207: Detaching Your Self Worth From Your Identity


“Our ego is our teammate.”
Nick Onken

Hello my fellow alchemists! I’m your host, Nick Onken, and we’re back with another solo episode of the ONKEN RADIO (previously NION Radio), the podcast where we explore the body, mind, and soul of the creative entrepreneur. Today. I’m going to talk more about identity alchemy, and I want to share with you my journey of finding my self-worth and my identity. 

As I’ve gone through this journey myself, I’ve realized that the more you attach your self-worth with the identity that you put out into the world — whether that’s your career, your relationship, or your family — if you’re solely attached to that identity, what happens when that goes away? What’s left for you? 

What I have learned through my 20 years of experience as a photographer is something that I am applying to help people tell their visual stories and build their brands. People want real authenticity, and the story you are telling the world is what needs to resonate. This is where identity alchemy comes in — to help you tell a personal story that is authentic to who you are and allows you to find your self-worth.

My Journey of Finding My Self-Worth as a Photographer

Photography is a personal and creative outlet for me. I often find myself putting my heart and soul into my work. It’s always been something that fills me with joy, but my journey wasn’t an easy ride — it’s had ebbs and flows. 

Believe it or not, I actually started out as a graphic designer. I went to school for graphic design. I bought a digital camera to start shooting for my design work, and that was the start of my journey as a photographer who has been building and enhancing brands for almost 20 years now. 

When I started doing commercial photography, I figured out that it was what I really wanted to do. Being a commercial photographer is who I wanted to be in the world. So I pursued my passion, even to the point of slaving myself away, working up to 16 hours a day doing foot tests, photoshoots, building my portfolio, designing my website, and marketing myself. I was living in a small room in a house in Santa Monica where I paid $800 in rent per month.

When I moved to Los Angeles, I started all over again, building my business from scratch. It was a long journey, but I knew that’s what I wanted. I wanted to be a commercial photographer shooting campaigns for lifestyle photography, traveling the world, and doing various campaigns. Eventually, I got a job for Nike shooting some pro sports players that catapulted my career as a commercial photographer.

However, after completing the job for Nike, I wasn’t able to get another photoshoot job for the next two years. So, I started to question myself. I started to question who I was. I started to question if what I was doing was the right thing. A mentor told me, “Just keep going. You’ve got to keep pressing through because nothing happens overnight.” 

It’s true! Success doesn’t happen overnight. When we look at others’ Instagram stories, sometimes we envy their successes. But what most people don’t realize is how much work goes into achieving success. It takes a lot of time, dedication, and commitment to reach your goals. There will be times when you want to give up, but if you push through the hard times, then the good ones will come. 

For me, the good came in 2008 when I finally got my first big advertising campaign. It was a full production campaign with 30 people working under me on the set in Miami, Florida. It was a campaign for Secret deodorant, which ended up being a huge print ad. I could still remember sitting on planes and noticing somebody flipping through a magazine and seeing my ad — it was a cool feeling and an ecstatic experience. 

When I moved to New York at the peak of my career, I was throwing parties and going around the city till 2:00 to 4:00 AM every night, drinking, partying, and eating whatever I wanted. Money was constantly flowing while the campaigns were running, I was having a great time, and I’m so grateful for those times when social media was not yet so popular.

The Rise of Social Media and Its Affect On Photographers

When social media started to rise, the print ads started to decline, creating a major shift in the industry. My business started to slow down, as well. The competition became tougher as more clients preferred social media productions over print ads. There was a point where I lost 20 to 25 bids in a row, which just started freaking me out. I can still remember mentally spiraling because I couldn’t figure out what was going on. I thought there was something wrong with me. 

As my business declined, my mental health declined as well. I didn’t understand what was happening, but looking back through the lens of Identity Alchemy and seeing what was happening, my identity was crumbling because my self-worth was built into who I was and who I was shooting.

When you attach your identity with your work and you start getting validation and recognition for it, your self-worth becomes dependent on the validations from the external world. In my case, my self-worth was so attached to what I was creating in my commercial photography and the validations that I was getting from my work. So, when my career declined, my self-worth was significantly affected, sometimes leading to depression.

