What is an identity crisis?
I don’t know about you, but I have spent a lot of time in self-reflection lately. I think the fact that world has been completely flipped on its side is a significant factor, but I also think it is more than that. My husband jokes that I am having an identity crisis. And in a lot of ways, the man is pretty spot on.
Erik Erikson coined the term “identity crisis” and it generally refers to a person’s inability to achieve “ego identity” during the adolescent stage. But I think that identity crises can happen during multiple stages of our lives. In fact, I think that identify crises do happen during multiple stages of our lives.
“I think I am having an identity crisis.”
This is a phrase that I hear often. And I mean seriously often. Whether I am talking to a client, a friend, my husband or if these words are actually coming out of my own mouth. It is a common frustration when we are sitting in a season of life where we feel lost. Sitting in a season of life where we feel like we don’t know what we are doing-either right now or next. Sitting in a season where we are not sure who we are. It is a super uncomfortable space to sit for most of us. We simply do not love the unknown. We struggle with the idea that our path is not as clear as we want it to be and we struggle with making choices because that path is not clear. I don’t know about you, but I know that sitting in the thoughts and feelings that come along with feeling lost, like I don’t know what I am doing and like I don’t know who I am, SUCKS. Raise your hand if you agree?
But what if I told you that identity crises are actually a good thing?
That is right. All that discomfort that comes along with those feelings? I am here for it. Because it is those moments that create the most impactful growth of this journey.
I like to joke that I have lived several little mini lives since I have been on this planet. Sometimes there is a distinct difference. For example-the life I was living when I was in high school is vastly different than the one I am living right now. With the exception of social media and some occasional interactions, there is not a lot of cross over with humans that were in my life when I was sixteen and the humans that are in my life now that I am 37. But sometimes, there are traces of each little life that make their way into the current life. After high school, I had a whole different life in college, followed by being a teacher and coach during a formative season of life and then the world of mental health. The lessons that I have learned and the people I have connected with along the way are present in one way or another in the present day. Now, I sit wondering what the next is and how I will grow through the trials and tribulations that in front of me.
If you are interested in the field of psychology, you probably know the name Erik Erikson and have learned about his stage theory. If not, here is the jist. Erik Erikson theorized that this life is broken up into a series of stages and in each, we face a particular crisis that we must overcome as we move from one stage to the next. His work identifies some approximate ages but really just that we follow this general route as we develop and that each stage is characterized by a developmental task. Infants are working through learning to trust the world. Toddlers are working through having a sense of personal control of your skills and sense of independence. Then, children work through asserting themselves followed by gaining competence in their skills and end their adolescent stage with searching for a sense of self.
Adulthood has stages as well where we work through forming intimate relationships (romantic and otherwise) followed by a desire to leave our mark on the world and ending with the acceptance that our life was what our life was.
I think that Erik Erikson knows what he is talking about. When I look back onto my childhood and adolescence, as well as the children that are in my life, those theories are spot on. I also think, however, that there is not enough attention given to the stages that occur during adulthood. My little mini lives all occurred from the time I was 16 or so to my current age. I am sure that the development that happened during my childhood had a tremendous impact, but I am also sure that the development that occurred, and continues to occur, during my adulthood is impactful as well. And it has the power to be even more impactful if I let it.
So, how do you survive an identity crisis and come out the other side (mostly) unscathed? This is what I think:
- You notice it. No judgement from the peanut gallery of your inner critic, you just notice. If you can pay attention to the way that thoughts are showing up in your brain and how you are showing up in the world, you can tell that you are struggling long before the struggle becomes debilitating. We have just been trained to avoid those uncomfortable feels, so we “naturally” ignore them until they are so intense that they can no longer be ignored. You can re-train your brain, though, by practicing noticing without judgement. That is actually a big part of a mindfulness practice if you want to go all in, but you can also just work on noticing thoughts, body sensations and behaviors when they are in the less intense stage. Take note of them-“I noticed that I felt really flustered when I was talking to my boss and that has never happened before, how interesting”-and you move on with your day. The more you practice noticing your thoughts, emotions and behaviors, the more likely you will be to notice when they need attention.
- You lean in to it. Once you have noticed those changes (and the discomfort that usually comes with it), you let yourself feel it. You journal about it, you talk to your friends about it, you talk to your therapist about it, you journal some more. You have so much more capacity to experience discomfort than you realize. I certainly don’t mean that we have to swim in an ocean of negative feelings all the time, but I do think that we don’t allow ourselves the space or give ourselves the permission to feel nearly often enough. It is when we don’t allow ourselves to feel, that you end up thinking about it all day anyway and constantly trying to push the thoughts out of your mind. In a situation where you can’t feel it? Like, you have to go to work or attend to your family? Even more important to let yourself do it so that you can put your focus on those other things! I like to set a timer for 2 minutes. I say to myself “alright, dollface (that is what I call me when I am being a little supportive and a little sassy), you have permission to feel this for the next 2 minutes, but then you need to get on with your day. You can talk to your therapist or your journal about it later.” Then, I let myself feel it for 2 minutes, and when my timer goes off, I imagine that I am putting the experience in a locked box, only to opened later by said therapist or journal. Don’t get me wrong, it doesn’t always work perfectly, but you would be surprised the power in permission.
- You reflect on it. I like to think of this in two ways-1. What is the function of this experience? I have never loved the phrase “everything happens for a reason,” but I do believe strongly in the idea that our thoughts, emotions and behaviors are serving a purpose. When we can identify what the function of the experience is, we can often figure out the answer to the second question that I like to ask myself-2. What I am supposed to learn here? Generally, the function of pain is growth. Unfortunately, we don’t learn jack-squat from joy. That is a truth in my life that took me a long time to come to terms with. Joy is the thing that happens after we learn the lesson. Growth is the really uncomfortable stuff that comes as a result of pain. And my reality is that you don’t get one without the other.
- You make changes. So much easier said than done, I know, but the result of noticing, leaning into and reflecting on your crisis is often that you want things to be different. I actually think that the reason that most people don’t want to do the first 3 is because they inherently know that change needs to happen and they are not ready to face it. But I say face it head on, my dear. Sometimes the timing of the change is not ideal and sometimes you identify a change that you cannot actually make for one reason or another. Perhaps it is relationship that needs to end that has a 100% chance of impacting your way of life or your other relationships. Perhaps it is a job that you would like to leave but you just put braces on your kid so losing your insurance would not be a smart financial decision. Either way, the choice is yours. You can choose to remain in the discomfort until change can be made, or you can choose to make the change (which will come with its own discomfort, I promise you that) and move forward into your new identity. But being able to know that change is necessary gives you the opportunity to prepare for it and make it in a strategic way-as opposed to letting yourself get to the point where you just can’t take it anymore. What usually happens in that moment is that you do the thing you were avoiding because your survival instinct kicks in. In a rush of adrenaline, you end the relationship or quit the job but you don’t do it in the most functional way. I believe you will end up making the change either way, I just like to have some semblance of control over how it occurs. Perhaps that is just me…but I don’t think so.
Throughout this whole process, the most important part of it all is to take care of yourself through the process. You didn’t think I would get through a whole blog post without mentioning self-care, did you? Seriously, dollface, this process is tough. This process is uncomfortable. This process changes things. If you are not practicing self-care through it, it will be waaaaaaay less tolerable and it is waaaaaaaay easier to give up. And you are worth the effort. And so is your future self. Do the work-you won’t regret it.