Our sense of identity is composed of the ideas and emotional states — even the gut reactions — that we identify as who we are. Identity is how we recognize ourselves. It guides the structure of our thoughts, emotions, and visceral responses.
Most people don’t spend their lives learning how to make their identities more transparent. We often think it’s hard to change aspects of ourselves. The reality is that transforming our identity isn't inherently difficult — it's just that a large part of it is allowing the unfelt emotional experience that our beliefs about ourselves hold in place. It’s hard to change identity from our head, and it's hard to change aspects of identity that we aren't even aware of.
If you're running a business or team, it's absolutely being influenced by your identity. Identity limits the emotions we're willing to feel, the information we're willing to receive, and the actions we'll consider taking. These patterns propagate from leadership into a company.
In this episode, Joe and Brett share perspectives and tools to see and feel through the limits of identity on the intellectual, emotional, and physical levels. They explore how bringing awareness and transparency to our unconscious structures of identity can reduce rigidity and cultivate a healthy, adaptive sense of self.
"Having a fight with your identity is only more identity — it makes it stick harder. The object isn’t to get away from identity, kick it, or beat it into submission: it’s to love it and see what it is."
- Which aspects of your identity have recently been brought to your awareness?
- What emotional or visceral experience came along with these insights?
Welcome to the Art of Accomplishment where we explore how deepening connection with ourselves, and others leads to creating the life we want with enjoyment and ease. I am Brett Kistler, here today with my co-host, Joe Hudson.
Brett: How is it going, Joe?
Joe: I am a little tired as you might imagine. I feel incredibly refreshed on one level, but we just did Burning Man, my first Burning Man after 21 years. I am definitely the wear and tear on my body, but I am mostly recovered, still a bit tired.
Brett: Same, first Burning Man since the pandemic. A great pandemic return, Burning Man, including getting COVID right in the middle of it, dropping into a 102-degree fever in a 118 degree desert breathing dust. What is COVID? What is just being out here in the dust and the heat? It is hard to tell. I slept for about 48 hours when I got back, and I am a human again now.
Joe: It is Burning Man actually that made me think about this topic for today, especially the older Burning Man more than this, but it is a chance for people to try on different identities, not be who they normally think of themselves as at home. That and also following up on the grief episode and how we spoke about identity, I thought that we really haven’t gone into the identity so much.
Brett: We have had a lot of people reach out and say they loved the grief episode, and they were amazed how much of it was really about identity, People connected to that on various levels. It seems like a really good thing to go into now, especially after both of us having whatever kind of identity experiences Burning Man brings about.
Joe: It is funny because that’s actually what I said when I was with people. For those of you who know me as a teacher, please can you not treat me like that for the next five days while we are Burning Man? I think I violated it more than anybody else, but there are probably about only 10 violations or something like that, which is pretty good. It was nice. It was a different level of intimacy. It was quite sweet.
Brett: Let’s get into it. What is this thread of identity that has followed through so many of our episodes? Let’s just define it. Let’s pull it out into the open.
Joe: That’s a hard one to define. I would say it is the ideas and emotional states, even maybe the gut reactions, that we identify as who we are. It is the way in which we recognize ourselves. On the coarsest level, that’s what it is. I think about it like for instance, let’s just say there is one person who plays the violin, and it is a huge identity piece for them. The more personally you take it, the more of an identity it is. There are some people who pick up a violin once, play it and they don’t identify as a violin player. Somebody says they shouldn’t play violin, and they are okay. It is less of a personal thing, whereas somebody else loves the violin. It is their thing. It is their passion. Someone says they shouldn’t play the violin. It is going to be far more personal. It is going to be a part of their identity. It is really how we recognize ourselves.
That’s the way I would think about it, but not just intellectually but also the emotional states that we run or the gut reactions and nervous system responses that we have.
Brett: The way I experience is identity is a structure, some kind of inner exoskeleton of what we think we are. There are ways that that sometimes is helpful for our growth. Trying on an identity, trying on the public speaker, trying on the violin player, trying on the CEO. It can also become something limiting if we believe we are something, or we must be something, or we believe we are not something in relation to ourselves or the world.
One of the things I have found about this path is it is a process of continually stepping out of identities into the unknown and leaving identities behind, like a snakeskin.
