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Lucy Ball is an executive coach, pairs coach and team coach.

Jun 2020

My selves have lost their compartments

Imagine hosting a party in your own home. At this party is everybody in your life: Partner, Kids, Siblings, Parents, Pets, In-laws, Teachers, Students, Clients, Colleagues, Employees, Accountants, Service-Providers Tradespeople, Neighbours, Friends old and new.

All these people at the party represent all the roles you play in your life: Mother, Daughter, Wife, Business Owner, Consultant, Coach, Teacher, Student, Friend, Pet Owner, Cook, Domestic Administrator, Employer, Client, Customer, Aunty, Godmother, Carer.

How do you think you would feel at this party? At this party, all the roles you play in your life have no compartments, no separation. Under your own roof you must wear all your hats at once – or at least switch between them at lightning speed. Just as you are serving drinks to your most senior client, your cat brings in a half-alive bird. As you chat earnestly to your aunt about the death of her dear friend, your accountant wants to nag you for your expenses and in the background your teenager mouths to you that that the upstairs loo is blocked again.

This is how the last few weeks have felt to me. Some of this stuff happened pre-Covid of course. We already knew busy lives, multiple hats, working from home, devices that mean we are accessible 24/7. However the intensity has been turned up several big notches.

Unless you have reached the status of Spiritual Guru with almost no ego left to speak of, it is unlikely that your various identities are completely compatible with one another. There are aspects of your identity that stay hidden with different people or you at least need a bit of time to switch hats. We use the train ride home to decompress from work in order to be a calmer Mum. Or we sit in a café outside our client’s offices to give ourselves a pep talk before going into an important pitch for work. It is in these in-between times that we take one hat off before putting on another; we process what just happened and prepare for what comes next. Lockdown has stolen our ‘in-between’ times.

We have a complex self-identity. We see ourselves as having many aspects, roles we play, types of things we do, traits we have. These categories of self exist to help us file and organise all of the complex and detailed data points we have about ourselves. They are there to make sense of that complexity for us so that we have capacity to pay attention to other things. And these aspects of self or ‘selves’ are contextual. “Social me” comes out in restaurants. “Professional me” comes out at my desk. “Mum me” is wearing flip flops in the kitchen. What lockdown has done is required us to be all of our selves in one context – home. And if you are anything like me, wearing the same pair of comfy leggings.

So what’s my point? Firstly it’s to be appreciative and accepting of how exhausting this is. The dissonance that gets created by this crashing together of selves can be energy-sapping. It’s good to know that this is what is going on. It explains a lot. It explains why at some moments I literally don’t know what to do with myself. It explains why I sometimes can’t seem to decide which room I want to be in. It explains why I snap at someone when they rip off one of my hats and require me to immediately wear another. It explains why when my husband asks me a question it can take me 2 minutes just to compute that I’m required to give an answer. It can also help explain why some days go better than others. Today, for example, I had lunch with my kids and was fully present. We chatted, we sang to the radio and we connected. Yesterday I had lunch with my kids whilst staring into space, ignoring them and giving 95% of my attention to the client call I’d just had and needed to process.

Secondly, it points to some of the things that we can do to make things a little easier. We can try to shape some spaces in our week when it is really clear what version of our self we need to be. We can remember that we need time to switch between versions of our self, to decompress or to prepare for what’s coming next. We can be open with our family about how the hat-juggling makes us feel and what hat we are currently wearing. We can ask for a bit of time and patience from others and from ourselves.  And we can show that same respect to others. 

My thanks go to JS, MK and SC. Each of whom will recognise something of our conversations on this topic in the last few days.

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