Waves of identity

Wave Crashing on a Beach Many of the expats I train these days are high-tech engineers and managers working in the Silicon Valley. They are immersed in a fast-paced, rapidly changing culture, which is known for embracing more uncertainty and risks than most corporate environments. This part of California receives international assignees from all over the world who often have their self-identity challenged. A pre-departure or post-arrival intercultural training program addresses culture shock as part of orienting assignees to manage these potential shifts.

While these executives are quick to welcome change in the workplace, I’ve noticed that many don’t seem to accept inner change as easily. Why would they? Inner-change often means facing old patterns and suffering! Also, aren’t their diverse cultural backgrounds likely to perceive inner-change differently? These are all fair questions. This blog offers food for thought about identity, specifically: How do you define identity in the context of international relocation?

First, let’s look at the definition of the word identity. The American Heritage dictionary defines identity as: 1a. The condition of being a certain person or thing. b. The set of characteristics by which an individual is recognizable. c. The awareness that an individual or group has of being a distinct, persistent identity. According to these definitions, constructed social and cultural identities have a place to land. Race, ethnicity, class, gender, age, religion, geographical location, level of education, amount of professional experience, and functional identity, all qualify as distinguishing factors. They are extremely useful in pointing out external elements that compose aspects of one’s identity.

The following definition offers a different view on identity, called the essential identity.

The Essential Identity means the identity with Essence, the identity with Being. It is the true sense of identity. When we feel the Essential Identity, when we’re being it, we feel we are being ourselves truly and authentically. And there’s a sense of identity, a singular sense of “I” that is definite, uniquely self-existing. You’re there, present as you, without that “you” being defined by any constructed concept. ~ A. H. Almaas

The above quote captured my attention and triggered some refreshing thinking about identity. The power and influence of social and cultural constructs such as race, ethnicity, class, gender, age, and religion can’t be denied. Any relocation – whether international or national – affects how we perceive ourselves, others, and how we are perceived with respect to these aspects of identity. All of them are powerful and real players when we talk about identity. The idea of an Essential identity though, implies that underneath these social and cultural constructs is a “dormant,” ever-present identity which has little to do with the color of our skin, how many languages we speak or how old we are. Somehow, the essential identity feels more real and deeper to me than the other ones, without dismissing any of them.

Let’s go deeper into an underlying characteristic many assignees share: The desire to maintain their identity while living internationally. Some of them struggle to keep social status, preserve professional identity, material comforts, job prestige and buying power. These are all achievable and fair goals to aspire to. At the same time, inquiry into the driving forces behind these goals reveals a great deal about the personality. Do you want to hold a certain status in order to keep an image of who you took yourself to be in the past? Which part of you is clinging to that old image? What if this is happening at the expense of allowing a new version of you to emerge? By closely observing these personality dynamics while change happens, we can minimize them without being overwhelmed by them. The process becomes a path of becoming increasingly aware of the forces of our personality, rather than being subject to them. This, in turn, helps us in time to connect with our deeper nature, or what A. H. Almaas calls the essential identity.

We well know that nothing is permanent, change happens constantly, and so life flows. The capacity to welcome the unknown for the sake of innovation aligns with Silicon Valley’s business culture. In this same light, identities aren’t fixed entities. My sense is that the labels we receive from society can take a life of their own and end up obscuring the essential identity. The metaphor of an iceberg is often used to explain culture. For the sake of this blog, consider the iceberg to be the socially and culturally constructed identities, and our essential identity to be the ocean. It may be that we’ve been focusing on the iceberg and overlooking the ocean.

What to do? Inquire within, watch your personality patterns, and allow your identity to shift in time.