the next with no roots in the ground. Or you may feel a generalized sense of tension without any discernible cause.

Preventing and reversing this distress requires that you regularly pay attention to deep you. You can do this through formal mediation, journaling, structured reflection, or other contemplative practices. It’s all the stuff that gets crowded out in an overly busy life.

Hard as it may seem to put the brakes on the busyness, especially if you’ve become addicted to speed, it’s worth it. The more you tap into deep you, the stronger deep you becomes. The stronger deep you becomes, the easier it gets to align your personality (habits) and superficial you (activities) with deep you. It’s not to say you won’t still have urges to engage in habits and activities that don’t nourish deep you (you will!). But you’ll be better able to ride those urges out. The more you develop deep you, the more your life will naturally fall into alignment with it. This kind of integration and harmony is a good thing. 

No doubt, you become what you do. Your activities, habits, and the people with whom you surround yourself do shape you. But there’s still a you underneath all of that. This you—deep you—is resilient to change and transition, and, if given the attention and opportunity, can influence your habits and activities.

Again: the distress occurs when you get so busy with your habits and activities that you neglect to spend time with deep you. You don’t want superficial you and your personality steering the ship. You want deep you steering the ship. 

Staying in touch with deep you is helpful not only today, but also tomorrow. During times of change and transition, it can feel like the rug is being swept out from under you. But there’s always another layer of you under that rug. It’s there. You just need to pay attention to it. Best to start now.

— Brad


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