Why You Should Cultivate a Fluid Sense of Self

6 minute read
Stulberg is author of the new book Master of Change: How to Excel When Everything is Changing – Including You, from which this essay is adapted

If you want to learn something about change there is no better place to look than evolution. Nothing represents a continuous and unrelenting cycle of order, disorder, and reorder on a grander scale. For long periods of time, Earth is relatively stable. Sweeping changes—warming, cooling, or an asteroid falling from space, for example—occur. These inflection points are followed by periods of disruption and chaos. Eventually, Earth, and everything on it, regains stability, but that stability is somewhere new.

During this cycle, some species get selected out. Others survive and thrive. Species in the latter group tend to have high degrees of what evolutionary biologists call “complexity.” Complexity is comprised of two elements: differentiation and integration. Differentiation is the degree to which a species is composed of parts that are distinct in structure or function from one another. Integration is the degree to which those distinct parts communicate and enhance each other’s goals to create a cohesive whole.

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Consider Homo sapiens (you and me), by far the most abundant and widespread species of primate. we have large frames, four limbs, opposable thumbs, body temperature that is somewhat resistant to external conditions, good vision and hearing, digestive tracts that can accommodate a variety of nutrients, and the capacity for language and understanding. In other words, we are a highly differentiated species. But we also have enormous brains and advanced nervous systems that integrate all of these parts into a cohesive whole. The combination of these qualities—widespread differentiation and strong integration—makes us a decidedly complex species. Our complexity is how we got here today and why, hopefully, we’ll stick around for at least a bit longer.

Though change at the individual level, the primary concern of my new book Master of Change, is different than change on an evolutionary scale, there is still much we can learn from evolution’s foundational principles, lessons that apply to the horizons of our own lives. If we want to survive and thrive during ongoing cycles of change and disorder, then we, too, can benefit from developing our own versions of complexity.

As a matter of fact, there is a psychological construct called self-complexity. Essentially, it says that the key to a strong and enduring identity—one that is equal parts rugged and flexible, that can navigate the inevitable changes we all face—is to diversify your sense of self.

The more you define yourself by any one activity, the more fragile you become. If that activity doesn’t go well or something changes unexpectedly, you lose a sense of who you are. But with self-complexity, you have develop multiple components to your identity.

We all can wear many hats: examples include writer, spouse, artist, parent, employee, neighbor, entrepreneur, baker, and creative, to name just a few. Take an inventory of your own identities. Are there any upon which you are over-reliant for meaning and self-worth? What would it look like to diversify your sense of self? Even if you desire to go “all in” on a certain endeavor, you've got to ensure that you don’t leave others completely behind.

I’ve come to use the metaphor of a house for identity. If your house only has one room in it, and that rooms floods, you are going to be very disoriented. But if your house has multiple rooms, you can seek refuge in the others while you weather the storm. It's okay to put spend a lot of time in one room—so long as you have other rooms available when the one you are currently pouring yourself into changes.

For example: there are times when I lean heavily into each of my main identities—father, husband, writer, coach, friend, athlete, and neighbor. I’ve learned that keeping all of these identities strong ensures that when things don’t go well in one area of my life I can rely on the others to pick me up, which helps me to stay grounded and navigate whatever challenge I am facing.

What you want to do is challenge yourself to integrate the various elements of your identity into a cohesive whole. This allows you to emphasize and deemphasize certain parts of your identity at different periods of time. The result is a fluid sense of self.

Unlike other types of matter, fluid contains both mass and volume but not shape. This allows it to flow over and around obstacles, changing form while retaining substance, neither getting stuck nor fracturing when unforeseen impediments manifest on its path. Cultivating a fluid sense of self allows you to do the same. By developing and nurturing multiple parts of your identity, you can more easily navigate change.

A large body of research shows that when there is too great a fusion between one’s identity and their pursuit, then anxiety, depression, and burnout frequently result. This is especially true for athlete’s during periods of change and transition, when one’s dominant—and all to often, sole— sense of identity feels at risk. Yet while it may be heightened for athletes, it’s a pattern that holds true in all lines of work and all walks of life: if you want to be excellent and experience something fully, then you’ve got to go all in, but only to a point. If your identity becomes too enmeshed in any one concept or endeavor—be it your age, how you look in the mirror, a relationship, or your career—then you are likely to face significant distress when things change, which, for better or worse, they always do.

None of the above is permission to be laissez-faire or go through the motions. Caring deeply about the people, activities, and projects you love is key to a rich and meaningful existence. The problem is not caring deeply; it is when your identity becomes too rigidly attached to any single object or endeavor.

Adapted excerpt from Master of Change by Brad Stulberg and reprinted with permission from HarperOne, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Copyright 2023.

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