Six Steps to Me - Building Healthy Identity for Next Gens

When you think of the legacy you want to leave behind, consider more than the financial legacy. Consider the legacy of a family of individuals with a healthy sense of themselves and their place in the world. Inheritance can be a troublesome gift to those that are emotionally unprepared. I am a psychologist who specializes in psychological issues surrounding the transfer of wealth. My job is to help families prepare for and successfully manage the complicated decisions around inheritance. To optimize the “human capital” in the family, and prevent problems down the road, one of the healthiest things you can give your children is a strong individual identity. By identity I mean that a person is consistent throughout different circumstances, and their individuality is distinct.

People with strong identities, no matter their demographic status, have clarity and consistency around their core values and purpose. They evidence alignment of their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. They know themselves and their essence is relatively constant. Their outer image is consistent with their inner image. Their behavior is relatively predictable.

People make better financial, emotional, and intellectual choices when they have a strong sense of self. They have a sense of direction. Their thoughts, feelings, and behavior are in alignment. Emotions are less likely to rule the day. Being grounded in one’s values and rooted in the knowledge of self allows for more flexibility in the thinking process. They are more resilient. Getting unstuck is easier. Upsets tend to get resolved quicker and with less drama. Focus and security are attributes in times of chaos and confusion.

Strong identity folks are more able to set goals and work hard to achieve their goals because they are more intrinsically motivated. For example, an adolescent who considers herself a “Mia Hamm kind of person” will not need external incentives to exercise intensely and practice her sport several hours per week. Effort and practice go with being a Mia Hamm kind of person. Similarly, individuals who tie their identity to religious beliefs and religious role models will not need extrinsic motivation to extend themselves by helping others. Helping others simply goes with being the kind of person they take themselves to be. Students whose identity includes intelligence and academic success will not need a promise of rewards, like money, in order to study hard; rather, they study just because “that’s the kind of person I am; that’s me; I’m a conscientious student. I know I need to study to do well!” Even hard work can be easy and satisfying if it flows from a person’s sense of “who I am.”

Relationships tend to be healthier when one has a healthy sense of self. When one knows and appreciates themselves, they are more likely to make better choices of partners. There is less dependency in the relationship, and thus more ease. Having a sense of self is predictive of better boundary setting and more assertive expression of self. How many teens do we know that get into harmful situations because they lack the capacity to say “No.” Interpersonal effectiveness is a benefit of healthy identity.

And…drumroll… here’s the good part: a solid sense of self is predictive of more contentment. Contentment is different from happiness. Happiness is often predicated on situation. Contentment is a feeling of being alright with the world, comfortable in one’s own skin. More energy is available for play, work, and love. Not only do I benefit when I feel content and solid, but those around me benefit as well.

Arguably, developing a strong individual sense of self within a legacy family is more difficult than the same process in families that are not defined or molded around wealth. The most obvious obstacle is the inherent difficulty in finding internal motivation when you know that you never really “have” to support yourself. Money is an easy escape route, allowing the possibility of never having to grow up. Then there is the difficulty escaping the “vortex of success” created by the wealth generator. The wealth generator has benefited in terms of self-esteem and ego building from their success. The inheritor has to work exponentially harder to develop their own success, and even then, often wonder if they could have been successful on their own absent the family resources.

There is an elevated pressure to look good on the outside. The danger is when the pressure to look good is greater than the pressure to be oneself. Struggling and failure are key factors in building internal strength. Legacy families have the potential to take the potential for struggle and failure off the table for their children. There is often a profound sense of isolation, as children of wealth do not “fit in” with 98 % of people their age. These children’s experience of discrimination, fear, jealousy, and contempt of others has the potential to erode identity as one begins to hide or be embarrassed about one’s roots or circumstances. False selves and facades are ways to be able to fit in. If you are a legacy child, ask yourself what you lost as well as what you gained from your inheritance.

Here are the steps that I have found valuable in building sense of self. Pass on this gift to your children!

  1. Own it. All of it. Take 100% responsibility for the way your life is turning out. Only when you are totally responsible can you experience the elegant and harnessed power that resides in your true self.

  2. Find your passions in life and commit energetically and spiritually. ‘Spiritually committed’ might not involve a religious practice, but will involve a sense of meaning and purpose.

  3. Know why you do what you do. This involves honest dialogue with yourself. Are you enrolled in this business course because you love business? Or because your family is proud of you as a business person?

  4. You have five square feet on the planet that is yours. Make conscious decisions about whom and what gets to occupy this space. Learn to set boundaries. Only say Yes when you really mean Yes. Get better at saying No.

  5. Get comfortable with all the parts of yourself. For better or worse. Imagine yourself as a jigsaw puzzle with all the pieces different sizes and colors, but all fitting neatly together. You may not like all of the pieces, but acknowledge them. I have a part that likes to drink tequila and dance. At one time I thought I should banish her. But I like her. She’s fun. She just doesn’t get to make any decisions!

  6. Be willing to get help when you need it. If you can’t find your passion, you can’t set boundaries, or perhaps you have some parts of yourself that are self-destructive, you may need help. Therapy and coaching are options. Therapy is more for folks who have symptoms that need to be treated therapeutically. Inherent in psychotherapy is the process of sitting in a room with someone who is reflecting back to you who you are. Coaching is for folks who need help setting goals and achieving them. Good coaching will help provide a rudder and some accountability.

As a psychologist and someone who is passionate about helping people find their own true selves, I can tell you that the steps I have described are easier on paper than on the streets. I have been privileged to work with many folks, next-genners and others, who find their best self. Take Nina, for example, who came to me with a handful of minor legal problems and the idea that she just needed a job to get her parents off her back. Nina is now in a job and at the beginning of a career path that matches her passions and her competencies.

She glows when she comes into my office. She can articulate feeling more comfortable in her skin. I can see that she moves more easily through her life. She is still working on herself. She is aware of being handicapped by parents who focused more on making her comfortable than making her competent. She is better at articulating what she needs from me. Right now she believes she needs someone to hold her feet to the fire. I’m happy to be the feet holder. It’s a great job for me.

Tatiana Armstrong