Difficult Conversations Threaten Our Identity
Sometimes the anxiety is not due to facing others, but facing ourselves. The conversation may challenge who we think we are.
Three Core Identities
Everyone has multiple “identities”. But the following three are common:
Am I Competent?
You may be worried that your competence will be brought up (e.g. when asking for a raise).
Am I A Good Person?
Example: I’m breaking up with someone. This will hurt them. Am I a bad person for making them feel lousy?
Am I Worthy Of Love?
An Identity Quake Can Knock Us Off Balance
The following are changes in emotions when our identity is threatened:
And you still have to maintain a conversation despite this quake.
There’s No Quick Fix
Identity issues will always be there. That’s what life is about. Some identity challenges will be earth shaking. Don’t attempt to shrug them aside. They require mourning just like losing a loved one.
Vulnerable Identities: The All-or-Nothing Syndrome
The biggest factor that contributes to vulnerability is having a binary mindset. “I’m either competent or not.” It leads to either a denial of the problem or a full acceptance of it.
Having a purely positive image of oneself leaves no room for negative feedback. If you get any, you expend all your efforts finding problems with it.
We Let The Feedback Define Who We Are
We act as if their feedback is the whole picture.
Ground Your Identity
Step One: Become Aware of Your Identity Issues
This may be hard to figure out. But if you’re anxious, something is likely threatening your identity.
Step Two: Complexify Your Identity (Adopt the And Stance)
Stop being binary. Figure out what aspects of the identity are true for you and which aren’t.
Three Things To Accept About Yourself
1. You Will Make Mistakes
2. Your Intentions Are Complex
Yes, perhaps part of your motives were selfish. But likely not all.
3. You Have Contributed To The Problem
Find out how you contributed.
During The Conversation: Learn To Regain Your Balance
You will get knocked over. Don’t let that be a benchmark! The benchmark is how you recover.
Let Go Of Trying To Control Their Reaction
You may not want to hurt someone. But accept that your conversation may do that.
Usually, trying to smoothe over or stifle their reaction will exacerbate the problem. They may see it as you questioning the legitimacy of their reaction.
Make use of the “And” stance.
Do not use their reaction as a benchmark!
Prepare For Their Response
Instead of wondering how bad their response will be, plan for it. Think of the worst case scenarios, then ask: “What does this say about my identity?” Work through the identity issues in advance. “Is it OK for me that I made someone cry? How will I respond? What if they attack my integrity? How will I respond?”
Imagine That It’s 3 Months Or 10 Years From Now
What do you think you will have learned from the experience? How will you view it then? What advice would you give your younger self?
Take a Break
“I’m surprised you’re saying this. I need time to think about it.” Even 10 minutes will help. Take a walk. Check for denial. Check for exaggeration.
Asking for a break may be embarassing, but continuing the conversation may be worse.
Their Identity Is Also Implicated
Keep this in mind.
Raising Identity Issues Explicitly
The other side may not be concerned with your identity issues. But sometimes that is the issue (not a good spouse, etc). In those cases, bring it up explicitly: “I’m sensing that you’re thinking I am…” or “I know I have issues with…”
Find The Courage to Ask For Help
There is no valor in suffering in silence. At least not when it is prolonged or gets in the way of our goals. If you cannot get over it by yourself, get help (friends/families/professionals).
Yes, it is true that if you ask for help, not everyone will come through for you. But some will.