07/12/2010 11:03 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Every Day a Little Death

In the parlor ... in the bedroom ... OK so I like Stephen Sondheim! As many of you will know, this is a line from a famous song in one of his musicals. Perhaps not the most upbeat note with which to kick off an article, but what the hell. Death is on my mind today. In a good way.

You see, in talking with friends and followers about the road map self-renewal in my new book, SHIFT: Let Go of Fear and Get Your Life in Gear (2010, Globe Pequot Press) and the challenges we all face in "shifting our lives into high gear" we agreed that one of the most difficult moments in any major life shift is this: letting go of an identity.

It feels like death. Not the real thing, perhaps, but in the moment, pretty darned close. The truth is, we love our labels, our fixed roles, our corner offices, and business cards that proclaim who we are to the world. But, how else can we welcome in a new sense of possibility, the energy of creativity and spontaneity, if we don't step out of the comfy, cozy corners of identity that we build for ourselves?

Sure, in moments when life suddenly shifts and doors open to new possibilities, it can feel exhilarating and fresh. But it can also feel terrifying and frightening, as we step out of our known frames of reference and dangle precariously in the unknown.

Yesterday, I spoke with a client who sees himself as hanging on the edge of a precipice in his corporate job: things in his company have shifted dramatically around him and he worries that a transfer or a downsizing may be heading his way. He feels frustrated and unhappy and like a victim of circumstances -- bad bosses, bad economics, bad timing, bad colleagues ... you name it.

He does have choices: 1. he can quit (but he doesn't have a job); 2. he
can step up and declare what he wants-a new role, a promotion, a new opportunity; 3. or he can sit back, do nothing, and let the frustration build until he gets sick ... or worse, fired for having a bad attitude. Sound familiar? I have seen this kind of situation many times in my career as an executive coach ... and ... I have been in this situation myself a few times.

Looking back, I wish I had been less stuck in fear, more willing to hang over the
edge, more willing to trust myself, take a chance ... and take a stand. Why? Because every time I finally stepped out of my box of victim energy, and moved into the open sky of possibility, amazing things would happen. Whole new vistas of possibility would appear that I had never seen before.

But I had to shed that part of my identity that was holding me back: my attachment to a particular job title, office configuration, box on the org chart, etc. Something had to die, to be buried up there on the cliff before I was light and trusting enough to step off ... and soar. Now, I am not advocating that you leap before you look, nor have I told my client to jump willy-nilly into the unknown.

But I have told him that after learning all he can about the landscape before him, he should go ahead and make a decision. Ask for what he wants. Take the leap. Let go. Let that small, used-up, no-longer useful identity that he claims is his ... die.

So strange as it sounds, I'm asking that you think about death today. What story do you tell about yourself that might have outworn its useful life? Think of all the different labels that you wear, the ways you supposedly "know" yourself to be: "worker-bee", "boss", "professional", "adult", "parent", "over-weight", "out-of-shape", "non-spiritual", "hard worker", "always tired", "oppressed", "underpaid", etc ... Is there one you'd be willing to part with? Even a small one?

For example, I'm contemplating the possibility of letting my identity as a "coffee addict" die. Even as I write these words, I stand on the precipice: Could I actually walk by a Starbucks and not go in? (Stay tuned). Birth requires death.

Tomorrow, my client will walk into his bosses office and make a decision, take a stand, and become a different person. He already honors himself as a leader of others. But soon, just maybe, by stepping off that cliff of the known, he will become different kind of leader-a leader of self.

Peace ... gotta run to Starbucks ... Dr J