With the growing popularity of social media, these days more than ever we are called upon to show off ‘who we are’. And while things like Facebook encourage the best of us to exaggerate our good bits while glossing over the bad, for some of us, our inability to be authenticis more than an online issue. It is a struggle in every part of our life.
Is this you? Are you plagued by the thought of, “Who am I?” Do you find yourself doing what you think you ‘should’ do, or what allows you to keep up with others, because you just can’t tell what you like and don’t like? If so, you might be suffering from a very real “identity crisis” that deserves your attention.
What IS identity, really?
Our identity is the way we define ourselves. This includes our values, our beliefs, and our personality. It also encompasses the roles we play in our society and family, our past memories, and our hopes for the future, as well as our hobbies and interests. Most of these things can, of course, change. We can switch jobs, move to a different community, or experience life changing circumstances that challenge our beliefs.
So then how do we know our identity is or isn’t real and ‘stable’?
To have a solid identity we need to be able to see that we are the same person in our past as we are now, and as we will be in the future. We need to feel the same no matter what our environment.
It doesn’t mean that we act the same all the time, not at all. We might know we are moody, or that we act differently under stress, or depending on who we are around. We are not, for example, going to act the same around a romantic partner as we act around our parents or colleagues. But even with these variances in our behaviour and moods, we feel we are the same person underneath.
A person without a sense of identity, however, can instead feel a disconnect from who they have been, and/or no sense as to who they will become next. They don’t feel they are the same, but feel a different person sometimes from day to day. Some report looking in the mirror and finding it hard to believe it is them looking back.
Of course we can all feel like we don’t know who we are when we experience a challenging time in life. If we lose our job, or a loved one, if we have to move countries and leave our family behind, all these things can leave us so bereft we temporarily lose sight of ourselves. But a real identity crisis is different.
A real identity crisis is when we don’t form a proper sense of self as an adolescent (see the section below “why do I lack a sense of identity”). It results in certain ongoing behaviours throughout our adult life.
7 Signs That you Lack a Sense of Identity
Not sure if you are just going through a rough patch or really are suffering from an unformed identity? Check for these seven factors that show you might not have a stable sense of self.
1. You change with your environment.
If you work at one job and everyone is studious and quiet, you will be studious and quiet. If your next job requires you to be chatty and upbeat, it will soon seem as if you were always the social type. It’s as if you are more formed by your environment than your own choices and personality.
2. Relationships mould you.
Not only are you likely the sort who feels entirely bereft without a relationship, when you do get into one, you change your hobbies and appearance to match your partner. You will convince yourself that what they like is what you really like, but you just didn’t know it, even if you have just gone from wearing black and listening to classical to wearing cowboy boots and listening to country. And if your partner doesn’t like things you’ll give them up, down to changing your friends sometimes.
3. You often have radical shifts in your opinion.
This can include big things like political and religious beliefs, or just your opinion on popular culture and things like food and fashion. You might even find you change your mind from day to day and never know what you’ll agree with next. Whether you realise it or not you will be changing your opinion to give others what they want. Even if you are disagreeing with someone, on a certain level you ascertain they like a challenge so present an opinion that allows for debate.
4. You don’t like being asked about yourself.
It makes you uncomfortable when people ask too many questions about yourself. Perhaps you have developed good tactics for avoiding this, like changing the subject or turning questions around on to the other person, then just agreeing with them.
5. You get bored easily.
At the heart of not having an identity is often a restlessness, as if you are afraid to settle down incase you commit to the wrong thing that makes your life worse instead of better. The truth is that as much as you want to know who you are, there is a fear of knowing, too.
6. Your relationships don’t run deep.
If you aren’t sure who you are, you can have a fear that others will find out that you are actually nothing much and then not like you. So there can be a lot of self-protection going on that prevents real connection with others, even if you tend to attract a lot of friends and are often in a relationship. You will likely suffer a fear of intimacy.
