Self Identity Highjacking & the Curse of Competence


One of the greatest challenges in mid life is transitioning from long held busy and well accomplished careers either to retirement, new lifestyle or to a way of being in the world that has been beaconing to us. Yet there is great seductive power, reward and comfort to stay busy, stay the same.


Longing for Ease

Yesterday while on a power walk with my dear friend, Pamela who, six months ago, retired from a formidable and influential career, vented about her ‘end-of-career vacation' being over. And then she said something that I have heard time and time again, "I watched myself do exactly what I told myself I wasn't going to do.”  

Pamela started working. With long strides taking us adjacent the creek, Pamela expressed frustration with herself as she had been looking to wind down the intensity and pressures of work, and live more mindfully with balance and time for herself. 

At first, in this post-retirement space, Pamela said that she just volunteering a few hours - offering a much needed skill set to a fledging new not-for-profit. And then a small contract here and there … And then her partial day at the desk turned into a full day, then the ‘bent-shoulders over the keyboard, forgot I needed to pee’ kind of days.


“I noticed I was working straight out - same quality, same volume, the same strategic and analytical brainpower (that I promised myself I would stop). Most of it pro-bono,” exclaimed Pamela.

Self-identity Highjacking

Other than an adequately compensated purse (which could be alleviated by setting fees at market rate), one may ask, ‘What's wrong with that?’  Absolutely nothing. In fact what Pamela has found herself doing, not only contributes to society, she’s doing what she is damn good at doing. The challenge for her and others in similar situations, arises when it's not how you want to or intend to spend your time. 

Recently a client described his sensation, of this move back into accomplishments, as self-identity hijacking. He said, “My contributions both in my profession and in the community have been essential to how I see myself.” 

Despite best visions of a changed life or lifestyle, there seems to be a persuasive and powerful internal voice that re-diverts one’s attention.

Fear of the Sloth

In our society, bragging rights often come from juggling multiple demands. And that internal persuasive voice knows it well. It can set priorities around it; tells us the practical stuff; and, urge us not to be idle.

Compelled by action, it seems we can feed on a drive for productivity, put our foot on our own accelerator, and charge through the day mapped by a considerable to do list.

“I worried I’d just waste my day away or become slothful,” explains Pamela. “I’m disappointed actually …that burning the candle at both ends is somehow easier.”

Like Pamela, and for many others that are in the transition of moving from ‘how I define who I am’ to ‘how I now want to find meaning’ this highjack can be confusing and discouraging.

Curse of Competence

The noise (or irritation) of the pain of self-identity highjacking is often abated by steering into that new project in front of us. Because it's comfortable, rewarding and that is what we have practiced doing for decades.  

Another client refers to it as the curse of competence - like a magnet, attracting work or a ‘legitimized’ busy-ness whether one truly wants it or not.

It’s limiting because there seems to be a permanent ‘on’ switch and that doesn’t allow the time and space for one’s wild imaginings, generative renewal or expression of other facets of being.

We spend a life time honing a particular way of going about in the world that has and continues to serve us. As a result, there is a lot of muscle memory beaconing routine and defining worthiness. And so when we want to do things differently or want to redefine ourselves, it takes tremendous effort to either over-ride habits and persuasive internal chatter or build new responses and muscles.  

Initiating a New Direction

Our patterns and habits are well established and comforting. Setting a new direction takes patience as well as persistence. Here are five points to keep in mind to get you started:

1) Get really clear on what you truly desire and intend. It’s often easier to describe what you don’t want. Start there and then allow yourself to characterize what you would like in your life. Frame it in the positive.

2) Catch the ole’ habit in action. Recognize your habitual momentum - notice what is going on in your behaviour and what triggers the this way of going for you.

3) Interrupt the pattern. Stop and listen to the the story you are telling yourself. Notice what of the story you still believe in and what you’re willing to let go of.

4) Identify what needs your pattern of behaviour is trying to meet for you.

5) Identify three small (baby step strategies) that can meet your needs and are in the direction of what you would like to create in your life. Take the steps.


Jodi Woollam is a human-edge development coach. Through bespoke designed coaching programs and real-time practices, Jodi supports individuals who have been very successful and are often in demand professionally and socially yet now want to lean into personal mastery that encompasses more of them than their accomplishments.

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