Your identity is like a canvas that you paint for your own life. This canvas starts as a white sheet upon which the first strokes of brush are made by your parents and close relatives. Slowly, in a few months’ time, when you are able to grip that brush, your hand is still guided by your parents, then your teachers, your friends, neighbours, and so on. After decades upon decades of this painting and tearing and crushing-the-sheet-into-a-ball and painting again, at some point, there emerges a unique picture. But that doesn’t mean that the painting has been completed: it’s a life-long process. As your life changes its colours, so does the canvas. The process of identity formation is shaped by the many social interactions and experiences that the subject has over the course of their life.
Identity formation, though an ambiguous process, is very important for psychosocial development; something that Erikson showed through his ‘Theory of Psychosocial Development’ mapped across 8 stages of life. Each stage is characterised by a psychosocial conflict that has to be resolved by the subject in order to develop certain virtues and advance onto the next stage. Erikson located the ‘identity vs role confusion’ stage at the ages of 12-18 years, when an adolescent, navigating the path between childhood and adulthood, explores different goals and values through which they can concretely answer the question of “who am I?” Upon resolving their identity crisis, the adolescent achieves the virtue of ‘fidelity’, or the capacity for commitment to their goals, relationships, and overall value-base. Erikson essentially theorised that an individual is capable of realising their purpose (as a part of their identity) by the age of 18.
But who is really able to form their identity in its fullest sense by 18? Who is able to decide, for sure, what they want to do for their livelihood, and where they see themselves 10 years down the line? One might make plans, but an individual’s life is controlled by the society to a much greater extent than they would like to imagine.
Marcia’s ‘Identity Status Theory’, mapping the identity-formation process across four stages, starting from adolescence and continuing throughout one’s life, is more realistic than its predecessor. Here, across the 4 stages of identity diffusion, foreclosure, moratorium, and achievement, an individual’s identity is shown to develop through an increasing tendency for self-exploration and commitment. While diffusion is characterised by a lack of both exploration and commitment, foreclosure involves the individual committing to an identity formed by his guardians and society (implying no self-exploration). Moratorium shows the beginning of real progress, as the individual begins true self-exploration by sifting through diverse values and goals to choose the ones most aligned with their own self, and finally, achievement shows the individual committing to the selected, completed jigsaw puzzle of their own identity.
Majority of the Indian school students remain constricted in the foreclosure stage, with their goals and values being determined and controlled by their parents, teachers, and peers. The few circumstances where a student makes their own decision, like choosing the subjects for class 12th, depends on the ‘go-ahead’ of their parents.
The transition from school to college is the time when the bridge to self-exploration, once hidden behind a layer of fog, becomes visible to the new adult. This is the pathway to the stage of moratorium, which brings forth an opportunity to explore a vast array of alternative personal identities. However, the newfound freedom is accompanied by the roles and responsibilities of new adulthood and anxieties regarding shaping one’s own future. The fear of failure (stemming from a lack of confidence in one’s own capabilities), a part of the common Indian experience, coupled with the fear of living someone else’s life (more specifically, your parents’) as an alternative to self-exploration, often keeps people tied to the bridge from foreclosure to the moratorium, or causes them to regress to the safer space of parental shadow.
When given a chance to paint from our own aesthetic sensibilities, we start wondering if we had any after all.
The creation of an identity, comprising one’s social identity, personal identity, goals, values, and ideals, requires a lot of soul-searching, observing, and participating. After this long process, ‘failure’ is bound to lead to disillusionment, especially when it involves a first job or a first relationship that goes sour (comparison with your peers who seem to be ‘on a roll’ makes matters worse). But don’t worry! The best way to make sound decisions is to revise and reflect. Did you choose law/civil services after graduation in political science simply because it appeared to be the ‘logical’ course of action for you, or did you do it because it aligns with your interests, values, and aptitude? To reach the stage of commitment, it is important to reflect on what commitment to a decision would actually entail.
After making a wrong decision, the best thing you can do is reconsider what you always wanted to do in life. It could be a hobby or a childhood skill that made you appear ‘gifted’ in your relatives’ eyes. It’s not necessary to translate that skill into a career, but keeping it with you and enhancing it by practicing it daily might provide a level of self-satisfaction and confidence that comes in handy while making major life decisions.
In the process of self-exploration, it is important to keep your mind open and aware. There is always a good possibility of finding a career aligned with your goals and values, the type to which you can commit. For that to happen, it’s important to search beyond your immediate resource pool and engage with people who are considering or are already experienced in your prospective career choice. For example, if you want to enter the arena of law, being in the company of other law aspirants or learning from experienced lawyers can help in concrete decision-making.
The most important value that one can develop is an openness to learn new things. This includes skill-building and adding new activities into your daily routine, preferably those that can help you along your career path. Healthy habits that can help in identity development include reading, journaling, keeping up with the news, and learning time management by abiding by the deadlines given to you by others as well as yourself.
Anxiety during the period of transition from school to college or college to university is understandable, especially when you are a student who has seen the unprecedented changes brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic . Identity formation is not a piece of cake, especially during the precarious time of early adulthood. But downing a tonic of self-trust and optimism on a regular basis is necessary to prevent disillusionment from disrupting your identity-building process. In the pursuit of self-exploration, always keep self-confidence up your sleeve, and you will get through this stage of uncertainty as so many people have before you.