My identity crisis began at 14.
I’ll try to describe it exactly as I would have at the time.
Before 14, there had been a few years of wonderful progress and growth; I’d moved to a new place with my family, made some really good friends, and fully immersed myself in martial arts.
During those good years, every possibility for the future had seemed to naturally weave itself in amongst this big, overarching plan for where I thought my life was going.
Then I turned 14.
Everything inside suddenly felt wrong.
Each part of “being myself” was now its own impossible-to-solve puzzle.
Nothing flowed or connected anymore.
With martial arts, for example, I could still go through the physical motions; but it was like the spirit or essence of it was somehow missing.
My fight became to either reclaim the hope, innocence, and abilities I’d lost, or to discover something new.
The following pattern emerged to keep me trapped for at least the next decade (or 2)…
First, I’d see a good quality in someone—something I believed I could embody in a cool way.
I’d turn that quality into a blueprint to model my life after.
I’d get so excited as the blueprint consumed my thoughts, words, and schedule.
But then something would start to feel a little off.
Beginning as an unconscious weariness like always having to flex a muscle, the good quality at the base of my new identity began to lose its luster.
By that point, though, I’d already be speeding headlong toward the next compelling quality.
Every quality represented its own potential life for me to throw myself into.
Yet unlike before, when I’d watched qualities combine on their own to enhance my long term goals, I now did my best to ignore the reality of each prospect fading and crumbling beneath an all-consuming lack, void, or disconnect.
I remember frequenting literal mountaintops to make theatrical displays of abandoning old ways and embracing the new . . . then the even newer . . . then…
It’s stunning to look back and consider how I was so totally convinced each time that whichever quality I was focused on would finally be the one to stick—the “who” I was really meant to be.
What I didn’t see was that having “Who am I?” or “Who should I be?” as the focus of my quest was actually what was causing and perpetuating my identity crisis all along.
Who Are You?
Teacher and entrepreneur Lorenz Sell writes,
Identity is the answer to the question: Who am I? Anyone who has ever seriously asked themselves that question may have found that the answer is not as obvious as one might think it should be.
If I were to ask “What are you?” you might answer “I’m a human” or “I’m a person.”
Persons all have personalities.
So “What are you?” works best as a question about your personhood or personality.
Again, “Who are you?” is a question about your identity.
Your identity consists of every quality you could be identified with.
It’s helpful to break identity up into two components: culture and self.
Your cultural (or social) identity is outward; it’s all the qualities you could be identified with in relation to other individuals and groups.
As philosophy teacher and writer Nathan Placencia describes,
Statuses relevant for considerations of social identity include gender and race, as well as familial roles like being a father, a mother, a sister, or a brother, and occupational roles like being a professor, a firefighter, or a landscaper.
Identity Politics is a hugely popular topic these days, and it centers entirely around these outward cultural identities—how certain groups you could be identified with in society also determine which groups you couldn’t be.
Speaking of clashes between cultural identities, diversity expert Dr. Joanna Rummens writes,
Identities are socially constructed and negotiated. The resulting identifications may be accepted or they may be contested. In many cases they overlap or intersect with other significant—and sometimes competing—identities.
Just as my identity crisis resulted from a search for who I was supposed to be, similar (though far more serious) problems can arise when we attempt to mandate or measure the precise merits of different cultural identities.
I’ll just say there’s a reason I like to use the word “culture” to speak of outward identities.
Cultures are beautiful (once you know them).
Cultures aren’t laws or levels to be boxed or nailed to, but histories, tastes, ways of seeing and doing things, stories, art…
Without going into it in this series, my belief is that seeing outward social identities as aspects of culture could ironically quell what’s called the “culture war.”
Your personal “self” identity is inward; at its core, it’s an assessment of your personality.
It’s important to remember that how you assess who you are is only an interpretation of what you actually are . . . or of what you wish you were . . . or even of what you feel you must pretend to be.
Consider how limited an interpretation based at best on a partial perspective must be, even as Sell confirms:
Each identity is a limited interpretation of who we are.
And that interpretation can easily be clouded by wishful thinking or obligation.
Why might you feel you should be a certain way?
Often, pressure to be something that doesn’t come natural to what you are originates from aspects of your outward cultural identity.
