‘Identity quake’ is a term used by the authors of Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most. It means a disruption in how we view and understand ourselves, and it is an important concept to understand if you wish to gain the maximum from your conflict interactions. An identity quake offers valuable opportunity for self-reflection.
An identity quake occurs as a secondary result of the interactions we have with others in conflict. To understand and work with them we have to be willing to acknowledge the possibility that much of what we are experiencing in a conflict is an interaction with ourselves. Then we have to look at the interaction with ourselves and try to learn from it.
During a conflict it will usually be evident that the other person describes and understands us differently than we understand ourselves, and generally in a much more negative light. We might hear, “I think you are irresponsible because you knew… “How could you be so inconsiderate to the community … “We are losing money and you keep…
The view of us that the other party is thrusting upon us contrasts with how we understand ourselves. We experience the other party’s view of us as a threat. Then we are stuck between a rock and a hard place. If we defend the sense of self we are accustomed to – “I don’t think I was irresponsible” – then we are likely to perpetuate the conflict through our defensive reaction. If we seriously consider what the other person has to say, we may acknowledge the partial correctness of their accusations, and we may have to modify how we view and understand ourselves. We may have to alter our identity which will entail considerable work.
Defending is easier, automatic, and less threatening to ourselves. It also has the advantage of being instantaneous, whereas consideration of criticism we heard will take minutes or days to integrate rather than seconds. This contemplation of a shift in identity is how I understand the identity quake. I think there is a disruption deep inside that occurs as we unconsciously perceive the possibility that our view of ourselves is a false construct, or at least contains a flaw.
Naturally, we usually defend ourselves against seeing ourselves differently because how view ourselves is deeply cherished. In being defensive we feel that we are defending ourselves against a false accusation, but I believe we are also defending ourselves against having to reconstruct a part of who we are.
When you are criticized or attacked in conflict, be aware that there may be an identity quake inside provoking your reaction. An identity quake will not settle down by defending yourself. For example, you may still find yourself lying awake at night thinking about the conflict over and over.
Identity quakes call for focused and deep self-reflection. Reflection upon what you could have done differently and what you will do differently next time is helpful, but it is not the depth of self-reflection I am asking you to consider. Identity quakes call upon us to reflect upon our relationship with ourselves. How comfortable am I with how I responded? Who have I been in this conflict and who do I want to be in the future? How can I become comfortable with who I now appear to myself to be? As Susan Scott said so well in Fierce Conversations, the talk we have with ourselves is as important as the one we have with the other party.