Joe: My experience is that you can’t leave your identity completely. Without any identity, I don’t know if you are psychologically capable of speaking. There is this kind of refinement, not kind of. There is a refinement of every time you see through an identity that’s limiting you, there is a chance to discover the way that this new identity also limits you. Every epiphany of identity becomes the next rut of the identity as well. It is a process, and it doesn’t ever go away, but there is a way in which it becomes more transparent.
Brett: Which brings up a question, how do we recognize the difference between an identity that we are taking on and genuine self-recognition of seeing some aspect of ourselves that we haven’t seen through a previous identity?
Joe: I don’t understand the distinction.
Brett: Just to compare, aspects of ourselves that are not identity and then aspects of ourselves that we have an identity formed around.
Joe: I think it is how personally you take it. How personal it is to you is the way in which to see how much of an identity it is. The difficulty there is some of the parts of identity you might not even see.
Brett: What’s an example of that?
Joe: I’ll give you two examples, one in the intellectual space and one in the emotional space though they are both kind of both. There is this great study they did with kids, and they told one group of kids that they were really smart. They told another group of kids that they were hardworking. Then they gave them an impossible math test, and then they showed them they had failed the math test. They said they were going to take the test again. It is going to be slightly different, but it is the same basic test. The kids who were told they were smart were far less likely to try the second time because if they tried and failed, they would be proving they weren’t smart. They were holding on to that identity. The kids who were told they were hardworking were far more likely to try hard and improve on the second test.
Now maybe those kids could say I have an identity of being smart. Maybe those kids just think they are smart. Maybe those kids aren’t even conscious of that subconscious identity that’s occurring. I think it is the same for humans. I will give an example of that on the emotional level. I was in El Salvador, and I was sitting in a hammock and I got the news that WhatsApp had just sold for billions of dollars to Facebook. The venture capitalist who put his own money into it turned $400,000 dollars into billions or some such thing. I just got this kick in my stomach. It was a gut punch. I immediately said what is that feeling. What was the first time I felt it? I closed my eyes, followed my body, not my mind, to the very first time I felt that experience, and it was around trying to get my dad’s love. I recognized in that moment I had an identity of having emotional experiences of chasing something I wasn’t allowed to get or couldn’t ever get and then feeling deprived and resentful.
That chain of emotional experiences had become a part of my identity, but it was subconscious. I had no idea until that moment that that was part of the identity and that it had played out with money, with bosses, with my dad, with women’s love. That emotional rollercoaster was part of my identity. It was how I knew myself to be, but it wasn’t particularly conscious. It is hard to say you are taking it personally and at the same time say you might not be conscious of it, but that’s how it works.
Brett: There is a distinction between the beliefs we are aware that we have of ourselves, and then there is just the deeper conditioning. For example, the kids that are told they are hardworking, they think great, they are hardworking. You are going to give them another test, and they are going to work hard at it. That’s the thing I’ve been conditioned with reinforcement or punishment to be, and that’s not necessarily the way that I would be entirely without conditioning or with different conditioning. That person might show up later on in life and be the worker who overworks themselves and doesn’t take breaks to give themselves rest when they need it because they think they are the one who is hardworking. They show up and get the things done, and that’s just how they always are.
Joe: That’s the idea. Every way that we define ourselves has its own limitations. It is not like the person who sees through their identity of hardworking stops working forever and never works again. They have the flexibility to know they are beyond hardworking or not hardworking, smart or not smart. It is exactly that, and whether it is conditioning and therefore an unconscious sense of identity, it is really about how strongly placed it is in our sense of self whether it is conscious or unconscious. All of them have limits.
Brett: A way to recognize that is how defensive we are of it or even just what physical response arises.
Joe: Correct. What kind of constriction, what kind of defense? What would I be without creates fear. There are lots of physical responses that tell people. They are typically the parts of ourselves that we ask ourselves how we can change that. Once we have recognized it and our mind thinks this is a limiting part of my identity and I don’t want to be identified in this way anymore, when it is part of what we call our identity, then it is very challenging for people. It is actually not that hard once you know the tricks and hacks, but for most folks, these are the hardest things about ourselves to change.
Brett: That points to an interesting phenomenon. In self work, a lot of people will recognize they have an identity and they want to live past that identity. Sometimes they will change their lives. They will change their names. They will move into a different social group to take on a different identity, but without exploring the subconscious components of that identity, they just end up recreating that new identity with a different name, a different group of friends, a different spirituality…
Joe: A different boyfriend, a different husband. Absolutely. You asked a question, which was: How do I identify what is part of our identity and what is not? The other way is the opposite, which is if you are in VIEW around a topic about yourself, there is less of a chance you are in identity, meaning if it is easy for you to be vulnerable around it, if you are impartial about it, if you have empathy for others around it, if you are in wonder about it, it is far less likely to be a strong part of your identity.
