Letting Go of An Identity That Served You Well: Five Strategies


2014-09-15 18.26.23On a recent visit my best friend for fifty-one years placed three envelopes beside my morning coffee.

“I kept these for you,” Janice said.

Years ago phone calls were expensive for the volume of talking we wanted. We corresponded with letters – “notes to ourselves about our lives and ourselves.”

In retrospect the hours I carved out to write Janice – to reflect and contemplate decisions on the threshold of passages, challenging times, disappointments and joys – were the bread and butter of my self-development.

The letters in front of me were ones I wrote during the month following of my daughter’s birth, April 12, 1970. I was twenty-five, married for five years, had lived in five places in three years (following the career of my husband) and was an easily employed, happy teacher wherever we unloaded the U-Haul.

I looked at the letters written over 40 years ago and hesitated. I mean this is a damn long time ago and I recall an early adulthood route overloaded with societal markers and expectations I was beginning to question.

I read them.

The hour-by-hour description of labor and birth was in the first letter. The next two (both eight pages double-sided) described sleep-deprived days full of the wonder and practicalities of motherhood.

Then, there it was. Right there after making the choice between Pampers and a diaper service, were my most personal struggles. Concerns about the mother I would become, the good wife I was struggling to be and the blank space of my ‘self’ leaning in on me.

Looking back from a long distance I seemed like a young tree looking for sunlight. I was pretty soft and bendy in the identity department. I was trying to please a lot of people.

“This is me?” queried my today self.

Well, yes I wrote the letters, but the writer did not resemble much of who I am now except she did seem nice. I am nice.

In the end I did claim that woman writing at her kitchen table wearing bell-bottoms in the fetching house in the monied part of Akron, Ohio with the poodle, the entrepreneurial husband putting in his 10,000 hours headed to success and the beautiful baby girl.

I claim her not as ‘me,’ but as one of many selves I’ve been in life.

Five years later I would trade this self in for a new, improved one. (And, a less financially secure one.)

Trading selves is what we do as we grow up and change.

The Face of Faces

We create identities in the process of living our lives. Departing a ‘self’ can be pleasurable or petrifying.

Some identities are easier to leave than others. Haven’t you ever wanted to swap out one of the selves you created as fast as you could?

On the other hand, how often do we cling to identities we’ve come to love for as long as possible?

Identity poses big questions:

Who am I?

Who do I think I should be?

Who do I hope to become?

Who do I fear becoming?

What do I risk losing in the process?

Angst associated with finding the answers is eased if we follow the thinking of Herminia Ibarra, Professor of Organizational Behavior at INSEAD, an international business school located in Fontainebleau, France.

“Who am I?” according to Ibarra is the wrong question to ask.

On the faculty of Harvard Business School for thirteen years, Ibarra’s scholarly book, “Working Identity: Unconventional Strategies for Reinventing Your Career,” contrasts the idea of an “inner core” or a “true self” with the possible-selves model based on the work of Hazel Markus, a Stanford cognitive psychologist.

This myriad of ‘possible selves’ model asserts we are not ‘one true’ self but many selves and that those identities exist not only in the past and present but also, and most importantly, in the future.

Ibbarra strongly argues against asking ‘who am I?’ Instead, invite answers to:

Who is the self I might become next?

Angeles Arrien, Ph.D., well regarded thought leader who bridges cultural anthropology and psychology, presents a different aspect of “possible selves.” She maintains you change identities on the way to your “true face.” Her work is based on the African belief that the work of the fully alive person is to integrate five essential faces – child, youth, adult, elder and essence.

In her book, The Second Half of Life: Opening the Eight Gates of Wisdom, the task at the White Picket Gate describes the work of the elder who must begin to find the ‘one true face.’

For those of us 50-75 – a stage of development now called ‘extended middle age’ – we’re not ready for an elder’s work.

We have a lot of faces to make before the effort of integrating them.

"...I need to change the way I'm making my art." - Carla Korbes. Described as a "ballerina that comes along once in a lifetime," she retires this season at the age of 33.
“…I need to change the way I’m making my art.” – Carla Korbes. Described as a “ballerina that comes along once in a lifetime,” she retires this season at the age of 33.

 A Matter of Identities

As human beings, we identify ourselves using our circumstances, how others perceive us, our behaviors, our success or failures and our positions in life.

Circumstances often result in identities we never wanted for ourselves. Many never asked to be a widow/widower, divorced, unemployed, or a cancer survivor.

Other more joyful and hard won roles through high achievement, earnest work and courage create identities of highly successful executives, winning entrepreneurs, renowned surgeons, great teachers and respected community leaders. We often relish those identities.

