Your identity, as it turns out, is quite important. Given our love for structure and definition (refer to social structures, constructs, mores, etc), it may not be surprising that our identity is a big factor in our confidence, self-regulation, sense of security, and emotional stability.
The Bases of Identity
Identity or self-concept is how one perceives themselves. This can be based on membership in social groups (like age, gender, caste, class), personal traits (like optimistic, enthusiastic, introverted, selfish) or skills and preferences (like one’s career, ideology, political affiliation). This is formed throughout our lives by our environment, experiences, self-observations, and interactions with others.
Given how important our identity is, and how long it takes to develop, it is ironic how easy it is to lose it. You may think that you are an introvert because you have been told so or maybe you observed that you do not like socialising as much as your friends. Then one day you meet a new group of people who like socialising even less than you do. Does that mean you are now an extrovert? Or maybe you were never an introvert to begin with and just somebody lower on the extrovert scale. This is what a lot of young adults face as they start college. Entering this new phase of life brings with it a lot of re-evaluation of who you are.
Identity and College Life
I was 18 when I started college. I had grown up in Delhi-NCR all my life, I had always been surrounded by a certain culture and a sense of security. I knew my surroundings and myself well enough to carry myself with confidence. Having navigated through my adolescence I now believed that I was ready to face whatever life throws at me.
Then I moved to Bangalore and this belief of mine was put to the test. Entering a new environment, I was no longer confident about where I stood, both literally and symbolically. My sense of security and confidence disappeared. I realised that I had to think before I act, a task that had never come easily to me. Not being sure of what is “normal” anymore and whether I fit in that definition, I had to learn to re-acclimatise. This happened most significantly when I had to find my social circle. Establishing relationships from scratch, I couldn’t help but wonder how I fit into these dynamics. Will I be the “funny one”, “responsible one”, “smart one” or “outgoing one” in the group? Yet, I did not see this as a worrisome process. In my first year, I saw this as an exciting time to reinvent myself and start with a clean slate.
In my second year, that decision started to take a toll on me. I realised that I had lost my identity. I was now confused about who I was. For instance, back in my hometown I was always described as a easy-going, jolly, and optimistic person. However, coming to college and being the sole person responsible for my own well-being, my residence, finances, etc, apart from the additional worry about my academics and safety, I found myself being more short tempered, irritable, and anxious.
This shift created a downward spiral, where my self-concept and behaviour would not match, which would lead to me feeling insecure and unsure of myself, aggravating my irritability and anxiety. After a point, I decided that I needed professional help.
Seeking Help and Growth
Being a psychology student myself, I sought haven in therapy. Alas, that only led me to become broke before I could become better. However, what it did give me, was the ability to speak about what I was going through. To my surprise, the more I shared my experience, the more I found that people were able to relate. I soon realised that I was not alone in experiencing this.
In a purely un-sadistic way, knowing that others had experienced the same confused state helped start my process of self-recovery. Through my time in therapy as well as from my 3 years of psychology, I understood the importance or writing down my thoughts. This not only gave me an outlet to channel my feelings instead of obsessively ruminating on them, but also helped me obtain an outsider’s perspective by revisiting my own thoughts. By being able to see my thoughts on paper I was able to understand certain patterns, triggers, and illogical beliefs that I held.
By my third year of college, I was introduced to Chickering’s seven vector theory, which focused on the development stages that college students go through to develop their identity. While I was relieved to know that an identity crisis is common enough to build a theory on, I couldn’t help but wonder what the many students not exposed to this and especially those who never learnt to speak about their experience must do. Like I mentioned, the first step to regaining my confidence was being able to speak about it and understanding that others go through the same experience.
Saying that I have regained my identity and confidence today after going through the past three years will be wrong. However, I also don’t believe that my experience was in vain, bringing me nothing but anxiety and bad memories. My three years of college will always be ones I cherish with no regrets. My experiences in college, good and bad, taught me how to overcome different challenges in the future. It helped me understand that I am not a static being.
People will change and grow, as all living things do. To hold onto the idea of one structure and definition is only unnatural. It may not be knowing whether you are an introvert or an extrovert, optimist or pessimist, logic driven or creative, that can help you be more confident and self-assured; but knowing that you are a conscious being who can mould themselves and grow according to your circumstances and hence, be able to overcome any obstacle.
About the author: Shalini Karmarkar is currently a post graduate student of counselling psychology at University of Queensland, Australia