My identity was stripped from me in college. At least — I thought it was. It took that experience to make me realize the concept of “identity” is a bunch of bullshit that holds us back from novel and meaningful experiences. It prevents us from learning about ourselves. And there are huge implications here for the medical realm. Let me explain.
My life revolved around sports when I was growing up. Basketball was central, but it didn’t matter what the game was: I was an athlete. Throughout high school I acquired dozens of awards at the local, state, and national levels (Colorado Gatorade Player of the Year 2011, Parade All-American 2011). This was who I thought myself to be. Every decision I made came from this premise. It was important that everyone I meet understand this about me.
Then, during warm-ups before a game in my second college season, I broke my foot. Non-weight-bearing fifth metatarsal fracture. Now what? I told myself I could put my life on hold for the 8-12 week recovery then get back to “myself.” Easy enough.
It wasn’t easy. At all. In fact, it was so hard that I tried to return to the game too soon against all advice. I broke my foot again. The same one. Now I was out for a long time.
This felt devastating. Words of encouragement and support bounced off me like a wall—I wasn’t able to hear it. It felt like nobody could understand what I was going through; that I had somehow acquired the one problem in the world that no one could relate to. I thought this situation truly did not have a silver lining or happy ending. I felt special and selfish and isolated. I had no concept of what I was supposed to do without basketball (even for 6 months).
This is when I began to face the concept of “identity.” My misery was self-created. It was due to my uncompromising attachment to this character, because this character had served me well in the past. I was married to a perception of who I thought I should be. So when it was removed from my life, I became a monster.
I began to question: What if I didn’t have an identity already? What type of person would I be if I wasn’t an athlete? Can you truly gain or lose an identity or is that concept entirely fabricated?
I experimented with trying on new identities. As an injured player I could still be a support system for my teammates, so I became the best teammate I knew how to be. I learned to cook during this time. I started learning about my dream career (medicine) more than ever before. I convinced myself that I was a complete, perfectly valid person without this character of “elite athlete” in my arsenal. When I did—finally—return to the court I was an upgraded version of my previous self: the things I learned in my time away showed me how to being a stronger player, teammate, and leader.
I needed my identity to be taken away from me in order to find a better version of myself. I needed that in order to realize that an “identity” is not a real thing.
Now I want to convince you that in medicine, we all need to lose our identities. The words “medical student” and “doctor” come with weight, stereotypes, and assumptions; and in all honesty, they suck. They’re callous and omniscient and selfish. They don’t have time for anything that matters. They glorify self-damage, they eschew creative outlets, and they thrive in a dog-eat-dog environment.
But we start to embody them. We marry ourselves to this identity. We tell ourselves, “I am a doctor, so I am the type of person who __________.”
Says who? Who is making that rule every day? Is this inherent or are we choosing it while being blind to the fact that it is a choice? Imagine the scope of potential we would experience if everyone in medicine threw away this invented identity.
In the same way that I became a better and more versatile person when “athlete” was taken from me, we in medicine could give ourselves permission to grow if we detached from the value of calling ourselves medical students, doctors, or anything else. We could do and create things outside of the realm of what we think we can do now, because there is no identity construct holding us back. We could learn about ourselves in ways we never have before. It would be a powerful influence on the world of medicine which desperately needs us to come alive and create a space where we can thrive.
Let me finish with a shift in how to think about things:
Rather than thinking that who you have been dictates who you will be (from the past to the future), consider that who you will be becomes who you have been (from the future into the past).
Your identity, then, is everything you do starting right now.