Brett: This reminds me of the projections episode we had where one of the kind of projections we have is the projections we have on ourselves, and then being in VIEW with that and thinking if I consciously or subconsciously identify as the person who gets rejected or as the person who puts in more work than everybody else and doesn’t get appreciated for it. With that, you can be in the wonder of what it is that I am actually feeling underneath this.
Joe: Absolutely. At once, the practice of you is not just a communication tool. In the long term, it tenderizes our identity. It allows our identity to be more transparent.
Brett: I like that term, tenderizes. Generally there is sort of an attitude of deconstruction of identity in the personal development, self exploration and meditation, esoteric spaces. I feel like that can almost become sort of an opposition. For example, kill your ego. People who walk around with the identity of being the egoless one.
Joe: They are a bit of a pain in the ass, aren’t they? Having been one myself.
Brett: I was about to say yeah, we are.
Brett: It seems like there is a constant tension here that can occur, and it can be a process that goes back and forth between being in an identity that we are not aware of and then identifying that identity or identifying next to it as a surrogate for it and then wanting to break it down, seeing it as a bad thing. What would you say makes that something that we have tension with rather than just being a natural process?
Joe: The clear response is identity, meaning once we identify. I will put it to you this way. There is no good or bad around identity. You can be limited by your identity in some ways, and your identity can offer you a lot of possibilities in other ways. The trick is more about flexibility, to see yourself beyond the identity, to see through it so the identity becomes more transparent if you will. Some people go around saying the right identity is to be the happy one or the altruistic one or the one who cares, but even those identities create some limitations.
Caretakers are often identified as the person who cares or altruistic, and so every identity has some component of it that limits us. Sometimes that’s great, like identifying as a person who loves your husband or your wife or father. There is a lot of beauty and awesomeness in that. It is not an idea of I am going to have no identity because there is no possibility of that. It is far more about finding the flexibility in the identity. That’s what it is like.
Brett: If I take on the identity of being a vulnerable person, of being loving, of being in VIEW to the extent that that becomes an identity, then I start filtering my reality to see that it is true and to see less of the evidence to the contrary, to not notice where I am not being fully loving, to not notice where I have dropped out of VIEW and I am holding in defense.
Joe: Or you can have the identity of not being vulnerable enough and then you don’t see the evidence you are vulnerable or you are moving towards vulnerability. I mean this is something you get to see at Burning Man a lot. How many years have you been coming? Some people have a lot of identity in that. They say 15 years. It is a really big thing. They want people to know. You should be impressed. I’ve been coming for a long time. Some people say 15 years, but it is not part of their identity at all.
If you can’t see through your identity, you are blinded to something. There is some part of yourself that you can’t see.
Brett: That brings up an interesting piece about how we can attach our identity to an identity we create of some external concept, like Burning Man. Those who have been going to Burning Man for a long time often have an identity of what they believe Burning Man is and represents, and then they themselves feel associated with it or defensive in ways they might not see. The same is true for a company. As a CEO, as a founder, as an early employee, we develop these identities of what we are in relation to this organization, what the organization is in relation to the world. Then without inspecting and seeing through those identities, we might not see how we are limiting our range of motion and emotion in our roles.
Joe: Limiting our business. Here is something I can say. If I have a CEO that’s a hoarder, who has a tendency to save everything, I guarantee you there are going to be a bunch of projects that should be killed in their company that they haven’t killed. If I have a CEO with the identity of not being vulnerable because people will hurt them, then I guarantee you there is a lack of team camaraderie in their particular executive team because they don’t feel the intimacy with the CEO. Our identity absolutely influences the businesses we are running, the teams we are running or who we are leading.
Brett: I think this points also to the avoided emotions that prop up the identity. The first one of the hoarder, I identify with that a lot. There have been a lot of times I don’t want to lay anybody off. I want to keep the team together. I don’t want to cancel anyone’s projects or any ways they might grow. Who am I to say this isn’t going to work? Really in those periods of my life, the things I have been avoiding by holding that identity together have been just to feel the FOMO, to feel the disappointment, to feel the loss, to feel the sunk cost, to just allow feeling, to go back to the last episode, grief. To feel the grief of whatever it is that I thought was worth holding onto, recognizing it is time to let it go. The more willing I am to feel that feeling, the less I need to identify as the one who is able to hold it all together and be able to hold all these pieces and not lose one.