Sometimes identities are part luck or timing. You’re big time lucky if you are born in the USA, birth a healthy child in your forties or receive wealth from a trust fund.

We latch on to identities. They help us define and shape us. Would I want to be the ‘self’  who wrote those letters again? No, not that Barbara.

But later her roles swelled  -“divorced, educator/counselor, working mom raising smart daughter, master of a green Volvo wagon that refused to start when it rained” – and the core of her identity would strengthen to spawn a confident, courageous sense of self.

Would I want to be her again? Yes.

She was one of my identities that served me well. She was a favorite. I had a tough time giving her up.

She wouldn’t be the last identity hard to shed. The sailing Barbara, the travel-all-over-the-world facilitator, highly paid executive coach, and woman who wore 3-inch heels – I miss them.

Which ‘selves’ do you miss?

The problem with latching onto  identities is, in addition to limiting our growth, it leaves us lost and confused when they are stripped from us.
The problem with latching onto identities is, in addition to limiting our growth, it leaves us lost and confused when they are stripped from us.

Threshold of a New Identity

So here we are in our 40s, 50s and 60s. Long after we thought we’d figure it all out, we’re right back to a stage in life where the framework of our identity is in question.

New space in our lives – like the thirty extra bonus years we are now given – means we can swap out one identity for another several times more.

I’ve discovered that the Post50 transition process is giving us fits especially if squarely in front of us is a cherished identity to set free.

Experts say the more we have over-identified with a role, the more difficult it may be to give it up. One way around this is to consider ‘possibilities’ before giving up anything.

As you play with opportunities and create a new identity, possible selves start to crowd out some of your older roles oscillating you into a prickly place called ‘between selves.’

As much as we would like to, we simply cannot systematically plan and program our way into a simple, straight line process of reinvention. The door of reinvention makes no promises. It is only a door.

Rethinking identity means we have to pluck from competing priorities, make firm commitments to action on those, accept the limited resource of time, and flirt with a lot of possibilities.

Many of us have forgotten how to flirt with possibilities. Have you?

Far too many with past lives of professional success, long marriages or soaring financial rewards, find they are not dislodged easily – even though they may be outdated, unhealthy and clearly not what we truly want for the future.

The results are that now at 50, 60 and 70 when we are expected to reconfigure the full set of possibilities in our lives we limit our creative powers by clinging to old, wonderful roles.

Five Strategies

The second half of life is the ultimate initiation of life. We are presented with the opportunity to develop increased depth of joy, love, work and wisdom – or not.

We search, we grow, we change – or not. The choice is always ours.

I won’t pretend that I have the definitive road map for letting go of an identity that has served us well. I don’t think anyone does.

But if you desire to lead a full vibrant future life, these strategies can prepare your entrance to the unknown in search of the self you might become.


Different versions of our selves will battle it out during the Post50 transition often making this time in “between selves” full of anguish and fear. There is no avoiding this agonizing period and many experts believe there is peril if you short circuit it.

This in-between period is a psychological zone in which we are truly have one foot still planted in the old world while the other making tentative steps toward an as-yet undefined new world.

My friend, Teresa, has had five large white canvases hanging in the living/dining space in her home for the ten years I’ve known her.

Every time I visited I’d ask a version of, “Aren’t you going to paint on these?” She had a variety of responses.

“What’s not to like?”

“I like them the way they are.”

“Maybe you should paint on them.”

Let’s say they don’t bother me as much anymore.

But your time in ‘white space?’ It will unsettle you at first. Find people you can talk to, treat yourself well and make your stay as comfortable as possible.


I don’t believe you relinquish an identity to have it disappear into some black hole.

Identities don’t die or dwindle or evaporate.  They simple recede or fade because a different identity – one you have created with much excitement and joy – is now the vanguard.

The road ahead is simply morphing into another aspect of a ‘self.’ Even the phrase “let go” implies abandonment.

What you will do is take parts of this identity that has served you well and move them forward. I am a writer – college term papers (A+ term papers), letters, books, professional workbooks, speeches, blogs, epistles via email. Writing is part of my identity I want to take with me. I make sure of it.

What parts of your current identity do you want to take into the future?

What shall you leave behind?

Can you take everything you have loved about your identity into the future? No. I’m not a sailor anymore but I’ve come to love biking. Nowadays I don’t travel all over the world for companies. I travel all over the world and live in places I choose for as long as I want.

Start imaging a future with pieces you’ve learned to love. Innovate with a newly created life taking some of the past with you.


