By Sharukh Vazifdar
Just like crabs discard cracked shells, we too need to give up our outdated or non-functional identities and be flexible
Septuagenarian Ashish Motwani recalls his retirement, eight years ago. “I was employed as an engineer for more than 40 years and was so used to working six-day weeks, that when it stopped I went into depression. I could not eat more than half of my regular quantity of food, and I lost six kilograms in two months. Luckily, the organisation I had worked in had an inhouse psychiatrist who I went to. I cried during the initial sessions, and felt that my purpose in life had just vanished. After venting for almost two months I became better, more stable, and found different things to focus my attention on. Slowly, over a year, I got my old self back, and found the courage to let go of my earlier routine and the sense of self I derived from it. It was very hard, and I see it as a major accomplishment in my life,” says Ashish with a happy look in his eyes. These days he has taken up counselling and talks to young collegians about problems they have in different areas of their lives. “I find so much meaning out of helping others, especially young budding minds. I don’t miss my old job anymore, I see it as a shell that I have outgrown and set aside,” he remarks, with a wisdom that can come only through experience.
We all allow our surroundings and roles to shape us, to define us. In the process, they also become straitjackets that imprison us. In the example cited above, retirement almost decimated Ashish, who identified himself so thoroughly with his job that he didn’t know who he was without it. Fortunately, his good sense prevailed and he sought help to cope with his desolation. Instead of fighting against what was happening he chose to understand it, and see what must change within him to keep up with the evolution in his life. He chose to discard his old identity and see deeper than just the external shell, which we believe to be ‘ourselves’.
Roles can also give us negative identities which pigeonhole us so tightly that we can’t shake them off consciously. When Rajiv Iyer (name changed) finished school, he found that the world was different from what he had expected it to be. His search for an identity and frustration at having to submit to the authority of teachers or parents was fuelled into a laidback and rebellious attitude towards everyone. He would shun all work assigned to him, not worrying about attendance registers or exam grades. His attitude was reflected in his appearance and conduct. His clothes were torn, loose and mismatched, his words were harsh and abrupt, and his academic performance skydived. Over the following years, although he slowly accepted reality and took on small responsibilities, he could not shake off his image of himself as a rebel. The ill-fitting clothes, defensive attitude and harsh speech became part of his identity. Seeking to change, he visited a psychotherapist and went under treatment, including hypnotherapy, for five months. Slowly, the effects showed in his appearance as well as his attitude. “I knew I had to change when I started feeling resentful towards my defiant attitude. It was eating me up from the inside. But try as I might, I could not let it go consciously; that’s when I realised I needed help. Even now, eight months after the therapy, I do have a few rebellious moments, but I can see them reducing in intensity and frequency,” reveals a jovial Rajiv.
Identities such as the one above cause harm to oneself and those around. It takes remarkable perspective and awareness to break free of such an identity, as Rajiv did. Very often we are so self-righteous and afraid to change, that the persona we have seems to be all there is.
Any sort of change that requires us to leave behind some part of us, is painful and often avoided. We go through life carrying painful baggage, masks we should have thrown away a long time ago. Yet our emotional and mental inflexibility makes this purging extremely difficult. The ability to see the marble under thick layers of mud is a rare one, and one often needs a helping hand to pull oneself out.
There are some who do not see these masks running their lives, and refuse to budge from ‘who they are’. Even though Hitesh Sheth’s job as a stock analyst keeps him at the office till seven in the evening, he doesn’t stop even after he returns home. His colleagues leave work by six, but Hitesh continues to crunch his numbers much after that. He says, “I don’t know what to do with my time other than market analysis. My wife and kids wonder what I see in those endless columns of figures.”
Unable to leave his work at the office, Hitesh clings to his stock portfolio, as an excuse to avoid taking part in any other activity. Even his Sundays are spent with newspaper in hand, reading the business news. Such is his identification with his work that he fails to branch out into other roles and tasks that are part of his life. He has defaulted on his role as a father, husband, son or sibling, not to mention other larger roles such as that of a citizen or a part of the human family.