Joe: That’s right. This is where you get to people who say I see I am not that, but I am still acting like that. I see that I am a good person, but I am still acting like a bad person.
Brett: By whatever projection of good or bad is.
Joe: Exactly. Typically that’s because rationally they get it, but the emotional experience is still identified. I am still identified with rejecting grief, or I am still identified with the feeling that the fear that I have to feel if I don’t care take people, or I don’t take care of people. The resistance to that emotion has been part of people’s identity typically since they were five, four, three, eight, ten years old. The idea of letting people down and trying not to so they don’t feel disappointed in you didn’t first happen in your company. That is this core part of the identity, and if you can fully allow those feelings to be felt and go through those experiences, then you can identify emotionally as something else so the patterns can change pretty rapidly.
That’s what makes people think it is hard to change identity stuff. It is not hard. A big part of it is allowing the emotional experience.
Brett: It is hard to change your identity within your head and only in your head.
Joe: Yes, nearly impossible. Not entirely, I’ve seen it done, but it is not consistent, and it takes a long time.
Brett: What are some other things that would make it hard to change? What are some of the other roadblocks that might come up here?
Joe: One is you have been justifying and validating it for years, so you have got an entrenched neuro system. Let’s say part of the identity is being overweight, and part of that is the thought process that it is hard to lose weight. For 16 years, you have been quitting diets with the justification that it has been hard to lose weight. I’m not saying everybody can lose weight immediately. I am saying that if you validate and you look for evidence over a 20-year period of time, it is very hard to undo that neuropathway. It seems to be hard.
There is also a question of fear of self without it. It is a form of death. There is a reason that the metaphor of Jesus on the cross. If you are going to give up a part of your identity, it can feel very much like death. It is not just death because you don’t know how you are going to act, how to shop or how to interact with people, but it is also a death that everybody you are interacting with, you are now different. Will they keep on interacting with you? If you have always had the identification of being the person everybody needs to help and you decide you don’t like that identity anymore and you are going to move to the identity of the person who is totally capable, and then all of a sudden your friends say I was just in it so I could help somebody and feel better than you. Then they are all gone. Whether that’s true or not, you are going to fear the fact that if I am different, then maybe I won’t be loved, I won’t be supported and I won’t know who I am. That feels like a death.
When I say death, it is literally meaning I don’t know what it is going to look like after this event horizon. Every time a big piece of your identity leaves, it is a singularity in the fact that you don’t know what’s going to happen after that event horizon. You do it enough times and you can gauge it pretty well. It becomes a little less scary, but most people don’t spend their life figuring out how to overcome the parts of their identity that limit them or how to make their identity more transparent.
Brett: Something that has been helpful for me in this process has been recognizing that whenever I come face to face with an identity that’s ready to die, there is the recognition that this was never actually me. What was actually happening is the relationships I had were based on people seeing me and the way I was presenting myself. The way I was relating to myself and the way I was organizing my life was being arranged around an image of myself that never was real, and then when that gets let go, there is a feeling of death because I don’t know what I am now. There is also the recognition that this was always some kind of death. There was always a deeper part of me that was being suppressed and being held in place that now gets to live.
Joe: Absolutely. My experience is any time a big piece of my identity is seen through, there is grief. There is a grieving process, and I’ve seen that with so many clients with a big chunk of how they identify falls away, there is a grief experience that goes along with it.
Brett: It seems like in general life is a process of identity just recalibrating, reabsorbing new information, reorganizing and dying, and allowing more to come through. It can be more or less jerky or more or less smooth of a process.
Joe: If you look at the long arc of the process, I would say you start to recognize every part of your identity that’s limited is a part of yourself that shows that there is something you can’t love. Whether it is something you think is negative, like I don’t work hard enough, then you can’t love that aspect, or if it is something you think is positive, like I am a hard worker, then you can’t love the lazy part of yourself. One of the things you recognize and one thing to think about your identity from an emotional space, from a heart space, is that your identity is exactly the parts of yourself that you can’t love. Your limited identity is exactly the parts of yourself that you can’t love.
