Who am I without names and labels?

"Introduce yourself to your partner and explain what brought you to this course." I feel a flutter of anxiety in my stomach as I hear the instructions on my first morning of "Building Personal Mastery." I like to think of myself as a changemaker. But the truth is, I am currently at a transition point in my life.

This past summer I left four full and challenging years at my dream job teaching and living with international youth. I moved back to Vancouver with my partner to have a baby. My last nine months of learning how to parent have been humbling and humorous and meaningful, but I've also started to feel some discomfort when asked to articulate my identity. As I sift through online job postings and squeeze my stories into cover letters I feel more anxiety. Which label fits me? What if no labels fit?

Back in the retreat space, I snap out of my head and realize a very long pause has occurred and I should try to answer the question.

"Well, um, I'm a teacher and I work in education for social justice but, um, I'm on parental leave right now, and I'm not really sure what my next steps will be. I guess that's part of why I'm here?"

I feel my shoulders relax as I exhale a sigh of relief. To my somewhat surprise, my partner doesn't laugh or ignore me or walk away. Instead, they just smile encouragingly and tell me their story. And I think to myself: “Phew! I made it through the first five minutes, that wasn't too bad, just five more days to go!”

The first day of the course was full of moments like that. Exploration of questions like, "Who are you in relation to?" and "What nurtures your spirit?" I am amazed at how much more comfortable I felt answering these, and how curious I am about my partner’s answers. And again more comfortable and more curious.

Looking back, I realized these early questions served a key purpose for me. They drew my attention to the areas where I feel most defensive, and gave me serious fodder for reflection over the rest of the workshop. These early activities also laid the foundation for what I ended up appreciating most about the workshop: the connections that are possible when we articulate our vulnerabilities rather than blustering over our fears.

Throughout the workshop, we were asked to dig deep into the factors, stories and experiences that shape our sense of self. At different points, I found myself deeply challenged. What are the unconscious fears and goals that shape our behaviour? How did being able to name these change the dynamic? I spent many hours peeling back my strong desire to be seen as independent only to discover my fear of being seen as needy. I loved the session we spent with the question "Who am I without my names and labels?"

In the end, the activities and conversations in the Building Personal Mastery workshop offered me a renewed sense of myself. I felt bolstered by the feedback I received from family, colleagues, and friends through the 360 feedback process and also by the chance to articulate how some of my fears and hopes about my identity impacted my choices and behaviours.

Most powerful for me was the sense of kinship I felt and observed in our group over the five days of the workshop. I was inspired to see the trust, communication, and community that can exist in a group of people through artful facilitation and full participation. I felt like I was really able to listen to others and connect with their stories and experiences, and this connection in turn inspired me.

This Inner Activist course artfully navigated the interplay between our diversity - our stories, power, privilege, and experience - as individuals and what we share as a collective. It was so heartening to hear similar sentiments come up again and again in different exercises. It felt like so much of our human experience was a shared one. We all had a desire for connection, for belonging, for community. We were all fearful of exclusion, exile, disconnection.

Participating in this workshop hasn’t abolished my anxiety around the polite social query, "And what do you do?" But it has reminded me that not only am I more than just my names and labels, but so is everyone else. To be successful in our work as changemakers we need to build strong, meaningful connections with each other. For me, these connections depend on my ability to act with self-awareness and listen with an open heart.

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