Identity is a fluid thing.
People go through different phases of identity throughout their lives: shedding and discovering interests, attitudes, behaviors, labels, etc. as they grow and evolve. We are encouraged to change and improve ourselves as human beings and members of society — and to embrace the uncertainty that follows any such transformation. Despite this apparent constancy of self-turbulence, among all the lessons about accepting and adapting to change, we still balk at a total questioning of our identities.
Today, we expect identity crises to follow traumatic or drastic changes in our lifestyles — impactful events that shake our understanding of ourselves. In the past, however, when the term was coined by psychologist Erik Eriksson, the identity crisis was thought to be a key psychosocial stage
of development during adolescence: a dynamic, shifting time of one’s life when one could define themselves against who they were and who they wished to become. The Merriam-Webster dictionary similarly defines
an identity crisis as a “personal psychosocial conflict, especially in adolescence that involves confusion about one's social role and often a sense of loss of continuity to one's personality.”
I was barely on the cusp of adulthood, with all circumstances lining up perfectly before me, at the time of my greatest identity crisis. I had gone through periods of questioning myself before and since, but the initial wave of COVID-19 quarantines erased any sense of stability I’d had and left me clutching at straws. As much as I tried to avoid the inevitable spiral that would ensue, part of me knew that I would have to face myself eventually and find my place on the cosmic map once more.
Identity crises that result from traumatic events tend to be accompanied by waves of self-doubt or a loss of purpose, which was exactly what I felt in those early pandemic days — adrift and unmoored from ideas about my future, tossed headfirst into a sea of uncertainty. Coming fresh from crafting five-year plans for university applications and preparing for the shape my academic career would take, I was beyond devastated to realize that I could not see the years ahead of myself — not because I was particularly depressed, but because I had lost all notions of the shape it would take. In just a few weeks, my surroundings would be irrevocably and abruptly altered, for an indeterminate length of time. There was little I could do about it too, as the reality was simply that the sheer scale of the pandemic would significantly impact the world I would enter in my adulthood.
I wish I could explain just how this crisis was resolved, or that my period of questioning my sense of purpose strengthened me in some way. In truth, I do not know that it has.
The multitude of self-help articles I found online and their tips on facing identity crises barely got me through — but leaning into the uncertainty has helped me far greater than anything else. I have grown to accept that which I can control about myself and my surroundings and learned to trust not in universal constants but in the concreteness of immediacy. I picked my lessons from the things I observed, sought help when I needed it from people with far more experience than me, and felt I understood what it meant to come into adulthood, surrounded by people who were winging it just like me.
Though this particular crisis drastically changed my understanding of the world, in the way that most global-scale events tend to do in various generations, I have largely found minor crises of identity to be a reaffirmation of who I am — a healthy habit, even, in moderation. When I emerged into the strange, post-quarantine society in 2021, I began to examine and prod at things I had taken for granted in the past: my relationships with other people, with my body, with social norms, and with cultural structures. I questioned what they meant to me — my introversion, my gender, my physicality, my faith — and the degrees to which I consciously assigned them meaning.
What I realized was a bag of mixed results. Some were surprising — I had changed in ways I had not expected, though it might have been obvious in retrospect the effects of relative isolation from the community — and others simply reaffirmed things I had already assumed about myself and presumed to be the default option. They were, however, no longer the “default” — I had unlocked a greater understanding of those very aspects of myself I had thought inevitable. I knew — know — myself better now, for having questioned my every angle, and no longer presume them to be as static as they were made out to be.
Leaning into the flux of identity is possibly the best deterrent to leading ourselves down dark and scary patterns of thought, or losing ourselves entirely to existential dread.
Diving into questions such as a cosmic purpose in the world, or reckoning with significant shifts in perceiving ourselves, all come with their challenges — but ultimately, shouldn’t we take the chance to define who we are?
Amrita Anand is Editor-in-Chief. Email them at email@example.com