Between Selves

I'm no longer who I was nor yet who I will become.

Posted Sep 13, 2018

 bill emrich/pexels
Hills and river
Source: bill emrich/pexels

Who am I? Who am I now?

I’ve been talking recently with a client who I’ll call Stuart. A bright guy who’s moved way up in the high tech industry.

But he’s not a happy camper. For a few years now, he’s been thinking of getting out, shifting to his first love: he wants to see if he can make a career out of being a crossword puzzle writer. He’s written puzzles, had some success getting them published. But could he make a go of it, full time? Would it really satisfy him?

It’s quite a change. He knows he’s not there yet, not ready to make the break from the “golden handcuffs” of his current work.

At the same time, he knows he’s headed in that direction. And he knows that it takes time. And effort. Effort to stay with living in the unknown. Contemplating change. (For more on the process of change, I highly recommend an oldie but goodie, Changing for Good by Prochaska, Norcross, and DiClemente.)

So who is he? Who is he now?

He’s between selves.

Here are some other examples. As with Stuart, details have been changed to protect their privacy:

  • There’s Stacy (as I’ll call her), who wonders if her most recent ACL injury will jeopardize her skiing career;
  • Or Stephanie, a business executive who couldn’t pass up a lucrative buyout. She’s now trying to figure out what’s next;
  • Or Stan, who—yet again—lost an audition he was sure he’d nailed.

Each of these people—well, all of us at one point or another or another, whether it’s related to work or health or activities or relationships—is dealing with being “between selves.”

Imagine two large hills, one on each side of a river. On one side is your old self, who you were BEFORE. On the other hill is your new self, who you are going to become, AFTER. At various times in our lives, we are neither the old, known, familiar self nor yet the new, untried, person who we’re going to become.

Instead, we are swimming in the river. We may be splashing, floundering, or swimming strongly as we move from one side to the other. We are between selves.

The concept of being between selves isn’t new. Sociologist Robert Weiss used this phrase while researching the experience of adult couples who had recently separated. (His book, Marital Separation, another oldie but goodie, offers vignettes of the stresses, challenges, and exhilarations at the end of these relationships.)

Expanding the concept to different times of change in our lives can be helpful. Just being able to label this experience and this process—“I am between selves”—offers comfort and is therapeutic in and of itself. It recognizes process and change. It allows for self-forgiveness for at least some of the uncertainty involved in change. It gives temporary identity to the person whose identity is so very disrupted.

As people walk—or run or are shoved—down the metaphoric hill of their old self, there comes a point where it actually feels impossible to climb back up. Who I am now no longer can be who I was. And yet….who will I become? What parts of who I was will come with me on this journey? Which parts do I want? What do I wish to discard? What have I learned about me?

While swimming in the river, can I find an occasional rock on which to rest, to pause, to assess how far I’ve come? Do I get tangled up in odd (old) tree branches or stub my toes on lurking sharp-edged stones? Does a white water eddy swirl me in the wrong direction? Do I need to float on my back for a while or just find some temporary water wings? How do these experiences inform my progress?

That other hill, the new me, may seem far away. Beginning to climb its banks may seem extraordinarily challenging. Meanwhile, it’s vital to let myself swim between selves, reflecting, anticipating, being in the murk. Who I will become—at least for now—will emerge.

And so, back to Stuart and his challenge. We’ve been using the swimming metaphor for a while now. Here’s what he says:

“I’m trying to be here for real. I’m trying not to say ‘yes’ to opportunities that I could agree to when I sense that they wouldn’t move me forward toward who I want to become.

“The swimming part knows: Don’t take it! Don’t be a buyer right now. It feels weird. I don’t feel settled. I need—for now—to not feel settled.”

Stuart has been writing in a journal; he’s been talking with me. His partner knows he’s working on this process. Mostly, he lets himself stand still, ask the questions, see what answers develop. It’s the hardest work that he’s done. He’s scared, but also excited and committed to this process.