Getting Out of Depression

We all experience challenging emotions, and sometimes it can be difficult to cope with them. When my business declined and I had no idea what was happening, I was in a moment of despair, trying to figure out what was wrong and fix things. Fortunately, my friend, Lewis got me into this emotional intelligence and leadership training, which really helped me to shift my perspectives and open up new possibilities. 

Our brain dictates the way that we operate in the world, and my thought construct was that my self-worth came from who I was as a photographer. So, when my commercial photography career declined, so did my self-worth. I needed to do the deep work of Identity Alchemy, which eventually led me to the journey to where I am today.

Defining Your Identity Alchemy

Finding your self-worth can be a difficult process. I know this because for years I struggled with my own, not realizing that it wasn’t something that was given to me by others but rather something I had to find within myself. When you are able to start seeing yourself as the amazing person you are, then you will be able to finally see how valuable you really are. 

But many of us have a difficult time treating ourselves with kindness, respect, and care. We can be our own worst critic and judge. And for those of us who suffer from low self-esteem or lack thereof, it can seem almost impossible to find peace in this world. 

In my experience as a commercial photographer with my dynasty being attached to my career, I’ve been with people at the top and I’ve been with celebrities — I’ve been in these circles, and it’s hard to get out of that loop. The default mode network in our brain is that loop that goes around and around, like a negative thought loop that tells you that you’re not good enough for something, or you’re not worth it. The more you think about those thought loops, that default mode gets stronger and stronger in your mind. Those thought loops keep coming more and more all the time, sometimes leading to depression.

But what if we could detach from the idea that our worthiness is tied up in external factors? What if there was more to life than just being good enough? 

The process of Identity Alchemy allows you to identify your shadows — the things about yourself that are not so good. Shedding these negative traits slowly can help take away some mental anguish and create a more positive mindset for life in general.

Alchemy is defined as the process of taking something ordinary and turning it into something extraordinary, sometimes in a way that cannot be explained. With that being said, I define Identity Alchemy as the process of deconstructing who you don’t want to be in order to realize who you want to become. 

Through it, you’ll be able to identify your shadows or the things you don’t want to be true about you and shed them slowly. I believe that the deconstruction process of life and your inner world is such a huge piece of understanding who you are so that you can curate who you want to become. In general, I noticed for myself that the more inner work that I do — the deeper shadow work that I do to understand myself — the better life becomes towards the path of wholeness.

I really hope this episode inspired you guys to get out there and create the biggest lives you can imagine! You have so much creative potential, and your creativity has the power to unlock potential in your consciousness and the culture around you more than you may be aware of.

And by the way, don’t forget to check out my website! There, you can find a quick ten-question quiz designed and get some of my best free content to help you out on your creative journey.

Thank you so much for joining me today, guys! I hope you enjoyed this episode — if you did, please screenshot it and post it to Instagram and tag me, @nickonken. If you’ve got time, please leave me a review on Apple Podcasts! I’d love to hear your feedback.

Now go live the biggest life you can imagine. And remember — never stop creating yourself.

Thanks everyone! I’ll catch you next time!

Nick Onken

You can Subscribe and Listen to the Podcast on Apple Podcasts. And please leave me a Rating and Review!


“As my business declined, I declined.”
Nick Onken

Some things we learn in this podcast:

  • How does social media affect photographers [3:00]
  • How do artists build their business [6:15]
  • How to get out of a depression [10:45]
  • How to find your self-worth [11:15]
  • How to define your identity [12:00]
  • How to detach yourself from your self-worth [14:45]

Links Mentioned:

A FREE email series to create a personal visual brand authentic to who you are.

  • Accelerate your personal brand growth through the Identity Alchemy Method
  • Discover the authentic stories you want to share with your audience
  • Build your personal brand vision and crystallize it with a photoshoot
  • Learn how to ideate and create storytelling visual assets to enhance and up-level your personal brand
  • .. PLUS! You’ll get access my brand building book recs and favorite resources

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