Identity crisis: What causes it?

No death, no doom, no anguish can arouse the surpassing despair which flows from a loss of identity.

– H.P. Lovecraft

We have many identities that we acquire from our past experiences and cultural backgrounds. These
identities may be broadly classified as positive (the identities we like) and negative (the identities we dislike).

For example, you may have a positive identity of ‘being a successful person’ and a negative identity of ‘being short-tempered’.

Identity crisis happens when a person loses a psychological identity- when he loses a way he used to define himself. It can be either an identity that he liked (positive) or an identity he disliked (negative), but in most cases, an identity crisis is often the result of losing an identity that served to increase a person’s self-worth i.e. a positive identity.


Identity and the ego

We suffer from an identity crisis when we lose an identity that we were using to feed our ego with. The purpose of most of our identities is just that- to sustain our ego. One of the major tasks of the subconscious mind is to protect our ego. It does all it can to achieve that end, the most significant of which is maintaining a worthwhile identity.
People can identify with almost anything- a material possession, a place, a friend, a religion, a lover, a country, a social group and so on. If you want to know what are the ideas or things that you identify with, just pay attention to the words that you normally place after “my”….

My city 

My country

My job

My car 

My lover

My college 

My anything
Anything that you add after “my” forms your extended identity, ideas that you attach to your own self, ideas that you use to define yourself.

I’m sure by now you understand why people get so attached to their extended identities. It’s just an attempt to raise one’s self-worth.

If you have a friend who owns a Mercedes, he’ll see himself as ‘the Mercedes owner’ and project that identity to the world to boost his self-worth. If your brother studied at MIT, he’ll project the identity of being an MITian to the world.

People become strongly attached to their identities for a strong and valid reason- it helps them maintain their self-worth, a fundamental goal of all humans. So, losing an identity means losing one’s self-worth and nobody wants that.

When a person loses one of their important, ego-boosting identity, identity crises happens. 

identity crisis painting
Identifying with temporary things leads to identity crisis
A person who identifies strongly with his job will suffer from a severe identity crisis if he gets fired. A person who loses his Mercedes in an unfortunate accident will no longer see himself as ‘the proud Merc owner’. A person who mainly sees himself as ‘the lucky husband of Jane, the beautiful’ will lose all his self-worth if his marriage fails.

The only way to avoid an identity crisis is not to identify with temporary things at all. I know that’s easier said than done, but you can do it by increasing your awareness of psychological phenomena and objectifying them. One way would be becoming more knowledgeable by reading articles such as the one you’re reading right now.

When you identify with temporary things your self-worth automatically becomes fragile. You never know when these things will be taken away from you. Your self-worth will then become dependent on the whims and vagaries of life.

What then should I identify with?
Even if we give up identifying with temporary things, we’ll still crave to identify with something because that’s how the mind works. It can’t stand being nothing. It has to find a way to define itself.

Since our goal is to maintain our self-worth and prevent it from being too fragile, the only logical solution is to identify with permanent, long-lasting things.

When you identify with your knowledge, skills, and personality, this sort of identification will remain with you until the day you die. You can’t lose these things in a fire, accident or a divorce.

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