The first few years of our existence are characterized by a wide range of activities, beliefs and commitments that are either inherited or thrust upon us. Rarely challenged to forge a path of our own, who we are becomes more or less the agglomeration of our environment and genetics.
Until, of course, that fateful period when the training wheels are ripped off and suddenly we’re under the pressure to find out ‘the right thing to do’ all by ourselves. Do we go to university? Do we entertain the same political beliefs as our parents? Do we flirt with other religions and gods or cast them aside altogether? Do we rebel against the things that had previously constructed our sense of self in an effort to gain autonomy? Or do we attempt to engage, on a deeper level, with the constructs that previously formed us, in an effort to develop a more meaningful sense of identity?
All of these questions, met with conflicting answers from guidance counsellors, parents, teachers, friends and internet forums, lead us into a dreadful sense of confusion and hopelessness. One twenty something year old in the psychologist Meg Jay’s “The Defining Decade” describes this feeling poetically:
Ian told me his twenty something years were like being in the middle of the ocean, like this vast, unmarked body of water. He couldn’t see land in any direction, so he didn’t know which way to go. He felt overwhelmed by the prospect that he could swim anywhere or do anything. He was equally paralyzed by the fact that he didn’t know which of the anythings would work out. Tired and hopeless at age twenty-five, he said he was treading water to stay alive”
When asked how people do get out of the ocean, Ian replied “I don’t know…I guess all you can do is hope someone comes along in a boat or something” This belief that patience will prevail and somebody or something will magically arrive and save us from drowning in a sea of aimless potentialities, is likely a sentiment shared by many lost in life. Unfortunately, it is also a dangerous idea, to give up the idea that your life is up to you.
Waiting around, we tend to drift from job to job, relationship to relationship, pushed and pulled by the tides of fate. We distract ourselves from the dizziness of freedom with delicious escapism and occupy our time with tasks we never really wanted to do but, instead, had snuck themselves into our lives through the path of least resistance.
We say to ourselves “one day I’ll read that book or watch that movie or meet that person who will set me on a predetermined path where I’ll find what I’m here for”. Our lifelong passion will simply come along and offer itself to us. We will become who we always were.
Unfortunately, years pass and our hope for salvation is more or less unfounded. Life happens whether we choose to live it or not. As one character from Kaufmann’s “I’m Thinking Of Ending Things” puts it:
“People like to think of themselves as points moving through time, but I think it’s probably the opposite. We’re stationary and time passes through us. Blowing like cold wind, stealing our heat.”
And just like that, the time to follow our dreams and stress over the limitlessness of our future swiftly crumbles, weakened by the fact that, like every other animal, we die. So many wrong turns…
Although there is no universal guide to identity formation, psychology gives us a few reasonable leads. James Marcia, a clinical and developmental psychologist, was deeply interested in the work of Erik Erikson. Erikson suggests that human development is composed of psychosocial conflicts and tasks that, if resolved, results in positive maturation. For example, Erikson proposes that young adults engage in the struggle to maintain close relationships and avoid social isolation. This is the psychosocial stage of intimacy vs isolation. Those in their middle age will either discover purpose through engaging in the world in a prosocial and altruistic manner or retreat into their own activities, caring little for future generations. This is called generativity vs stagnation.
Marcia was specifically interested in the stage slightly before we worry about intimacy: identity vs confusion. In this stage, Erikson argues that individuals will work at developing a sense of self through experimentation, commit to certain initiatives or experience some manner of identity crisis.
Rather than Erikson’s binary argument that one has either found their identity or is confused. Marcia argues that this stage can be characterized by the extent to which an individual has explored and committed to an identity
As Marcia put his theory to the test in semi-structured interviews that would explore the extent to which individuals explored and committed to different life areas, generally revolving around ideology and occupation, four identity statuses or types emerged.
Those who were entirely committed but made little or no effort to explore alternative were considered to have a “foreclosed identity”. Without thinking, they simply continued the path laid out to them early in life. For example, a child may be told by their parents that being a doctor is the only valid career choice. The child will then form their identity entirely around getting good enough marks to go to medical school, achieving academic excellence in medical school and becoming a doctor. At no point does this individual challenge the idea that they might try another career path. They may even dismiss their more uncertain or artsy friends as being lost.
Foreclosed identity can also occur when someone develops an identity directly in opposition to what they were told to do. This is called a “negative identity”. That same child, constantly told to work hard and become a doctor, may rebel under the pressure and drop out of high school to pick a life path far from intellectual. Despite feeling that they are behaving freely, their behaviour is nonetheless perfectly correlated with what they are being told to do.
As Marcia warns “the individual about to become a Methodist, Republican farmer like his Methodist, Republican farmer father, with little or no thought in the matter, certainly cannot be said to have “achieved” an identity, in spite of his commitment”. The rigidity of those in the foreclosed identity group provides a seemingly strong sense of stability. There is no doubt in their mind over what to do. However, as soon as ones commitments are challenged, the vulnerability of this status is put to the test. The foreclosed identity is undoubtedly susceptible to an identity crisis.
The second stage, identity diffusion, is characterized by an avoidance in committing and exploring to anything. Marcia argues that there is little anxiety in this stage because they are invested in little. They show general indecision, indifference and lethargy.
The third stage, moratorium, is defined by those who are in a state of identity crisis due to their lack of commitments. Nonetheless, they are actively exploring and experimenting in different areas of their life, forming their values and discovering their interests.
“Moratoriums…report experiencing more anxiety than do students in any other status…The world for them is not, currently, a highly predictable place; they are vitally engaged in a struggle to make it so”.
This is nonetheless considered to be a far more beneficial stage of development than the previous two, one that characterizes the ideal of university education; the young adult sifting through a catalogue of potential careers, ideologies, identities and relationships without committing to anything in particular. Recent research suggests that more people are spending a greater duration in this stage.
After an identity crisis has been worked through, Marcia suggests that the individual will reach identity achievement, the final stage of identity formation. Such an individual will reach a point in their life where they have certain commitments and are still willing to explore alternatives. A true sense of self has been achieved. Perhaps they are entirely happy with their career and simultaneously welcome the idea that they would be willing to explore other careers if necessary. By maintaining a balance between healthy flexibility and the courage to commit to things we care about, we can potentially avoid the dreadful sense of feeling lost.
“The search of youth is not for all-permissibility, but rather for new ways of directly facing up to what truly counts” wrote Erikson. Perhaps we know what counts, deep down, but don’t have the courage or knowledge to pursue it. Perhaps we truly don’t know yet. Nonetheless, by trying out new things, even things we’re lukewarm about, as well as committing to certain things, even if they’re not our lifelong passion, this delicate balancing act of identity formation can be achieved. The important thing is not to wait around. Your life is, above all else, yours to create or destroy.