Adolescents Describe Going through an Identity Crisis
Identity crisis is something that every adolescent must go through. Some have a much more difficult time with it than others, but everyone must struggle with this concept of finding out who they are to some degree or another. I have interviewed two females and one male about their experiences with identity crisis. The aliases they have chosen are Gilmore (female), Natasha (female), and Little Albert (male). The females are 18 years old. The male is 19 years old. I chose these three people because I wanted to have a mix of gender and because I personally know them and understand they all have a wide range of difference in how they are dealing with identity crisis. The questions I asked were not for them to tell me about what they thought about identity crisis or how they dealt with it, but were rather questions about subjects I feel play heavily in this stage of development. This way I could analyze the answers as purer data than they would have been had the subjects been self-conscious about them. I will say here that I know all three subjects personally and much of what I may extrapolate about them may be from things outside of the actual interview content.
Identity crisis is a term used in colloquial speech to refer to a time of great turmoil in a person's life in which they struggle with understanding who they are. In Erik Erikson's psychosocial theory of development, he meant identity crisis as a natural transitional phase all people must go through to find out what roles they best fill in society. Identity crisis is part of his fifth stage of development where a person develops either an identity or identity confusion. This stage occurs between the ages of ten and twenty. In it, young men and women must try out many different roles to develop a healthy path for the future of their lives. It is in this stage that a person generally develops the basic traits for who they will be for the rest of their lives.
The book does not give an in depth account of Erikson's theory. The basic outline of the theory can make clear sense to anybody reading it but it is important to break it down to more specific happenings within it to understand truly what is happening to a person experiencing identity crisis. Anyone can understand that adolescents need to try different roles to figure out an identity and that their parents must allow this to happen naturally, but how exactly do adolescents go about selecting roles and how exactly does a parent fit in to help this? In my three interviews, I found two common themes despite the differences between the subjects. The themes are opinions of mine and should be taken by the professional world as nothing more than a college student's ramblings. I will not repeat that these are opinions for the sake of being concise, so from here on one should assume that unless I reference research, the concepts are technically my opinions.
One theme I found is that the parents and family provide a base for the adolescent, from which to operate. It is actually quite similar to a baby who wonders off from his mother, then looks back to make sure everything is ok, and then continues wondering. The adolescent going through identity crisis still has some understanding of who they are because of their family. They understand that they are a first born, a Smith, a grandchild, a son. Their families teach them how to love along with a multitude of other things that define them as being human. From here, they branch out. In addition, it is here that problems between the adolescent and his or her family can cause trouble in their search for an identity.
The second theme is that an adolescent is struggling to stand out in the crowd. It is a fear of being normal that we all know people go through. However, what many may not realize is that the fear of being normal is a motivating force to help define us. It is not being average that scares many adolescence, but rather the fear that they will not be defined with a unique identity if they are just one in the crowd.
This is not to say that if an athlete is trying to be above average that he is just trying to find out who he is. He is doing that because he sees that he can be better because he logically knows that average is only half as good as the best and he wants to fulfill his potential. That is not what I am talking about here. An adolescent who does not want to get swept up in the crowd and be unnoticed does so not because they care so much about being noticed per se, but because being noticed helps give them an understanding of who they are.
They understand that they are that kid who can eat fifteen hotdogs in ten minutes, or that they are the student body president, or that they are a Goth. And they do many things to gain this attention. They gain the attention and acceptance of people by smoking pot, or by having sex, or by doing well in school. It is a completely different view on the whole peer pressure idea. Many people know that peer pressure is easier to handle in private school than in public. Most assume this is because there are more people in public school so therefore there must be more people pressuring and individual into doing things. Realistically though, people can only have so many friends and acquaintances with them at one time telling them what to do, and a public schooler isn't going to have that many more people pressuring them than a private schooler. Rather, it is the fact that public school is so much bigger that it is easier to loose oneself in the crowd. People must do more and more drastic things to stop the numbing sensation of not having an identity.
Now I will summarize the interview briefly and then break them down and point out the evidence for the themes I mentioned above. Gilmore did not feel loved by her mother, who was her only parent growing up. Her mother was an alcoholic and was abusive both verbally and physically. Gilmore got no real emotional support from her mother. She had only a couple of good friends in high school but she would keep losing them through the years. She was more of a social butterfly jumping from clique to clique. She focused more on school around mid high school. She has no big hobbies in her life. She describes herself as friendly, out going, and good at reading people. These are just how she naturally is. She doesn't really admire anyone accept for characters played by Mila Jovovich because of her "spunky sexy attitude." She is motivated not to be like her mom. She is an agnostic. At times she smokes, drinks, does marijuana, and has sex.
Gilmore displays some vaguely similar qualities of people with histrionic personality disorder. She doesn't have any of the symptoms, but rather the theorized driving forces. Gilmore requires attention from others. This is why she jumped from clique to clique in school cycling through friends. Just like everybody else, her identity crisis involved trying to use other people to help define who she is. Unlike other people, Gilmore did not have the support of a healthy family as a base from which to operate. Instead of love to fall back on, she had to turn to drinking to ease the pain in her life. Drinking of course is no substitute for love and it causes various problems for her. Not having been taught properly what love is, she seeks it desperately from people but does not fully know what she is looking for. For this reason, it seems she jumps from person to person trying to find a way to identify a very basic part of humanity in herself: love. She has even admitted to having sex with people so they would like her. She does, however, have a sense of what she does not want to become, which at least gives a trajectory for a healthy future path. For this reasons she began doing better in school and worked hard to afford the things she needed that her poor mother could not buy her.
