9 min read

When did you last have an identity crisis?

Why it's important to have a breakdown occasionally.
When did you last have an identity crisis?

Hello grownups!

Imagine that every adult in the world was assigned a random fifteen-year-old who got to make all their decisions for them. That fifteen-year-old could follow you around, decide what you wear every day, choose who you're in a relationship with and what career you have, pick your tattoos, and tell you what your life's grand ambitions are.

Wild idea, right? Nothing against fifteen-year-olds (the ones I know are all pretty rad actually), but a world made up only of fifteen-year-olds and the choices they make would be an odd one indeed. It would certainly be a more interesting world. There'd be more wannabe rockstars and fewer accountants, that's for sure, and a lot more people tripping on their wildly oversized pants.

But, in a way, there is a fifteen-year-old who makes a lot of decisions for you. Except, instead of a random teen assigned to you, there's a specific one: the person you were when you were younger.

I had a very clear vision for my life when I was fifteen. I planned to become a mathematician, I was going to live in a garret in Paris and I'd have a daughter named Lúthien (after an obscure Tolkien character). I'd own a horse. I had it all figured out: I'd decided that I was a Buddhist and a Communist and that I was "not like other girls" and I loved Smashmouth so much I'd painted the lyrics to "All Star" on my bedroom wall. I was certain, then, that I would hold these same views forever. I'd have been happy to tattoo these identities on my forehead, I was so sure of them.

Thankfully, I did not.

A photograph of the band Smashmouth
Ah yes, the height of cool.

I can look back on that person with fond bafflement, but she's not who I am any more. And I'm betting that fifteen-year old you isn't who you are any more, either. And yet, a long time ago, a fifteen-year-old who happens to have the same name and fingerprints as you got to decide a bunch of important things on your behalf, like whether to go to university, what to study, what big dreams you have for your life, what your core beliefs are, who to be friends with. And you inherited their decisions.

All of us underestimate how much we'll change over the rest of our life. You can look back on the person you were ten years ago, and marvel at how different you are to them, AND YET be 100% certain that the person you'll be ten years from now will have the same beliefs and interests as you do now. Psychologist Daniel Gilbert calls this "the end of history illusion":

Human beings are works in progress that mistakenly think they’re finished. The person you are right now is as transient, as fleeting and as temporary as all the people you’ve ever been. The one constant in our lives is change.

A lot of people imagine that identity is something you figure out in your teenage years, maybe your early 20s, and then you're done. The guy who invented the term "identity crisis" was a developmental psychologist named Erik Erikson. He theorised that most people went through distinct stages of development, and that each one was characterised by a "crisis" created by conflicting forces. If the individual manages to reconcile the forces, they emerge from that phase with a specific virtue.

Approximate Age Psychosocial Crisis Virtue Existential question Events
Infant - 2 years Trust vs. Mistrust Hope Can I trust the world? Feeding, abandonment
2-3 years Autonomy vs. Shame & Doubt Will Is it okay to be me? Toilet training, clothing themselves
3-6 years Initiative vs. Guilt Purpose Is it okay for me to do, move, and act? Exploring, using tools, making art
7-12 years Industry vs. Inferiority Competence Can I make it in the world? School, sports
13-19 years Identity vs. Role Confusion Fidelity Who am I? Who can I be? Social relationships
20-39 years Intimacy vs. Isolation Love Can I love Romantic relationships
40-59 years Generativity vs. Stagnation Care Can I make my life count? Work, parenthood
60+ Ego Integrity vs. Despair Wisdom Is it okay to have been me? Mankind

Erikson believed that figuring out who you are is the main psychosocial task of your teenage years. Influenced mostly by your peers and by role models, it's the time you explore different ideas about who you are, and who you can be. If you resolve that crisis well, you develop the virtue of fidelity, which means the ability to commit to things. If it goes wrong, you end up not being sure about yourself or your place in society.

Building on Erikson's model, another researcher called James Marcia studied how that conflict is resolved. He spent a lot of time interviewing young people and categorised them into different states of identity formation. If a person has settled on an identity without ever exploring other options, they're said to have a foreclosed identity - this is like a kid who accepts the beliefs of their parents or community outright, without questioning them. If they don't want to explore identities, but also haven't committed to anything, they're in a state of identity diffusion, an amorphous "I don't care" state. If they begin to explore identities but haven't yet settled, they're in a moratorium. Once a person has explored and then made commitments, they're said to have achieved an identity.

Marcia's identity statuses, adapted from Discovering the Lifespan by R. S. Feldman 2009

We call the state of questioning your identity an "identity crisis", and it really can feel like a crisis. People in this state are much more anxious because their world is currently not a predictable place. But I like Marcia's word "moratorium" better, because it captures the fact that this can be a necessary, even deliberate strategy: I am choosing not to commit yet, because I'm still exploring. Yes, things are turbulent right now, but it's a healthy turbulence. You can see a moratorium as instability, but also as exploration, and as play.

