At various points throughout our lives, we experience a coming of age a la Holden Caulfield, the lead character from everyone’s favorite book on the high school reading list, Catcher in the Rye. As adults, we call this an identity crisis. A time where we ask ourselves who we are, what makes us tick, what we are passionate about. Sometimes this comes about as the result of a major change, sometimes from one of the many stresses of life. Nonetheless, identity crises catch all of us, if we are aware enough to notice them.
An identity crisis is usually something that can challenge us to be introspective. The only thing I have to offer on this subject is the three times in my life where I felt like I was in an identity crisis and hope that my stories and experiences resonate with someone else.
The first identity crisis I can recall happened in 1999. It was the year I came home from school one spring afternoon to a for sale sign in my yard. My family was planning to move about an hour away, and to a very social 8th grader about to transition to college, I was devastated to be leaving behind my friends and everything that I “knew” as a 14 year old. Devastated.
When I started at my new school, I wanted nothing to do with anything. I didn’t participate in any activities, I didn’t try to make any friends, I didn’t even take a lunch because I was feeling so alone and lonely. Looking back, I was definitely depressed but had no idea. My family didn’t seem to know how to or care to help me through this transition, and I felt like I just had to toughen up and deal with it. So that I did. I was invisible. No one would have even known if I stopped coming to school.
I eventually decided to try out for the musical, and was lucky enough to land one of the roles. I was ecstatic, especially because this was a much bigger school with a much bigger theatre department. This probably saved me. I was completely lost until I was able to connect with my peers in the musical. I was absolutely miserable just existing day to day feeling disconnected from everyone and everything.
So, taking from that experience, the first piece of advice I have for finding happily even after an identity crisis — get involved in things that make you happy. For me, musical theatre has always been a passion. I’ve never been great or even good at it, but I loved it so much. It brought me such joy. Having the chance to be part of something that inherently brought me so much connection with other humans in addition to made me happy was the key to navigating my way back to joy.
The second identity crisis I recall happened at the end of my junior year in college. I had taken a full time job back in my freshman year, kind of a serious job for a 19 year old, actually. I worked full time at a local church near my college directing the children’s music ministry program. I was also teaching voice and piano lessons to anywhere from 12-20 students on a weekly basis, in addition to trying to be a full time college student. I was making pretty decent money and enjoying myself, but not really being a college student. Then I started dating someone that was definitely on the other end of the spectrum. He was in a fraternity, a regular at the local bars and clubs, and had a ton of friends. I spent the next year trying to ride the pendulum as I swung between my professional self and my collegiate self, trying to figure out where exactly I fit.
This led me to essentially fall in one extreme or the other instead of finding some middle ground. When I was in professional mode, I was working really hard and crushing my goals. When I was in college mode, I was crazy college party girl. The two didn’t reconcile all that well with each other and led to my second piece of advice — even when you are in doubt, don’t try to be something you’re not. You don’t need to know exactly who you are to avoid acting like someone you’re not.
The third time I was in an identity crisis is one that is fairly recent, and it happened when I was pregnant with my second child. I was fortunate enough to skip right past the identity crisis that typically comes along with motherhood. Somehow for me, I knew exactly who I wanted to be as a mother. I had been dreaming of it and studying for it my entire life up to that point. My crisis came professionally, when I found myself in a situation at work where I was in a clash of trust with several of my colleagues. It was personal in nature, and hurt a lot.
It caused me to retreat into my office for the better part of a year and keep my head down. It led to a lot of discomfort and eventually a lot of growth. It coincided with some personal crises on the home front that I’ve either written about or referred to, and represented an extremely challenging period of my life. I doubted everything about who I was as a person in my professional life. I second guessed myself before I said a word to other people. I doubted my opinion on even purely substantive work matters. It was extremely trying for me, and the only thing that really made a difference was the passing of time. Which leads to my third piece of advice — when all else fails, keep going. “This too will pass.” If you can hold on and hold out to get past the worst of the feelings of despair as you’re searching for yourself, those feelings will eventually fall away. You WILL rediscover yourself, whether that person is the same person you always were or improved as some 2.0. We always pull through when given the benefit of time.
What kind of identity crises have you faced in your life? I know so many friends that I’ve spoken to that fall into a post-college identity crisis, where they’re in their first real jobs and living away from home but no longer with the benefits of college. So many others have crises when they reach a certain age or change jobs. Which ones resonate with you?
One thing that I can say for certain, no matter if you’re a long ways away from a crisis of identity or smack in the middle of one, they are always opportunities for growth. Lean in and find your way to the other side, because a better you can be waiting just around the corner.
I should also note that my friend Jenny Elliot hosts a podcast called Career Mom and talks about identity crisis for working moms a lot- check her out wherever you download your podcasts!