Sitting in school eight hours a day is a struggle for a kid with ADHD. My grades were a direct reflection of this. Unfortunately, instead of helping me, one of my teachers used it as an opportunity to fuel an identity crisis. When she asked me what I wanted to do after high school, I told her I wanted to go to college and become a doctor. She laughed at me and said, “That’ll never happen—your grades are far too low to get in anywhere. You’re not smart enough.”
For years, those words stuck with me. However, when I got into college at the University of Kentucky by conditional acceptance, my identity began to shift thanks to an English professor who spoke belief into me. That summer, I ended up getting the highest grade in the class for a subject I was once told I was terrible at. A couple of years later, I became a doctor.
The perception you have of your identity rules your life. It determines your success, limitations, interactions with people, and relationships.
When you lack a sense of identity or suffer from identity confusion, you start living for other people and letting them determine how your life plays out. With this comes the anxiety and depression of not knowing who you are (or knowing who you are but never pursuing your true purpose). These are the symptoms of an identity crisis.
From a leadership perspective, having a strong identity is a must. Look at changemakers like Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, Martin Luther King, Jr., Mother Teresa, and Mahatma Gandhi. Each person who transforms the world into a better place is firm in who they are and what their mission in life is.
To lead with purpose and impact, learn more about:
- What an identity crisis is.
- Signs you might be having one.
- And how to reclaim your identity.
What Is an Identity Crisis?
An identity crisis is a feeling of insecurity and uncertainty around who you are and what your purpose in life is. Psychologist Erik Erikson, who specialized in psychosocial development, coined the term. Erikson theorized there are eight various psychosocial stages in life. Every phase requires a person to resolve a crisis.
One of the most critical stages—identity cohesion vs. role confusion—happens between ages 12 to 18 when a child becomes a young adult. When a person does not achieve their basic ego identity, they experience identity confusion. This causes an identity crisis and identity issues revolving around who they are, where they belong, and their purpose in life.
Top Signs of Identity Crisis or Identity Confusion
- Not being able to identify who you are to yourself or others
- Lacking a sense of your personality, character, and values
- Having negative self-perception, low self-esteem, and minimal self-value
- Feeling the pressure to adhere to others’ definitions of success
- Letting unnecessarily harsh criticism change who you are
- Not trusting your decision-making abilities
- Questioning your purpose and meaning in life
- Experiencing depression, anxiety, and other mental health problems
- Turning to drugs and alcohol to numb your feelings
- Having a lot of conflict and turmoil in your relationships
- Creating a toxic, rebellious side that hurts yourself and others
- Falling into social conformity and other types of peer pressure
How to Recover From an Identity Crisis
For those experiencing an identity crisis, recovery can seem like a difficult and time-consuming process. Your mental health may even be in a state where you don’t feel like doing anything. If you’re struggling with identity issues or a loss of identity, the following tips can put you on the right path to recovery.
1. Get Clear on the Three Types of Identity
Identity is your source of value and recognition. In other words, your identity determines your sense of worth. However, as philosophized by Charles Taylor in his book Source of Self, what we choose to value and recognize within ourselves has shifted over time, especially during the 20th century. This is causing more identity crises than ever before and leading to negative effects on mental health.
A person can develop their core identity in three different ways:
- Traditional Identity: Identity forms from a place of anti-selfishness, sacrifice, and duty. The most important aspects of your sense of self stem from others, usually those within your family or tribe. With this type of identity, your goal is to fit in and create harmony within the group. Additionally, you base your morals and values on tradition.
- Modern Identity: Unlike traditional identity, modern identity forms from inside the self. This includes basing morals and values on what you deem important. People trapped in a modern identity feel society must adjust for them. Additionally, they desire standing out and not letting others define them. Often, they crave recognition and praise, even if they haven’t done anything new or noteworthy.
- Biblical Identity: With this type of identity, God chooses your identity. You base your morals, values, and personality on God’s word. People who walk through life believing they are the children of God have the strongest sense of identity, which allows them to step into their purpose entirely. They have the confidence and direction needed to live a meaningful life.
So many people struggle with identity issues because most people are living from a place of modern identity. This type of identity is superficial and has weak roots. Learn more about how to dig deep and strengthen your identity below.
2. Reflect on Your Purpose and Make It a Priority
“Everyone’s living for something—there’s something that is the main thing in your life. Whatever that is will define you. ‘What am I worth?’ is actually the sense of self-worth that comes from an assessment of whether or not I’m reaching the highest good or whether I’m honoring it or achieving it.”Reverend Timothy Keller
If you don’t know who you are, why you were put on this Earth, and what you’re supposed to be doing, it’s only natural to struggle with identity confusion.
So, what are you living for?
Gain clarity by:
Ranking your priorities: Modern identity is based on society’s expectations, not what is necessarily important in life. This can skew a person’s priorities because they feel they must live a certain way that doesn’t align with who they are. The psychology of an identity crisis often has roots in this line of thinking. As a result, this produces an adverse effects on mental health. To combat this, start by ranking your priorities.
- Make a list of your priorities and rank them in order of importance.
- What really matters?
- Which things have you been neglecting?
- How can you get better at prioritizing what should come first in your life?
Listening to your calling and following it: Questions regarding your significance stop when you allow God’s purpose for you to direct your thoughts, behaviors, actions, decisions, and path in life.
