I’m cool. I’m smart. I’m stupid. I’m nerdy, artistic, or athletic. I’m the kind of person who goes to the gym. I’m the kind of person who is bad with numbers, or the kind of person who likes beaches more than mountains.
We say things like this to ourselves every day. We make our identities out of these ideas. Identity, as I’ve come to understand it, is comprised of the basic assumptions that we have about who we are- assumptions which guide the decisions we make in our day to day lives. Our identities are composed of different bits that are unequal parts emotional, physical, social, cultural, and spiritual. They are formed in part by our biology and ethnicity, but also by pressures from our families and friends, from society, from early childhood experiences and a number of defining moments throughout our lives. Defining moments that typically occur when we achieve something that seemed out of reach or are rejected from someone or something that we tried to achieve in a moment of vulnerability.
By the time we reach early adulthood we either have a fairly strong identity, or are constantly struggling to figure out what that identity is. I believe that our identities aren’t something that’s fixed or given, but something that we can actively change and shape. We can take control over what our identities will become instead of accepting what they are.
Identity is something that is naturally self-validating. We often think back on moments in our lives that prove to ourselves that we are a certain way. We recall the place that we sat in at lunch in high school which reminds us that we’re cool, or the painting that our 2nd grade teacher showed the whole class which reminds us we were born artists, or that college / job we got rejected from which reminds us we just aren’t smart enough. We surround ourselves with people like us, and maybe a few people that aren’t. We grow with these people.
We string together these moments over time, and ascribe a narrative to the moments. We make sense of our lives through story. And so our identity then is really a series of moments that make up the the story of our lives.
Our identities show us the things we are good at and the things we aren’t so good at, or the things that we enjoy and things that we don’t. They allow us to make statements like “that’s just not my thing.” We use this understanding to guide us in our daily interactions. Identity serves as a guidepost to point us in the direction that is most likely to support the continued build out of our existing identity. It guides us to seek out experiences that validate who we are and skip others that may not.
However, beyond just guiding us towards certain experiences, our identities help inform our memories. Psychological research has shown us that our memories are fallible. They fail us all the time, in ways that we don’t even realize. Beyond just forgetting the name of of the supporting actress in our favorite movie, a lot of our memories are partially or even completely false.
When we don’t remember the entirety of an event, our brains use our past experience, our understanding of ourselves, and context from the event to fill in that memory. This is generally useful and creates a more or less accurate memory. But memories that have a strong emotional component (most that involve identity), are frequently inaccurate due to our personal biases. We use our understanding of the world to interpret events as they happen and as we reflect on them. If parts of an event don’t make sense or are innaccessible to us, we use our understanding of how events “typically” play out to make the event logical or complete. Our memories tend to fit a personal template of how things typically occur, even if events unfolded differently than we would expect.
And so this results in an identity snowball effect. Our identities are made up of our ideas of who we are. We support that identity by taking actions that validate our understandings of who we are. When we have gaps in our memories we fill them in with memories that validate our identities and understanding of the world. And when an event occurs that contradicts our identities, we often forget them or encode them in ways that are actually consistent with our ideas of who we are.
Evolution has endowed us with a very smooth engine for maintaining a consistent identity.
But are our identities real? What would happen if we deliberatly took actions that could create results that would disprove parts of our identities? What if we revisited our memories and tried to understand them from a more objective perspective that is not tied to our identities? That is to say, what if we did things to challenge our identities? What if we found out that our identities aren’t fixed parts of who we are? What if they aren’t completely hard wired into our brains? What if a large part of our identity is a construct? And if they are constructs, would that mean that, if we wanted to, we could change our identities?
Biological and social factors play an inherent part in creating our identity. They shape us in ways we can’t control, in significant ways. But that doesn’t mean that we don’t have a lot of control. Often much more than we realize.
How do I know this? Beyond research into the topics, and conversations with psychologists in the field, I’ve gone through two of what I think I can honestly describe as full blown identity crises. I define an identity crisis as an experience, typically brought on by a specific event, that forces us to question the fundamental assumptions that we have of who we are. Our ideas of ourselves that guide our day to day life, for the most part unconsciously, come to the forefront of our minds and are no longer concrete but open for questioning. These pieces of identity come under intense scrutiny, as if we are jewelers who have been sold fake diamonds. We are forced to closely inspect our entire collection to determine if they are real or fake. Ryan Holiday calls these experiences fight club moments.
