Note: This blog is written by Foundations’ Counselor Zack Rollison, MS, LPC. Zack is sharing the “Steps in Identity” model he uses in counseling.
Identity is a powerful thing. It is how we define ourselves, it clarifies our purpose. It can also be pretty hard to nail down. Think about it. We all have thousands of identities at any given moment. Sometimes that makes it difficult to answer basic, vital questions, like, ‘Who am I?’
We’re going to walk through a simple visualization technique that might make it a little easier to sort all of that out. Let’s start by imagining a bunch of steps (as in the image above). Think of each step as just one facet of your identity. For example: student, brother, mechanic, mother, stamp collector, priest, knitting enthusiast, and so on. Write a few down, see how many you can come up with in your life. For our purposes, lets put the most important ones lower down on the diagram – closest to our foundation.
At any time, we might be living out one facet of our identity more prominently than others. For the woman in the example above, today she’s feeling really good about her identity as a teacher – maybe a student learned a difficult concept, or she got a sweet thank-you note from a family for her hard work. When this happens, we are ‘standing on’ that particular step of our identity. It supports us and it makes us feel secure.
The problem is, most of our identities are based on things that are subject to change. Generally, we identity in two ways: in terms of something we do, or in terms of how we relate to someone or something else. Most of those things can change rapidly. They usually depend upon ourselves or on another person, and thus, those steps are only as secure as people are – which is to say, not very secure at all.
In this example, the woman suddenly hit a snag in her teaching day, which caused ‘cracks’ in that step beneath her. Perhaps a student made her feel defeated, or her boss gave her a bad report. Whatever the case, the ‘Teacher’ step became cracked and unstable, and so she was forced to step down onto another, deeper facet of her identity to try and regroup.
For our example, let’s say she tried to step to a few other levels – first ‘Caregiver,’ and then ‘Wife,’ but she found that it was just a bad day all around. Maybe after school she got into an argument with the person she took care of, and when she tried to confide in her husband, he just tried to fix it instead of really listening. So now, she has stepped down to the very deepest layer of her identity – her foundation –looking for solace and stability. In this woman’s case, she identifies at the deepest level as a ‘Mother.’
Now, this is the foundation we’re talking about. This is the facet of our identity that we’ve decided is the most important part of who we are. And when we, like this woman, take a piece of our identity that is dependent upon other people and make it foundational, we base our entire stability on flawed, imperfect humans who are subject to mood swings and bad days. In other words, we set ourselves up to fall every time things don’t go as we want them to. For our example, we’ll say this woman’s kids refused to listen and made her feel like a terrible mom. It was the last straw of her terrible day, and now she’s lost all sense of stability and is questioning everything about her life. She needs a firmer foundation – one that won’t crack under pressure.
The nifty thing is that God built our minds with a superpower called ‘metacognition.’ That’s a fancy word that means we have the ability to think about how we think. In other words, we can step outside our thoughts, observe them, and move things around when they’re not working out for us. We can re-prioritize and reorganize them. As this woman is doing, we have the ability to decide, at any given moment, which part of our identity we’re going to make foundational – which one we’re going to stand on when everything else in our lives falls apart.
Take a moment and think back through the list of your identities. Is there anything on there that is not based on how you relate to another person? Is there anything that is not dependent upon yourself or your own skills or talents? In essence – is there anything on that list that isn’t subject to cracking and breaking under pressure?
I’ll be honest: there’s only one foundation I’ve ever found that is completely impervious to the pressures of life – our identity as children of God. Because, unlike humans, God doesn’t have bad days. He doesn’t falter. He doesn’t change. His love for us isn’t based on our ability to do things perfectly – it’s based in His character, which, as we mentioned, never changes.
When our relationships are on the rocks, when our kids drive us crazy, when we fail at the jobs we’ve trained so hard for – or when our health declines and our strength is all spent, when everything we’ve stood on for so long is shaken and cracked and unsteady – there, at the foundation of all we are, we must learn to identify ourselves with the one thing that will never leave us or forsake us – the love of our beautiful, incredible God. This is the one, true, firm foundation upon which we may successfully build our lives.
The cool thing about that is that having God as our foundation infuses every other part of our lives with His strength. We can move past threats to our stability in our jobs or relationships because we know that beneath it all we’re firmly secure in who we are as God’s beloved, valued children. We can teach better, love better, work better, play harder, rest more soundly – because who we are in Christ cannot ever be taken away from us.
It also grants us the really necessary gift of perspective. When we know that our souls are secure and we are truly loved, we can always step off of shaky identities and onto the truth of who we are in Christ. And when we take pressure off of a cracked identity to make us feel secure, we can actually see much more clearly how to address the problems and fix the cracks. For example, if I’m looking to my marriage to provide my security (standing on the ‘Wife’ or ‘Husband’ step), I’m so fearful of losing it that I’m putting all my weight on it – and that is too much pressure for me to be able to objectively work on it. The more I try, I will only keep getting frustrated – like trying to fix a step on the staircase while I’m standing directly on it. However, when I stand on who I am in Christ, I can draw strength from Him to calmly communicate, identify concerns, and bring His love and grace into the mix to heal and restore.
So that’s the question: Which one of your many identities are you standing on right now? Which one has been foundational in your life lately? And when are you going to decide to let the unshakeable love of our great God be the one thing that truly defines who you are when all else cracks and crumbles?
“Therefore whoever hears these sayings of mine, and does them, I will liken him to a wise man who built his house on the rock: and the rain descended, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house; and it did not fall, for it was founded on the rock.
“But everyone who hears these sayings of mine, and does not do them, will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand: and the rain descended, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house; and it fell. And great was its fall.”