Who Shaped Your Identity?

I recently saw the movie Golda. There was a scene where Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir was describing her family’s flight from the Ukraine when she was a child. She recalled watching her father boarding up the front door after hearing the Russians were executing Jews in the streets. Golda later noted that this experience, and then political conversations in high school in the US were significant to her enduring identity. She said she integrated these moments “…to the extent that my own future convictions were shaped and given form.”

I gasped when she described the fear in her father’s eyes. After the movie, my friend who saw the movie with me said, “I’m so sorry the movie caused you pain.”

My GrandmotherI said, “Not pain, I felt pride. I remember my strong, brave grandmother, my Bubby, barely 4 foot 10 inches tall, telling her stories of fleeing Ukraine at 15 years old with her new husband, leaving behind her sisters whom she never saw again. Then in the US, she raised 5 boys mostly on her own. When I was young, I remember watching TV with her and for what I thought was unprovoked, she would leap off the couch, put her hand on her heart, and loudly declare, “God bless America.” After a moment of reflection, she would shift her focus to teasing me in a way that made me laugh.

Yes, her life was full of pain, loss, and struggles. What I took from her was her strength, courage, and persistence. Being with her instilled pride in my heritage and deep gratitude for the sacrifices she made with no regrets.

Prior to her death, she told me I shouldn’t be upset when she passed. I should remember with gratitude, not sadness, the full life she lived and the opportunities she gave to my father and me.

She was a force of nature with her clarity of what was worth fighting for and the fortitude to leave behind the land and people she loved for a better life. I inherited her strength, her will, and her sense of humor in the face of challenges.

My Bubby was my role model. She inspired me to live into the identities of advocate, corporate warrior, writer, and coach.

Use Your Past To Empower Your Future Identity

Our identities are influenced by a myriad of factors from genetics to culture and personal experiences. We talk about the influence of our parents and childhood friends but often underestimate the profound impact our grandparents had in shaping who we are today, especially if we had the opportunity to know them while they were alive.

My Bubby was the only grandparent I personally knew. Her wisdom, perspective, and beliefs are deeply woven into my sense of self. She still serves as a guiding light for my journeys. Her stories not only entertained but also shaped my values and principles.

When I teach cultural awareness and bias in my coaching classes, I have an exercise where participants share factors they feel identify who they are, and then reflect on how their grandparents as well as parents helped to shape these factors into who they are today. They share their stories in small groups giving their colleagues an intimate view that wasn’t obvious. Most participant say both their perspective and assumptions about each other changed.

Grandparents can be the bridge between generations, passing down the historical knowledge of the obstacles that had to be overcome to pave the way for life as you know it today. Through them, you gain a connection to your roots, understanding where you come from and the rich tapestry of experiences that define your current decisions and actions. You don’t have to like your grandparents or know them well but knowing this connection to your past is essential to helping you understand what is now your place in the world, including dangers and opportunities.

On the flip side, when you understand the impact your grandparents have had in shaping your identity, you then have the ability to release parts of yourself that no longer need to bear the emotional pain and darker views of the world they carried. You can know their stories and then create your own narrative. Elder stories can be a part of your past but do not need to define your life going forward. Your unique story can then be passed on to future generations so the obstacles you overcame and successes your realized may help to shape the generations to come.

I still hope to choose the paths that would make my grandmother proud. I am grateful for the gifts she instilled in me, especially the strength to know who I am, that my life is worthwhile, and that I am forging my own journey by my own terms.

I honor the parts of me that came from her and the parts of me that can change and grow because of her.

Think about the people in your past and present that have profoundly influenced your sense of self. Share this story with someone or a group. Then determine what part of the story you will keep as your own and what part you will release that will set you free to become the person who enjoys a thoroughly fulfilling and satisfying life – the likely dream your grandparents had for you.

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