You might also have troubles holding on to a relationship or social circle for too long, or find you hang around with people who control you and tell you what to do.
7. Deep down you don’t trust yourself.
If you don’t know who you are, and you have surprised yourself in the past with your own quick decisions and sudden changes of opinion, you can feel that you can’t even trust yourself.
Why do I lack a sense of identity?
Psychologists connects a lack of identity to our childhoods. If we didn’t hit the right markers of psychological and emotional growth, we can be left an adult who lacks a real idea of who they are.
Developmental psychologist Erik Erikson believed the environment a child grew up in was crucial to forming their sense of self awareness and self. He identified eight stages to a human’s psychosocial growth that all build on each other, each of which offers us a positive outcome if we experience them properly, but leave us struggling if we don’t.
Erikson coined the phrase ‘identity crisis’.For him, it occurred during the teenage years, during a stage he called the Identity vs. Role Confusion level, where we learn to be true to ourselves. But if we have not had the healthy environment required to learn the crucial lessons of the earlier levels of our childhood, it will be far less likely that as a teen we can find the success we need to learn to be true to ourselves. Instead we will enter the adult stages of emotional growth at a deficit and confused about who we are.
Another important level when it comes to identity that Erikson talks about is from birth to one years old, what he calls the ‘Basic Trust vs Basic Mistrust” stage. Our caretakers help us develop a sense of trust. If they don’t, we are left to grow up believing the world is unreliable and inconsistent – which can result in feeling we ourselves are unpredictable and untrustworthy.
More recentlyAttachment theoryhas also supported this view, proposing that creating a healthy attachment with a caregiver as an infant determines our character as an adult.
There are several other other psychological issues that can also cause a lack of identity that need to be considered.
Codependencyis when you seek your value through the approval of others instead of from within yourself. In order to win this approval, codependents are prone to adjusting themselves to match others, meaning your sense of identity is unstable.
Bipolar disorderinvolves disruptive swings in behaviour that have you acting in very contradictory ways. For example, a usually calm quieter person can then spend 48 hours partying and flirting with strangers. This can leave you feeling very confused about who you really are beneath the erratic acting out.
Borderline personality disorder involves having extreme, out of control emotional reactions, especially if you perceive you are being in some way rejected by someone. This can leave you so sensitive that you manage by changing who you are depending on what you perceive others want from you, much like a codependent does. Many people with BPD report that they don’t feel they know who they really are.
Then of course there are more severe forms of identity disorders, like schizophrenia and dissociative disorder, formerly called multiple personality disorder.
What Kinds of Therapies Help Someone Find a Sense of Identity?
If you are struggling with a sense of self, any form of talk therapy would be suitable (as opposed to more structured, short-term therapies like CBT). Talk therapy offers an unbiased and supportive environment to start to unravel why you are afraid to commit to an identity, and to discover how to listen to your own wants and needs, likes and dislikes. You might consider psychodynamic psychotherapy, existential psychotherapy, or Jungian psychotherapy. People centred counselling is also a good bet, a form of therapy where you determine what the agenda will be and what you want to work on. To browse hundreds of therapists available for Skype sessions from these approaches and more, you can visit the harleytherapy.com platform to easily and quickly find the best match for you.
Many therapists these days integrate mindfulness into their work with clients, and it’s a good match if you are trying to get a better sense of who you are. Mindfulness teaches us to disengage from the chatter of our minds and tap in to what we are feeling in the present moment. (Read our post on trying a two-minute mindfulness break to experience it for yourself).
Life is an exploration, and at certain points, we all surprise ourselves. There is no need to know exactly who you are to do well in life. But if you find that your lack of identity is causing you to feel unstable, and you suffer an ongoing sense of stress and anxiety because of it, then perhaps it’s time to ask the real you to please stand up! The good thing is that there IS a real you. We all have an inner self waiting to be discovered, and all it really takes is the decision and commitment to do so.
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