- Is there a calling you’ve received or feel drawn to?
- What’s stopping you from answering it?
- Which natural gifts and talents were you blessed with?
- Why were you given these talents?
- How can they be used for the greater good?
Practicing self-reflection: Another way to get rid of a major identity crisis and improve your mental health is through deep internal questioning. If you’re not good at doing this alone, go to therapy and find a therapist who can teach you how to dig deeper and explore your feelings. When you know your values, beliefs, principles, and priorities, you’re not easily influenced by others. As a result, you stay well-connected to your purpose. This keeps leaders steady in achieving their mission while growing other impact-driven leaders. It also can keep you grounded during a midlife crisis. Get inquisitive and start asking deep questions like:
- What do you want your future to look like?
- What problem in the world do you feel called to fight against?
- How will you resolve this issue?
- Are you willing to make new sacrifices in your pursuit to solve this problem?
3. Listen to Positive Influences
As JRR Tolkien once said, “The praise of the praiseworthy is above all rewards.” Often though, we let outside critics have a seat at the table, causing us to question who we are. Instead of letting negative forces result in an identity crisis, turn to the people you love, trust, respect, and admire. These might be positive influences like your parents, mentors, spiritual leaders, and business coaches. What do they have to say about who you are and where you’re going?
Be strategic about who you choose to influence your life.
A great example of this is the relationship between Shaquille O’Neal and his former coach Phil Jackson. Jackson saw the greatness in O’Neal, but he also knew he wasn’t living in alignment with his full potential. During his first year with the new coach, O’Neal said Jackson told him: “Just do me a favor this year. No rap videos, no commercials, no nothing. If you play like the way I think you can play, you’re going to be MVP, and we’re gonna win a championship.” O’Neal said because he respected and admired Jackson, he agreed to do it for a year. As a result, O’Neal revealed, “[I]t worked. And I did it the second year, and I did it the third year.”
Let the people who matter lift you up. However, know that great coaches in life will also challenge you to reach your full potential. Be willing to listen and do the work.
4. Make Peace with Your Past
Trauma is a fact of life, but it does not, however, have to be a life sentence.”Peter a. Levine
Trauma can certainly shape your identity, but it should never become your identity or personality. When this happens, abusers will continue to control and dictate your life, even if they’re no longer in it. This is why it’s important to heal from negative or traumatic aspects of your past that deeply impact your current mental health. For instance, this might look like experiencing a high level of conflict in your personal and professional relationships because of childhood abandonment issues. To avoid an identity crisis and move forward in life, you must make peace with your past. Otherwise, your mental health will continue to suffer.
To do this:
- Understand trauma caused by others is not your fault, and it is not a reflection of who you are.
- Realize how certain issues you’ve experienced held you back in life. For instance, what beliefs, habits, or behaviors have you adopted that aren’t serving you?
- Retrain the way you think. This might look like recognizing and eliminating unuseful behaviors, rebuking limiting beliefs, or working through traumatic events. Find a therapist or mental health professional who can help you learn better coping mechanisms. Additionally, going to therapy can produce huge breakthroughs and allow you to see past your trauma.
5. Shift the Way You Think About Yourself
It’s difficult to know who you are if you don’t know where you came from. For this reason, to avoid a major identity crisis, lean into a biblical sense of identity. When you perceive yourself as a child of God—the creator of the universe—your sense of value, worthiness, and confidence increases. This source of identity allows you to feel like you can do anything you set your mind to.
People whose identity is rooted in God know they were chosen to fulfill a specific purpose. Instead of falling victim to limiting beliefs, social conformity, and comparison to others, they know God will use them and their gifts to impact the world positively.
To gain a stronger biblical identity:
- Study the Bible to see what God has to say about identity. Start with Genesis 1:27, Jeremiah 1:5, 1 John 3:1-2, Psalms 139:13-14, Ephesians 2:10, and Romans 12:6-8.
- Invite and include God to help you step into your true identity and purpose.
- Make it a new daily habit to pray and remain connected to Him.
- Surround yourself with positive influences living from a place of biblical identity.
- Check out the book, And David Perceived He Was King.
3 Things You Can Do Today to Regain a Strong Identity
As referenced above, modern identity is the weak foundation most people base their sense of self upon. Today, influences such as music, television shows, social media influencers, ads, and movies all contribute to a society where most people are clueless about who they are. Whether you’re still early in life or suffering a midlife crisis, these factors all can have an influence in how you see yourself.
If you want to stop an identity crisis from recurring, change the programming you’re receiving. Programming is done through story and repetition. For example, maybe you hear repeated messages in songs, movies, news channels, or social media that condone adopting a more modern identity. You can also engage in first principles thinking, removing all the assumptions you make and discovering core truths.
To step into your true self today:
- Be aware of what you’re consuming. Start thinking about the media messages you’re being sent and how it affects your beliefs, values, thoughts, words, and actions. Eliminate anything that is not positively influencing your identity.
- Change your habits. Once you have a clear sense of who you are and what your purpose is, align your daily actions to reflect this.
- Surround yourself with a community of positive influences. You are the sum of the top five people you spend the most time with. For this reason, choose to be around those who love, inspire, encourage, support, and challenge you. Get rid of any current bad influences and replace them with people who illuminate the person you are.
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