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Creating the me I want to be

The art of reinvention is much more than skin deep — it’s an essential life skill, says Viki Wilson

‘When I was made redundant a few months ago, I had a real moment of awakening,’ says Maria, 41. ‘My boss gave a speech at my leaving drinks, and as I was listening to him talk about me I thought, “I have no idea who the person is that you’re describing”. The speech was all about my conscientiousness, dedication and attention to detail — nice, maybe, but so boring, and not the way I see myself. But the worst thing was, I knew it was true. In other people’s eyes, I was this dependable, middle-aged, middle-management woman, and that wasn’t how I felt at all.’

It’s often surprising how differently other people see us from how we see ourselves. In some cases, we might be pleased to discover that our friends or colleagues view us as strong, intelligent or funny. At other times, this kind of revelation can be a pertinent reminder of how easy it is to lose sight of who we are. We grow so used to acting out our roles — hard worker, loyal wife, caring mother — that we neglect other parts of ourselves. Before we realise it, we’ve become trapped in a role that we never imagined ourselves in, or that we outgrew long ago.

Making changes

And while there may be good reasons for our development in a certain direction, if we stray too far from what we think of as our authentic self, we may find ourselves in what psychologist Timothy Butler, author of 'Getting Unstuck', describes as a ‘psychological impasse’. This kind of impasse, according to Butler, ‘brings with it a sense of being stuck, or paralysed. At the office you feel stale or unchallenged. In your personal life you feel agitated, deflated or bored. You know that something must change — and you’re desperate to contribute at work, find a reinvigorated role in your family, and dive back into the current of your life.’

At such times, the best way out of an impasse can be to go through a process of reinvention. Think of reinvention and for most of us the first image that comes to mind is probably a dramatically made-over celebrity — a formidable, muscled Madonna in a leotard. Real reinvention, however, is a considered method of redefining who we really are, or finding new ways of signalling to the world that this is the person we truly feel ourselves to be.

‘Most people don’t think of reinventing themselves, they feel it’s a PR gimmick, or a concept that has no relevance to their lives,’ says Dr Elizabeth Mapstone. ‘But if we fail to do it, we find that life becomes dreary and limiting.’

Despite our cynicism over its gimmicky associations, there could be a benefit to reinventing ourselves on a regular basis. As PR guru Mark Borkowski points out in his book 'The Fame Formula', modern celebrities reinvent aspects of themselves about every 15 months, in order to stay relevant to their audience.

Finding the real you

‘I firmly believe reinvention should be habitual, if we’re to keep our lives relevant to our personal evolution,’ says Pamela Mitchell of the US-based Reinvention Institute. ‘Most of us are reinventing ourselves all the time.’ As we adapt to the changes in our lives, we have to adapt our behaviour.

According to Salma Shah, a life coach who carries out workshops on reinvention, ‘the focus is very much on redefining your “brand values”, your emotional fingerprint, working out who you are in relation to the rest of the world. Of course, changing your appearance might be part of that, but it should be a reflection of inner transformation.’ Once your ‘brand’ is established, then it becomes easier to see what action you might take, whether it’s rediscovering an old passion, or moving to the other side of the world and embarking on a new career.

‘At first, I had no idea what I needed to do to change the way others saw me,’ says Maria. ‘Clearing out my wardrobe didn’t seem enough. When I realised how the choices I’d made 10 years ago, when I’d wanted to be taken more seriously, had trapped me in an early middle age, it gave me the courage to make some big decisions. I’ve decided to rent my flat and use my redundancy pay to go travelling. It’s a risk, but it definitely feels more like the real me.’