An identity crisis occurs when we face a period of uncertainty regarding who we are, what we stand for and/or what roles we hold. Erik Erikson, the psychologist who first coined the term, theorized that our early adult years are a period for identity exploration, confusion and formation. Not only do most people face some sort of identity crisis at least once in their lifetime, but working through these crises can ultimately leave us in a better place to achieve long-term life satisfaction.
During my freshman year of college, I relapsed with my eating disorder to the point of needing hospitalization and months of intensive treatment. Following the restoration of my physical body, I faced a frightening realization: yes, my body was alive – but I had no idea why “I” was. Life itself felt very meaningless. With the help of a life coach, I dedicated the next couple of years of my life to meeting myself and introducing her to the world. There were many times during my identity crisis when I’d feel so hopeless that I was tempted to completely throw all of my progress away. Going through the experience, however, ultimately shaped me for the better. Here are 5 things I learned in order to get through it:
1. Use your right-brain
The human brain is divided into two hemispheres — right and left. Our right brain is closely connected to imagination, intuition and the arts, whereas our left brain predominantly controls verbal, analytical and logical functions. Finding outlets for personal expression with minimal to no external influence is important, as it connects us to our intuitive, imaginative right side. Many of us shy away from stereotypical art forms (painting, drawing, writing, etc.) because we don’t think we can execute the vision we have in our head and fear being judged — by ourselves and others (News flash: we’re often our own worst critic!). The truth is, if we don’t ever attempt to create anything, we’ll always be stuck with an empty canvas. There are many alternative avenues to tap into our creativity, including making playlists, re-arranging living spaces, and trying out new recipes that may feel more comfortable. These activities leave us feeling inspired long after we engage in them and keep our mind open to searching for new opportunities. I’ve found the more that I can get out of my head and into my intuitive side, the more transformative the experience is – and that the process of creating is more important than the outcome.
2. Practice mindfulness
Engaging in mindful practices (meditation, breathwork, journaling, etc.) provides us with a deeper understanding of our internal thoughts, feelings and triggers. We can take what we learn in those practices to provide guidance regarding changes we would like to make in our lives and actions. Mindfulness also increases traits such as empathy and gratitude, which allows us to feel more connected to others and increases our sense of belonging in the world. To practice mindfulness, I currently use a set of mindful meditation cards with various Buddhist teachings every morning. I select one to think about and keep it in front of me at my desk during the day. I occasionally attend reiki and yoga classes for a sense of community, and use guided meditations and journaling individually while at home. At the end of every day, I journal 5 positive takeaways from that day, whether they were gratitudes, learning moments or things I am looking forward to. Forcing myself to find the positive aspects of even the hardest of days keeps me optimistic, and gives me a sense of clarity regarding who I am and what I truly appreciate about life, even when I’m struggling.
Related: How to Be Happy for Your Friends’ Successes When Your Post-Grad Life Isn’t Going as Planned
3. Daydream & visualize
As we expose ourselves to new experiences and become more mindful, we gain clarity regarding what truly “is” and “isn’t” for us. Julie Dale, a former world-class athlete now working as a life coach in Boulder, Colorado, says that “it is important to focus on the ‘what’ and not the ‘how’ as we go through the process of pursuing our dreams.” Research has found that formal daydreaming interventions can enhance creativity, problem solving skills, and ultimately assist in goal progression. Numerous well-known figures have attributed much of their success with visualization, as it triggers our subconscious mind to search for new resources and opportunities, initiates the law of attraction, and increases self-efficacy. Guided journal prompts can help spark new ideas and serve as a starting point for daydreaming. If we have a clear vision of what we would ultimately love from life, the steps on how to get there come with time as we gain the necessary skills and seek appropriate resources.
4. Identify personal values & mission
In addition to prioritizing the “what” over the “how”, it’s useful to know “why” we’re doing what we’re doing to develop a sense of meaning and purpose. We can create a personal compass by identifying a list of core personal values. These key values can be used as a guide to serve us when we’re making decisions, whether they’re small or large. Joselyn*, a 26-year-old living in Phoenix, Arizona who is now recovered from a long battle with alcohol addiction spent some time identifying her true values. “As I [did], I realized that my everyday actions were not aligned with them. In order to feel better about myself, I needed to become more accountable for how I was showing up in the world,” she says. Since choosing recovery, Joselyn obtained a college degree and is now working as a grade-school teacher, where she says she truly feels connected to her sense of purpose. There are no “right” or “wrong” values, and often our greatest strengths lay in what makes us different. From there, we can use our values to create a personal mission statement to solidify who we are and what we stand for in life. Learning about the values of others helps strengthen relationships and provides us an opportunity to better support them with their needs and goals, especially in romantic relationships.
5. Set intentions & find accountability
Setting intentions and goals help us turn our daydreams into reality. Surrounding ourselves with individuals who are vocal and enthusiastic about their own passions and goals creates a safe space for us to do the same. Finding those individuals and using them as a sounding board helps maintain accountability. On an individual level, using a whiteboard or sheet of paper to track progress provides a visual reminder, and highlights when we deviate off-course or when we reach important milestones. If able, investing in the support of a life coach as I did (even for a short period of time) may be beneficial, but peer support and identifying mentors – either in school or the workplace – can provide guidance as we go on our journeys, too.
Every experience we go through has the potential to shape us. Along the way, we may lose our sense of self or direction. As isolating as going through an identity crisis may feel, there is a silver lining in the process, as we can learn to embrace who we truly are and introduce that person to the world.
*Name has been changed.