Recently I have been thinking again a lot about personhood. About identity, or rather multiple identities we might experience at the same time. I crossed professionally this topic years ago during my studies, but nowadays I feel like having a closer look over the topic once again. The major reason is that almost 1 year I have to deal and adjust to my new identity – being unemployed.
Being by a profession and education social worker I like to turn for advice towards social work theories and practice. One of my favourite theoreticians is Jan Hook who states: “People’s sense of self is integral to their personal and social health… How we construct the self, and how we understand difference in relation to it are probably among the key questions for social work practitioners.” (Jan Hook, Social Work: Critical Theory and Practice, p. 70)
Let’s put it into a very concrete example from my personal life. I left most of my successful career back in Slovakia and I have been unemployed for a significant period in Finland. At the moment, I perceive myself quite differently than 10 years ago, even 3 years ago. I constructed my “self” as hard-working, well educated, curious and capable. All of these constructions have been crushed into pieces after facing the reality in a different country. The very same person is hit by the new constructions of “self”: being different, not having good enough language skills, not capable of making it even to the job interview, my education is suddenly insufficient… for the first glance, my originally created self has nothing to do with my new identity of being unemployed. It is a struggle to be in the constant conflict between the self and the new identity. Being a foreigner with social work education has cost me most of my professional self-esteem during the last 2 years. Being burnt-out from the fact, that I am unemployed, with actually so many difficulties to overcome is another particular example of interaction among “self” and health as Hook admitted in her book.
As you can see above, I use both terms – self and identity. Are they the same or do they vary? Well, my answer is, they are not the same. Self is more stable and permanent, while identity is more changeable. In some yet over-come theories you can find, that identity is connected mostly with social structure categories such as race, class or gender. If it is still true and valid, it would be very difficult to change your identity simply because you can’t so easily (or never) change your race, class or gender.
The new social theories reflect, that our identities are made and must be understood in context. Hook (p. 74) claims that identities might therefore change, can be contradictory and that we might have multiple identities. As so, identities are made in the process and located in specific situations. In other words, our identities might be fluid from situation to situation, but our self is good to be consistent.
This is a very important point to keep in mind. The fact that our lives might not go exactly well at a particular time, doesn’t mean we are different or less capable. The circumstances have changed, so our life has been changed.
Another important knowledge from a critical social work perspective is “agency”. We are not passive in constructing our own identities. We are engaged in constructing them at the same time as they are being constructed. Again let’s examine it in personal life: yes, I am unemployed and unhappy because of it. I might find a job that would be below my level of education, skills and competence, but I decided not to compromise. I rather wait for the job I could be passionate about, I rather invest in my development and spend more time with my family. So after all, being unemployed, even if it is a burden to take, also has some positive sides. And this is what I actively bring into my identity. It is my “agency”.
Putting together those little pieces of a puzzle and refreshing my memory from the UNI times, I suddenly feel a bit more comfortable about my new identity of being unemployed. I don’t need to apologize for it or refuse it. I just have to tolerate it for a while and possibly make a new understanding out of it. It will all once pass…
So, yes, I am jobless and it sucks.
But I also invest in my skills, additional education, I can be at home with my kids whenever they need me to be, I can write, I can volunteer. I can work on my ideas just for fun. And I have to pamper my core self. Because nothing has changed. I’m still the person I was before. Just the life situation is different.