At different times in our lives we must consider who we are and who we are not.

What often prompts us to want to hold onto an identity is the applause and approval provided by that role. Often to let go of a role that has served you well is to destroy the illusion of a “grand” self.

The second half of life presents us with the opportunity to no longer look for external acceptance and approval for self-validation.

The person who affirms you best is you. It’s one of life’s most important triumphs that results in decisions that will make you happier than you can imagine.

It may surprise you to learn that I remind people how old they are – in a nice way – because individuals often need to speed up their “next selves” work.

For instance:

  • Those looking to reinvent careers for a last fling in corporate America will have a much easier time in their early fifties than those who wait until they are 58 or 59.
  • Borrowing money to finance a new home or business is best done when earning power is high.

And now, about those bucket lists people create that often focus on golden dreams.

Nothing wrong with that. But a realistic assessment of age, health, energy and passion can prioritize and focus the future with intention.

So you’ll actually begin to live life, instead of list it.


Fear is the biggest reason we have a hard time letting go of a role that served us well. We don’t know what’s ahead so we’d rather stay than leave.

In my life fear is a good thing because it keeps me from mountain biking in Bolivia.

But although I was afraid every day single day at sea on the 2000 mile journey when my daughter and I sailed that boat for six months, I kept going.

In that situation, curiosity spun an irresistible web around anxiety.

What glorious sight or interesting people would be around the bend of the next landfall?

Could we ever dock this boat looking cool and collected?

Here’s wisdom from The Eight Gates of Wisdom for adventuring beyond who you are now:

“To release old identities… we must become resourceful like the squirrel; flexible like the cat; practical like the pig; able to travel comfortably with duck’s webbed feet on land; able to fly and be at home within both our inner and outer worlds.”

So put your duck feet on. Stretch and grow beyond what is knowable or familiar.


Identity is formed by what we do, the company we keep and the narrative of who we are.

Maybe you need to improve your company.

Meeting new people means you can introduce yourself with skeleton information about that role you’ve come to love and more about who or what you might want to become. Establishing a new narrative  – future blank places to be filled in – is a way to strengthen your resolve of reinvention.

Lady Gaga and Tony Bennett are 'Cheek to Cheek' at the premier of their new album. Lincoln Center, July 2014.
Lady Gaga and Tony Bennett are ‘Cheek to Cheek’ at the premier of their new album. Lincoln Center, July 2014.

You can find inspiration online:

  1. John Tarnoff, Career Reinvention Expert, blogs for HuffPost 50, Top 50 Career Reinventions.
  2. Chris Farrell, author of “Unretirement,” blogs at Next Avenue.
  3. Kerry Hanon, expert on careers, retirement and aging, blogs at Forbes.
  4.  The interview on CBS Sunday Morning with Tony Bennett, 88, and Lady Gaga, 28, is truly a fascinating look at age-defying collaboration.

In truth, people to inspire you are closer than you think.

Elizabeth, my lovely grown-up daughter, moved to Nashville last week and was welcomed by her new neighbors.

Judy, a nurse in one of her identities, lives across the street and takes advantage of the Osher Lifetime Learning Center at Vanderbilt University.

She starts her classes in engineering this week. Judy is 80.

I can’t wait to meet her.




Photo Credits:

  1. Three Letters: B. Pagano
  2. Carla Korbes: larissacpnomako.jpg, dance.net
  3. Empty Chairs at Grayton Beach – B. Pagano
  4. Lady Gaga and Tony Bennett: Just Jared



About Barbara Pagano

Barbara Pagano,Ed.S., author and speaker, influenced over 3,500 executives in organizations to achieve higher performance. She is now on a mission to help individuals extend their career arcs and craft lifestyles of productive longevity.
This entry was posted in Craft a Post50 Lifestyle, Self-Management. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Letting Go of An Identity That Served You Well: Five Strategies

  1. Kate Peterson says:

    Each time I have left Corporate life, it has been well planned and my new, next, identity has been both clear and very appealing. This time I’m self employed and I’m ‘flirting with possibilities’ (love that line!) that are unclear and feel much more evolutionary – picking up on the purpose-filled threads of my previous identities. I don’t know where it will lead, yet, but I sure do plan to keep reading your excellent work!
    Thanks for your thought provoking article Barbara.

  2. I think when we can look back and find an ‘ old self’ we loved, we learn to love ourselves better. Thanks for the insight in your comment.

  3. Elizabeth McGuire says:

    Loved this. So much is written about “the new you” and branding your new self, etc…..so little is written about letting go of an old identity. Thank you!

Would love to hear what you are thinking.