When people talk about someone having an identity crisis, or someone trying to “find themselves,” they typically roll their eyes as if the person is being histrionic and wanting of attention, or is simply naive to how the world works. This may be true in some cases. But here’s a news flash.
They’re real. And they suck.
Some level of anxiety, fear and depression is unavoidable. Going through one, we are uncertain about nearly everything. Everything is moving and there’s nothing to grab on to. It’s nausea. But if we can see these as opportunities, they are also launch pads for explosive growth. Because the only way out of an identity crisis is to rebuild the identity.
From “The Art of the Brick” by Nathan Sawaya
I learned two major things from these identity crises. First, I got very up close and personal with the assumptions that guided my life, the good and the bad. Finding the bad was not only much more difficult, because not only was I very good at deluding myself into not thinking there were any, but also because actually acknowledging the darker sides of my personality was intensely painful. Acknowledging these attributes felt like a step backwards. Becoming aware of my flaws made me feel like a terrible person. But in the end it’s crucial for progress (I learned that I’m not really a terrible person, but rather, just a person).
The second thing I learned is that we actually have control over identities. In the process of rebuilding I could hold on to the pieces of my identity that I liked, while also working to let go of the pieces I didn’t, replacing them with totally new pieces of identity.
How have I changed? I’ve started writing and playing music because I felt a complete lack of creativity in my life. I took outdoor salsa classes over the summer (though that’s mostly because I wanted to be able to dance properly to Danza Kuduro). I’ve started speaking up more when I disagree with people because I used to feel too passive. I’ve started listening more when I’m convinced I’m right, because a lot of times I’m wrong. And that’s OK. I’ve largely overcome the imposter syndrome.
Is an identity crisis necessary to make these changes? No, and I hope no one else has to go through such an experience. But if that’s not the spark, then what is? How does this process work? It’s not as easy as saying “I’m going to be nicer” or “more creative” or “more active” or “a better listener / less self-centered.”
But that is step one. Decide who you want to want to be and who you don’t want to be.
Do this in a thoughtful way. Try to understand the things you want to be because they will truly make you happy, and those that you want because of more superficial reasons. Understand that there are some limitations- physical, mental, societal- that will stand in your way. Some of these are hurdles to overcome and others are warnings that certain paths you think you want to take should be avoided. Einstein would likely not have made a great dancer no matter how hard he tried or wanted it. The Rock probably wouldn’t be very happy as a digital media account manager.
But once you’ve taken stock of who you want to be and who you don’t want to be, step two is to…
Start taking action. To make this action successful, three steps of preparation are required.
First, we need to allow ourselves to be vulnerable. We need to accept that if we are going to change, we are going to be taking risks and purposefully damaging our identity (this is one aspect of change that is actually harder in the absence of the identity crisis, because there is still attachment to the identity). If we are prepared to be vulnerable, then the next step is two to accept that we are going to suck. We are going to do things poorly. We are going to fail. For people who are accustomed to success, through their own hard work and intelligence, but also through self-selecting into things that are likely to continue success, this is no small task.
And the last and most important step- we need to have fun with the process. Read that again. We need to have fun. When we think about the times that we are told to have fun we conjure up memories of a coach, teacher, or boss saying this to us at the exact moment that we couldn’t possibly be having fun. But this is so important to everything. We need to have fun with the process. We need to remember to play.
So, where does that bring us? Our identity which we develop overtime turns into a self-validating echo-chamber, which can blind us to nourishing avenues of growth. We have the ability to consciously take a step outside of that echo-chamber, and lift the blinders. In order to do so we need to honestly critique ourselves and understand where we are today. We need to start taking action to become the people that we want to be. We need to have fun with the failures and the process.
(Well, it’s not that easy)
And so I ask, what are the events that have shaped your life? What are the different components of your identity, good and bad? What has helped you grow and what is holding you back?
What is the story of your life and do you like where it’s going? Is the pen being held by someone else or is it firmly in your hand?
Special thanks to Brian Doochin, Sean Disesa, Monis Khan, Kate McLean of Western Washington University, and Andy Desoto of Washington University in St. Louis for helping me develop my ideas and edit this article.