June 3, 2011

How to Avoid an Identity Crisis

By Patrick Mahan

Everyone wants an IDENTITY. 

An identity defines who you are.  It distinguishes you from others.  It makes you feel unique and important. It gives your life meaning and a sense of purpose.  And your identity determines your sense of self-worth. 

Everybody "wants to be somebody" and it naturally follows that a person isn’t happy until he becomes reasonably satisfied that he has found his identity. 

While establishing an identity is critically important to your overall well-being, becoming overly attached to the label you place on yourself can be harmful. 

And believe it or not, we are all at risk.

So how do you find the proper balance?  And what can you do to protect yourself from the potential pitfalls of an identity crisis?
 


First of all, what is your identity?  Obviously, we're not talking about your driver's license or social security number.  We're talking about the part of your psyche that Freud defined as your Ego.

Examples: “I am a lawyer,” “I am a father,” “I am a Christian,” “I am a family man,” “I am a millionaire," "I am a comedian", "I am a savvy businessman."

Once you establish an identity, almost all of your decisions and behaviors are directed by your need to validate and maintain that identity.

The comedian says, "I have to make people laugh.  If people aren't laughing, then I am a failure."

The entrepreneur says, "I have to launch new businesses and make lots of money. If I'm not doing that, then I am a failure."

The star athlete says, "I have to win the game.  If I don't win, then I am a failure."

The model is the same across the board.  Just fill in the blanks.

"I am a ____.  Therefore, I have to ____ or else I am a failure."

Can you see how this limited way of thinking can be extremely dangerous?

Consider this... if your life and sense of self-worth is based on the identity that first and foremost “I am a doctor” then your role in other areas of life (husband, father, friend, etc.) will be diminished.  This is why balance is so important.  You can’t allow yourself to base your entire identity on one role, or one facet of your life. 

What happens if for some reason you can no longer "be a doctor”?  Your entire sense of self-worth is turned upside down.  Scenarios like this are not uncommon and lead many people into a psychological tailspin.

Think about the "Hollywood Syndrome."  A famous actor goes several years without a role and falls out of the spotlight.  He begins to go through withdrawal.  He begins to question his identity.  After all, an actor has to act. "If I'm not acting, then who am I?"  Often times, these people turn to drugs and alcohol in an effort to cope with the identity crises.  There are countless examples of this that come out of Hollywood.  But it happens to everyday people in the "real world" as well.

Consider another common example known as the "Empty Nest Syndrome."  Mothers often experience a feeling of depression when their children grow up and leave the house.  Why?  Obviously, they miss their kids and any major lifestyle change is difficult at first.  And those feelings are completely natural. But another huge contributing factor to this feeling of depression comes as the result of a blow to the mother's identity.  Her major life-role has been as a caretaker.  Now that the children are gone, who will she take care of?  How will she fulfill her role?  Her identity... or the label "I am a mother," which she has placed on herself, is now questioned for the first time.  At that point, many women begin to feel an emptiness and begin to wonder what they'll do with the rest of their lives.

When I was younger, my identity was “a baseball player.”  That’s how I saw myself.  My entire identity was based on “being a baseball player.”  After college, I no longer had the opportunity to play baseball.  My career was over and it wasn’t by choice.  My identity was taken away from me and it took a long time for me to accept that.

You see, when you base your life around one identity, and it’s taken away from you, it’s very difficult to find a new identity and it’s an emotional struggle until you find new things to latch onto. 

So don’t put all your eggs in one basket.  Strive to balance your life-roles and allow your sense of self-worth to come from various sources. 

Also realize that many people unconsciously adopt negative identities such as “I am an alcoholic.”  The subconscious mind desperately wants to latch on to something.  It needs an identity.  And if you don’t choose a positive, empowering identity, then it will choose something for you.  In the case of an alcoholic, it’s difficult to give up alcohol because if you do, you feel that you are “giving up your identity.” Being “an alcoholic” is self-defeating, but it satisfies your deep-seated psychological need to “be something.”  Don’t allow yourself to fall into that trap.

Here are a few tips to help you avoid an identity crisis...

  1. Make a conscious choice to establish a well-balanced identity that will empower and serve you as well as others. While striving to balance your life-roles, allow your sense of self-worth to come from various sources. 
  2. Be careful not to become overly attached to any one, single thing.
  3. Realize that who you are is not defined by what you do or what you have.
  4. If Plan A doesn't work, there's always a Plan B, C and D.  Life is a game and it's not over until you quit. When a quarterback gets sacked, he doesn't quit.  He simply runs another play.  Make adjustments and keep charging forward toward the goal.
  5. If what you consider your identity is taken away for any reason, consider reaching out to others. The therapeutic value of helping others in need is immeasurable.  And it has a magical way of taking your mind off of your own internal battles.

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