The Twisted Heart of Any Crisis: Identity Crisis

Aug 29, 2021

 “A crisis reveals what is in the heart.” —Pope Francis

Years after working with Naomi -- the corporate superstar who had faced a breast cancer crisis that we introduced in “Why We Can't Seem to Get Out of Our Own Way,” -- I ran into her at a leadership conference.

At an impromptu dinner with her that evening, we celebrated two things:

  1. Her clean bill of health. Her cancer was in remission.
  2. The profound growth she went through as a person (not just professionally), due to her health crisis.

Naomi caught me up to speed in her life. With a thumbs-up from her oncologist, she returned to work, but in a pivoted career path. She had reconnected with family members and fostered a less stressful lifestyle. Then she told me,

“This seems ridiculous looking back, but when I signed up for your study, I was actually thinking my crisis was my career setback, not the cancer diagnosis. I had recently signed a contract for a big project that would require weekly coast-to-coast travel. I was starting to gain national attention as the person to call when your business was in trouble. I spent more time worrying about how to minimize potential career damage than I did thinking about my chances for survival. It’s hard to wrap my mind around that now. How twisted.”

This is not at all uncommon.

Living VS. Growing & Thriving

For people like Naomi, the type A personalities, leaders, execs, over-achievers, and career superstars, it is exceedingly common to conflate one’s talents and/or professional role with one’s identity as a human.

Perplexing logic like Naomi shared sets in for many and suddenly, the very people known for having their life together, flounder. They work themselves into a turmoil. They’re burnt out, they skip meals, they postpone annual checkups, and more, all in the name of focus, passion, and phrases like, “I just need to get the team up to speed, then I can step back.”

They were brilliant up until they were faced with the mundane realities of being human. For Naomi, this was the inconvenient diagnosis of being mortal.

This is what I mean when I say suffering is universal, but growth afterwards is not.

Naomi could have just as easily “beaten” cancer and returned to the exact lifestyle she had been living before. Instead, because her health crisis affected what she thought she knew about her identity, her life transformed.

Engaging with Naomi years later was a gift not only because I could delight in her health and newfound sense of purpose, but also because it helped validate my hypothesis about the transformative role of crisis in professional development and leadership effectiveness.

The key finding of my original study was this:

If we can identify the heart of the crisis (the elemental need or aspect of identity that was threatened by the crisis trigger), we can find a path toward integration and wholeness by addressing that need.

By searching through that pain, a crisis can reveal a new path forward rather than limit our growth.

When a crisis event touches on the core aspects of our evolving identity — Who am I? Do I matter? Am I capable? Do I belong? — we face a crossroads. Are we willing to go to the heart of our pain to reveal a richer set of possibilities for growth? This is the opportunity that crisis presents.

This is a modified re-telling of a few pages from Chapter 8 of my book Never Waste a Crisis. The rest of that chapter breaks down the paths we face when met with crisis (Redefinition, Reframing, & Reclaiming) as well as the most common identity milestones & crisis triggers that emerge when a psychological need is not met.

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