By Katherine Olivetti

Where Does My Sense of Self Reside?


The answer to this question is most often:  inside me.

Recently, I have begun to wonder about this.  I know who I am, or at least I think I do.  But what I’ve begun to ponder is that other people know who I am also and they reflect that back to me.  A baby’s first way of understanding himself or herself is by what the primary caretakers reflects back—that’s where the sense of self begins.  And throughout life, we continue to need to have who we are reflected back to us. This notion that the sense of self may not be exclusively held by one’s own person makes sense.  We find little bits of ourselves held by those around us.

The idea that my sense of self is spread out in a community is of particular relevance when you are leaving a job. Every interaction you have with another person carries an explicit message and also a meta-message. The meta-message colors how the message feels and what feedback you’re getting about yourself. For example, the request, “Could you get that file for me?” could be said in many different tones, the meta-message. In a satisfying work environment, the meta-messages would communicate : You are of value; I like you: Glad to see you; Good job.

connection at work

When you leave a job, on that last day of work, you are suddenly cut off from all these others who hold and reflect your sense of self. All those contacts, even when you are tasking, that have positive meta-messages—gone! This loss of contact is one of the most under-anticipated consequences of retirement, and one of the factors that contributes to depression. No wonder after retirement depression increase by 40% according to the Institute of Economic Affairs.

Learn about how your sense of self lives in your friends, family, and colleagues.

Try this:  It’s hard to go around to the people around you and ask them to put their meta-messages into specific words.  But you could reach out to 5 people you know and ask them to give you 3 words they would use to describe you.  From their words you will be able to intuit what kind of meta-messages you get from them—even when you ask, “Hey, did that report come in yet?”

LIFE REINSPIRED is a new program that aims at addressing this loss, one of the hazards in the transition from a working life to the next chapter of life.  The program creates a structure and environment to help successful individuals navigate this transition and avoid the pitfalls that are the source of depression and compromised health (by the way, there’s also a 40% increase in heart attacks and strokes after retirement.)  One of the key components of the program is developing a new peer group that will hold that sense of self as you move into the next chapter.  At LIFE REINSPIRED we believe there’s a better way.

Contact Us for more information or find out more about our programs and upcoming retreats.