As you learn to love these parts, it is not like we walk around with no identity because it is psychologically impossible. There is somebody who is speaking. There is a thought that’s had, and somebody is recognizing that thought. What does happen, from an emotional point of view, is as you learn to love it and love all of the aspects of yourself, the identity becomes far more fluid, far more transparent. It starts to identify with oneness or nothingness or love or peace or inherent goodness. The identification becomes softer, more universal. It becomes more gentle, less rigid, more fluid. If you are looking at the long arc of it, that’s a really important thing to see.
At some point, you will identify all those identities that also become their own roadblocks. The identity of oneness has its own limitations. At some point, you think you are everything and you are nothing. To be able to see both aspects of that, and then more fluidity and more transparency. To be able to see that I am a great CEO or that I am a horrible CEO, to be able to see all of the aspects of yourself, all of the aspects of the diamond so to speak, it allows for far more light to shine through. It allows for the beauty to be there. It allows for a far more both sustainable and flexible, resilient kind of sense of self.
Brett: There has been another thing that’s been interesting in the work we have done together. I might identify or recognize myself as a CEO, the good or the bad CEO, and then I can go up a level. Am I the one identifying as the one that recognizes that I care about what kind of CEO I am and feel tension around that? What am I beyond that? What makes it important for me?
Joe: Or am I the awareness that notices all these thoughts? It can go on. The question is what is useful, what serves. The question of what allows you to be your most authentic self, and flexibility is a huge part of that. Flexibility both in context and in the specifics.
Brett: Beautifully said. I want to bring this also just again back down to the emotions and to the body, too. Something that is just really common in a moment of seeing through an identity or in coaching with pointing when somebody has their identity challenged or surfaced, there is so often, I think maybe always, some kind of an emotional or physical process that occurs. There is a revelation of something emotional or physical that has been holding it in place whether that is avoided grief in the example that I described earlier about wanting to keep everything together and not feel like any opportunity was ever left on the opportunity, but also there is muscular tension underneath these things. To what level am I holding my identity or my character structure in the tension in my body by being the one who is ready for anything, the one who is always watching and scanning for threats or the one who is ready to be there and love anybody who is in distress?
Joe: I don’t know if that’s an answerable question, how much of it is being held. It is being held in place on three levels. One level is the intellectual structure of it that you may or may not recognize or see through. Another is the emotional structure of it that you may or may not see through. Then there is the nervous system part of it, which you may or may not see through, the reactive, the jump, the oh shit, the I have to. It is like that quick startle that comes with a lot of these identities, the immediate defensiveness. If you are looking to see through your identity, it needs to be seen through on all three levels. Sometimes that happens just naturally because you see it intellectually and the emotions just move, and sometimes you can just move the emotions and you can see through it intellectually. It can all happen in one big moment, but all three movements have to happen for you to actually be able to get full flexibility in that level of your identity.
Brett: Just to close that out, just bringing that back into some of my process of initially identifying as the fearless one and then identifying as the calm one, and then recognizing that that was compensating for anxiety, and then identifying as the anxious one. Then recognizing that every time I actually feel my anxiety, it is not me. It is just conditioning. It orients my attention toward something that may be important or may map onto something that was important in my past and is no longer relevant, and then identifying as the unknown. What is underneath all of that? As my anxiety comes up or as feeling or grief arises and moves through me, am I identifying as that thing? Here is another piece of evidence that I am this way. Or am I identifying as the one who is feeling this feeling right now and discovering what is underneath it and beyond it?
Joe: Or you are identifying that which is beyond it. The interesting thing is on some level you talked about all of the levels there. There is an intellectual piece of I am not scared because I am doing this stuff. I have evidence. That was the intellectual aspect. Then there is the nervous system aspect of I am going to feel into this. Every time I am scared if I am feeling into it, then something different is happening. That’s addressing the nervous system aspect of it. Then the emotional aspect of my body is actually scared all the time no matter what I am trying to tell myself intellectually, so in a weird way not only were you giving us a metaphor for the long term journey but you were always giving us a metaphor for the three aspects of changing your identity around fear.
Brett: Is there anything else you would like to say on this?
Joe: No, that felt really good. That felt like a great ending. I guess there is one more thing I would like to say, which is the thing you said about ego. Having a fight with your identity is only more identity. It only makes it stick harder. The object isn’t to get away from identity. It is to love it and to see it for what it is. It is not to beat it or kick it into submission. It is the same with the go.
Brett: More like a Chinese finger trap, less like boxing.
Joe: Exactly. Well played, sir.
Brett: Thank you. I really enjoyed this.
Joe: So did I. Thank you very much.
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