Natasha had a good relationship with her parents until early teens and was not abused like Gilmore. She learned what love was like any other healthy child. She did however develop a poor relationship with her father. Then he had an affair, which worsened things. Her mother than began focusing on things to please the father and stopped focusing on the kids which caused a worse relationship to form with Natasha and her. She was conceived out of wedlock and believes that her parents somewhat resented having her. Her father once called her the black sheep of the family when she was very young. Her parents pushed her to do well in school, to get a job rather than work at a summer camp, and not to date her current boyfriend. While she considered herself popular in high school, she did not have many friends. Her grades gradually declined over time until she is now doing awful in school. Any of the things she is good at she does not get to do very often. She is very committed to Christianity though she does not have a strong grip on the religion yet. Smokes, has drank, and tried drugs once. Also, Natasha has been diagnosed with depression.
Natasha had enough of a base with her parents to learn what love was but then had that pulled out from under her. She still has strong attachments to them but is often let down by them, which is terrible for understanding who she is. She feels that her family is part of who she is but when they do something to upset her it literally shakes her world and can cause much confusion. Her boyfriend urges her to understand that family are just people we are related to, but friends are those we truly love enough to go out of our way to be with. He considers friends more important. This creates a great amount of strife in Natasha's life and makes her feel as though she is being pulled apart. The fact that she considers herself popular but not as having many friends means she probably felt much pressure on her in high school. To say no to friend one knows very well can be easy, but to say no to an adoring public who might turn on her because they don't truly care about her can be very hard. The smoking, the drinking, and the drugs all seemed to have a base in peer pressure, but even more importantly in rebellion. Natasha is a rebel, and like most rebels, she is not truly rebelling from society, but rather trying to find her place in it by defining herself with many things that society deems wrong. She also finds her place with other people who engage in these same behaviors. She is trying to change her rebelliousness, which takes away one more thing that helped her define herself. She developed depression as problems with her family progressed and is not as motivated to do things. Her good grades have slipped away which was another thing that helped define her, and she no longer has time for her hobbies, which were yet more defining activities she no longer has. Natasha struggles now to define herself by disciplining herself. She has self-esteem issues, and discipline would at least give her something that she has control over and that defines her.
Little Albert has had the easiest identity crises out of the three. Little Albert went to a private Christian school unlike the other too. He was popular in the later high school years. He is a tech geek and proud of it. He is very good with computers and enjoys video games but is less and less interested in them. Oddly enough he enjoys some out doors activities such as hiking and caving (amateurs call it spelunking). These rubbed off on him from his father. He has a good relationship with his parents. Little Albert is also heavily into philosophy and theology. He is teaching himself Greek and believes he has a purpose in life to minister to Christians who are falling off track from the true tenets of the religion. He smoked for a time when he was about eleven. He did this for the stereotypical reason to look cool for a friend. He never engaged in any of the other vices that adolescents often fall prey to because of his religious beliefs.
Here we can see a good contrast to Gilmore and Natasha. Little Albert had a loving home life. One that not only motivated him but also did not restrict him with his parents set goals for him. He explored his father's hobbies and moved on from them to find ones of his own and actually ended up being very different from his father. His high school environment was friendly and he was easily able to make a name for himself. Not only did he stand out as a tech geek but he was loved for what is sometimes called the geek chic style that he possessed. It was easy for him to find who he was and hold on to it because he was not being drowned in a sea of people and people were not pulling him every which way to be like them. Able to form a healthy identity for himself, Little Albert was able to go on to a level that Gilmore and Natasha have not yet. He has begun making decisions on who he wants to be and implementing them. He considers himself good at seeing things from other people's points of view. This is something he believes is a natural talent. Gilmore and Natasha have natural talents like these too. But Little Albert also has strengths in logic and analysis which he says he decided he wanted to develop to make him a better person and then did so. Gilmore and Natasha have not reached a level where they accurately understand who they truly are, so they have not yet been able to determine traits they want to develop to make them better in whatever roles they will fill. Furthermore, their strengths (seeing things from others perspectives, friendliness, helping people) are all traits that will attract others to them. This attraction of others helps them try to find a role in a group and better identify themselves. So these two are still working on finding out who they are, while Little Albert is working on figuring out what he has to do to be the best at what he already knows he is.
Peter Parker's Uncle Ben, from the movie Spider-man, was right to advise his nephew that this is the time when a person is going to become who they are for the rest of their lives. It is not to say that identity confused people are stuck that way, or even that people cannot completely change who they are at a later time. Rather, identity crisis is how people naturally and most easily find out what roles they fill. One might even argue that a person does not truly leave the stage of identity crisis if they do not develop at least some grasp of who they are and where they are going.
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