Such a severe imbalance often arises from a crippling sense of inadequacy or a fear of handling human relationships. Those who are adept at figures can often be inept at handling the more slippery zone of relationships. Burying yourself in work can often disguise deep loneliness and a hunger for connection. If Hitesh were to address this imbalance with the help of a therapist, his life would be vastly enriched.
Our roles sometimes directly influence or impact others, forcing them to abide by them. Fitness trainer and professional body builder, Percy Panthaky from Pune, is addicted to gyming and fitness regimes. What is worse, he insists that his family and friends follow suit. After marriage, he got his wife to join him at the gym, and even his friends are expected to have toned muscles. He states flatly, “A fit body holds a fit mind.”
It may be in the interest of those around him to be fit, but Percy’s messianic approach to fitness leads all his friends to give him a wide berth. His wife Meena worries about the day he has a serious injury and cannot continue his fitness regimen. “It will really shatter him if his body turns flaccid,” she says.
Here again, Percy has so identified with being fit, that it overshadows all his other roles. It also causes him to judge and evaluate others through that single framework. People such as Percy often derive their self-esteem from this one identity, and are therefore in great danger of collapsing psychologically when that identity disintegrates. Those who work in professions defined by good looks and appearances such as models and actors run the same risk, and often endure tremendous trauma when their good looks degenerate. An ’80s film called Fedora dwells on the subject dramatically through its story of a famous actor of yesteryears, who forces her young daughter to pretend to be her in public, so that the public’s adulation could continue.
Bharat Shah, a psychotherapist and reiki healer, finds that most of us assume a fixed identity from either our job or our role at home. “We aren’t flexible enough to let go of a role. We assume that it is ‘our’ role and let it define us completely. This is when things go out of hand. When I get such a patient, I recommend a vacation, because that breaks the pattern of the role, lets him get out and experience more. Then after he is back I sit with him and rationally discuss the problem, which works better than directly discussing it,” says Bharat.
He adds, “Another technique which works in such cases is challenging the person to take up an opposite or different role to see if he can, which then opens his eyes to his own innate potential.”
Of all roles, perhaps the most difficult to outgrow is that of mother. Anil Krishnan (name changed) recently graduated with outstanding results in his finance consultancy course in London. He remembers his first year at the university away from home. His mother refused to let him go on his own. She rented a room near his hostel and stayed there, cooking him meals and doing his housekeeping.
It was traumatic for him. “No other student had their mother follow them abroad. My results dropped and I actually planned to drop out. But instead, I stood up for myself and confronted the situation, and persuaded my father to somehow take her back,” recalls Anil. After she returned, he did better at studies, grew independent and developed a maturity that he could never have if he was still living in his mother’s care. The identity of a mother and a caregiver is captivating, giving our life a lot of meaning. However, we can often use it to imprison others, rather than embark on a discovery of who we are apart from that role.
Our identities are tools that we use to progress, to evolve. Care should be taken that the tool does not become the master. An identity by definition is a separation from the whole, the One, and in that sense only temporary. From any role that gives us an identity, we derive a sense of self, of who we are. The ego feeds on this; it wants more of this identity and the moment anything threatens it, it reacts in defence. This identity then takes over, pushing away all other parts that might be even the slightest bit contradictory. It gives our life a meaning, a purpose, a path. But often, after the path is over, we cling on to it, seeking comfort and security, avoiding change. This need for security prevents the mind from thinking differently and recreating itself afresh each moment.
For the seeker, the role is to move beyond all identities. The journey begins by moving from beyond profession, gender and age, slowly going beyond religion and nationality, and then habits and beliefs, and even moving beyond humanity. It ends when we go beyond all identities, content to exist without a single shred of personality.
However, not all get to that lofty stage. For the rest of us, being aware of where we are is a good beginning. When we latch onto habits, patterns and masks, we give up our power to redefine ourselves, live in the previous moment, and go with the flow. What is required is to constantly evaluate who we are and whether being that person serves us best at the current moment? If not, it is in our power and means to change. Our situations require us to take on identities, to grow through them, but what is equally important is when that situation has passed, to lay down that identity, like one takes off a pair of clothes at the end of the day, and looks forward to a fresh pair to wear tomorrow.
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