Therapist, talk show host, and mental health expert Andrea Mathews shares the following fascinating example of how an imposed outward identity can conflict with your authentic inner self:
I have commonly heard people describe themselves as, “Well, I’m just one of those people who gives, gives, gives. You know that’s just me.” What they don’t know is that there is another “me” down under all of that, a “me” that is seeking to be heard, seeking to be known, and seeking to be lived. Those who identify with “goodness” are often stuck in patterns of behavior that are not true to who they actually are. If you ask them what they want, they do not know. If you try to help them get in touch with authentic belief or original thought, they do not know these either. What they know is that they will feel very guilty if they don’t do what they are supposed to do. And what they are supposed to do is determined by external pressures.
The way your conscious mind works to interpret your identity is by bringing to your attention only the portions of your cumulative experience that best fit your current assessment of yourself.
Science writer and editor Michael Bond says,
Identity is often understood to be a product of memory as we try to build a narrative from the many experiences of our lives.
Of this narrative, another Science writer and editor Graham Lawton writes,
A crucial building block of selfhood is the autobiographical self, which allows us to recall the past, project into the future, and view ourselves as unbroken entities across time.
So the search for “who am I?” has as its end goal something fixed, certain, and as simple as possible to construct a workable self around without ever having to reconsider.
And therein we find the problem at the base of all identity issues: failing to see identity as the evolving assessment of a limited interpretation it always actually is.
Identity can’t really be a blueprint; it never works as the easy prescription your conscious mind tries to make it into.
The most helpful way to approach identity is as a flawed awareness—an incomplete picture ever prone to change.
How Black-and-White Can You Be?
In the throes of my identity crisis, some of the qualities I tried to construct a viable self around felt far more comfortable and closer-to-home than others.
I remember listening to a particular album one day by one of my favorite artists.
At the end of a certain song, all the blaring rock noise suddenly cut to distant ocean waves and soft, acoustic guitar.
Quiet lyrics then sang of simple kindnesses being held up to eternal lights as both a joke and demonstration of odd transcendence in purely human meaning.
The quality captured in that song was one I knew I’d be able to slip into without having to try that hard.
It would form the basis of an identity I could have worn rather easily for an extended period of time: laidback, sweet, soft, quiet, nice, earthy, simple, understanding…
But not long after that, I was out with friends one night and got blindsided by utter betrayal.
One of my best friends started making out with my girlfriend right in front of me.
They weren’t drunk or anything; clear decisions had been made about priorities.
Just then, an angry song came on over the loudspeaker.
I listened close as the singer began to rage about injustice and being pushed too far one too many times.
Though the quality in that song felt extremely unnatural for me to imbibe, I decided to take it on, lashing out indignantly against my now non-friend and ex.
A few days later, I got high in someone’s garage at band practice, and suddenly saw myself working so incredibly hard to carry that angry identity still.
I’ll never forget my huge sigh of relief as I took off my unlikely leather coat, tussled my amateurishly slicked-back hair, and relinquished the scowling frown I’d been contorting my face into since that night of the betrayal.
So, who or what did I fully fling myself into half-becoming next?
Does it matter?
I’m sure I cycled through identities based on qualities shown by those same two artists at least a dozen more times in the coming years.
But let me ask:
Are nice, easygoing people incapable of anger?
Can flaky artistic types never bring themselves to take practical steps?
Are realists altogether devoid of fantasy?
Are logical accountants immune to being swept away in the fun and romance of sheer possibility?
Are brash go-getters never sweet?
What you are can’t really ever be nailed down to something so succinct and binary as to be grasped and worn forever like a comfortable pair of shoes.
And that’s a good thing, for it means within you exists more potential and resources than you could ever know.
Thinking you have to be a certain way (for whatever reason) always limits you.
As we break down all measures of personality in the coming chapters, we’ll uncover keys to help you transcend the pitfalls of identity prescription.
That way your best qualities—known and unknown, valued and unvalued—can use you and your life more and more to exist, combine, and thrive.
Bond, Michael. “Why Are You?” New Scientist. 2/23/2013, Vol. 217 Issue 2905, p41-43. 3p.
Lawton, Graham. “When the Self Breaks.” New Scientist. 2/23/2013, Vol. 217 Issue 2905, p36-42. 3p.
Mathews, Andrea. “Identity or Self?” Llewellyn Worldwide – Articles: Identity or Self?.
Placencia, Nathan. “Am I Who I Say I Am? Social Identities and Identification.” Social Theory and Practice 36 (4):643-660.
Rummens, Joanna A. “Conceptualising Identity and Diversity: Overlaps, Intersections, and Processes.” Canadian Ethnic Studies. 2003, Vol. 35 Issue 3, p10-25. 16p.
Sell, Lorenz. “Losing My Identity.” The Huffington Post, TheHuffingtonPost.com, 20 Aug. 2013.