Marcia found some evidence to support the idea that people who achieve identity after a moratorium phase tend to have a stronger, internal rather than external "locus of self-definition" - they're clearer about who they are, independent of the context they find themselves in or the community they're a part of. So a common healthy path through an identity crisis is diffusion (meh) > moratorium (exploring) > achievement (I know who I am), but some people get stuck in a state of foreclosure or diffusion.

So yes, identity moratoriums are stressful as heck, but they can also be extremely healthy. They're a time when, as Rilke put it, you "live the questions now."

Marcia and Erikson's models are neat and all. It's a tidy story that allows us to imagine a clear path through the stages of our lives all the way to Adulthood™. But of course, life is seldom that neat, and the truth is that most of us will have multiple identity crises throughout our lives. In Marcia's later work, he shifted his focus from adolescents to adults and spoke about how we have "MAMA cycles" (moratorium-achievement-moratorium-achievement cycles). Which means, I'm sorry to tell you, that you don't get to leave your identity crisis years behind you in your teenage years, along with your bad fashion choices and weird crushes.

Some crises happen to you, times when your life changes and you've got to reconfigure your entire sense of self, like if somebody close to you dies, or if you lose your job, or hit menopause, or make a new discovery about your sexual orientation or gender identity, or divorce, or get sick, or win the lotto. At least some of these things will happen to you, and when they do, you will find yourself having to rewrite your whole story of who you are. That's what identity is: the story you tell about yourself that binds your disparate experiences together.

As Oliver Sacks said:

We have, each of us, a life-story, an inner narrative — whose continuity, whose sense, is our lives. It might be said that each of us constructs and lives, a “narrative,” and that this narrative is us, our identities.
If we wish to know about a man, we ask “what is his story — his real, inmost story?” — for each of us is a biography, a story. Each of us is a singular narrative, which is constructed, continually, unconsciously, by, through, and in us — through our perceptions, our feelings, our thoughts, our actions; and, not least, our discourse, our spoken narrations. Biologically, physiologically, we are not so different from each other; historically, as narratives — we are each of us unique

But it's worth remembering that you can also choose to have an identity crisis anytime you like, and spend some time in a moratorium where you try out some hobbies you dismissed, or test-drive a new career (like my friend Jen did), or attempt a different dating strategy, or just let yourself re-interrogate the core decisions about your life and wonder if you'd make the same decisions today, or if you're just being held hostage by a past version of yourself.

There's probably an optimal number of identity crises to have in your lifetime. Thirty is probably too many. One is definitely too few. So if it's been a while since you've had one, maybe you should consider scheduling one in!

Because the alternative is the equivalent to summoning your fifteen-year-old self (or twenty-year-old, or thirty-year-old, or however old you were when you last had an identity crisis), and letting them boss you around. You don't want that. You know a lot more about the world than they did. Besides, that kid had weird taste in pants, and was way too into Smashmouth.

Wishing you identity moratoriums and absurd pants,

Nearly-34-year-old Sam

Money Under 30

I'm honoured to be participating in an online panel called "Money Under 30". It's being hosted and curated by the delightful Lani Lecielle. Lani was a restaurant server living in the US Virgin Islands. She lost her job right at the beginning of the pandemic, and learned the hard way that you can't always rely on your 9-to-5 job for income.

Her solution has been to put together an interview series with people from all over the world who figured out how to earn money in a range of circumstances, many of them under the age of 30, to share their insights about building a sustainable income on your own terms.

Her event is called “Money Under 30: Top Earners Reveal Secrets To Creating Financial Freedom”, and here is your link. Tickets are $97, and you get to keep the recordings so you can watch them again any time. I hope to see some of you there!

I am doing Couch to 5k again and it's FINE I guess.

Updates from Sam-Land

I recently found myself with an odd little two-week empty time between projects (one of the hazards of freelancing) and decided to lean into a little work moratorium of my own. Rather than diving right into a new project, I challenged myself to spend the time exploring ideas without committing (this is not easy for my achievement-addict gold-star-seeking brain!). This involved a lot of time-boxed creative exercises (mostly cribbed from Alan Watt's The 90 Day Novel and Matthew Kalil's The Three Wells of Screenwriting). It was enormous fun, and I've come out of it extremely hyped about a new novel idea. Hooray for play!

  • On my physiotherapist's orders, I've just restarted the Couch to 5k running programme for about the seven billionth time in my life. I will never love running but I have come to a begrudging truce with it. If - like me - you need a good plan to get more cardio into your life, do give it a try: it's a science-backed programme that has worked for millions of people (I keep telling myself) and most of the apps are completely free.
  • My friend Lucille sent me this podcast episode about a sex cult that turned into a silverware company called Oneida and it is WILD.