Having a “sense of identity” is a profoundly psychological concept that is abstract and sometimes difficult to fully understand as the discourse around it starts to unfold in all its complexities. When you hear the word identity, you might think of character traits that you associate with, making you stand out from the crowd (or even fit into a particular crowd). Labels and job positions may pop into the mind’s eye: hippie, Republican, techy, stay-at-home mom, Christian, soccer dad, Democrat, entrepreneur. Perhaps hobbies like sports or baking and fashion choices, trendy or casual, help you define where you fit into the mix. However, identity goes a little deeper to include all the memories, experiences, and relationships one has had and how it has impacted them. Values, beliefs, and attitudes are particularly significant in determining and limiting one’s decision and subsequent actions, thus, shaping one’s sense of self.
What Is an Identity Crisis?
In general, identity has the central quality of personal sameness and continuity; when you wake up in the morning or when things in life change (as they always do), you will not likely think of yourself as a drastically different person. However, some people do wake up one day and discover that they are having what is called an identity crisis. They no longer feel that they are living how they want; something is just not right. An identity crisis could be caused by a traumatic or life-changing event such as:
- The birth of a child
- The failure or loss of a relationship
- Having a spiritual epiphany
- Discovering knowledge
- Changing a career
Maybe you’ve had one.
Our sense of identity helps us move on from the past, into the present, and onto the future with a sense of groundedness and unconscious comfort. It causes us to respond to the world in particular ways. Losing that could be as traumatic as the event that caused it.
Signs You May Be Experiencing an Identity Crisis
Having an identity crisis isn’t a diagnosable condition, so there aren’t typical “symptoms,” as with a cold or flu. However, there are common signs you may be experiencing an identity crisis:
- You’re questioning who you are — overall or regarding a specific life aspect such as relationships, age, or career.
- You’re experiencing great personal conflict due to questioning who you are or your role in society.
- Significant changes have recently occurred that has affected your sense of self, such as divorce.
- You’re questioning things such as your values, spirituality, beliefs, interests, or career path that significantly impact how you see yourself.
- You’re searching for more meaning, reason, or passion in your life.
The Connection to Mental Health
Any type of crisis can result in a decline in your mental health. When you find yourself struggling with identity issues, you may also experience depression, anxiety, insecurity, and more. Viewing yourself or your life negatively has been shown to lead to vulnerability and depression.
Can Mental Health Cause an Identity Crisis?
While an identity crisis can cause mental health to decline, mental health disorders can also lead to an identity crisis. For example, mental health disorders like bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder (BPD), and schizophrenia can make identity a tricky thing to keep a hold of. These disorders can naturally muddy one’s identity.
Bipolar disorder, for example, is characterized by sudden and intense changes in behavior and mood. This characterization can cause friends and family to become confused and unsure of what to expect next. They might become skeptical and uncertain of the dynamics of your relationship with them. The extreme swings from mania to depression can be so unsettling that you, too, wonder if anything you do represents who you really are. The fluctuations in mood experienced with bipolar can be frustrating and disheartening as you question what you’ll end up doing next.
One of BPD symptoms listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), the standard for diagnosing mental health disorders, is identity disturbance, or a markedly and persistently unstable self-image or sense of self. People with BPD often report that they have no idea who they are or what they believe in. Sometimes they report that they simply feel non-existent. Others even say that they are almost like a chameleon in terms of identity; they change who they are depending on their circumstances and what they think others want.
There has been very little research on the identity problems associated with BPD, but there are many theories as to why people with BPD often struggle with identity. BPD is associated with emotional instability, impulsive behavior, and dichotomous thinking. These can make it difficult to form a coherent sense of self because internal experiences and outward actions are not consistent. Many people with BPD also come from chaotic or abusive backgrounds, which may contribute to an unstable sense of self. If you determine who you are based on others’ reactions to you, and those reactions have been unpredictable or scary, you have no framework for developing a strong sense of identity.
Those with schizophrenia also experience severe challenges as this disorder interferes with a person’s ability to make appropriate decisions, manage emotions, and relate to other people. Hallucinations and delusions make it even harder to see the world for what it is, alongside a lack of insight termed anosognosia, which is Greek for “to not know a disease.” In other words, a patient with anosognosia cannot gauge the extent of their illness or that they have one at all.
Having a definite sense of identity is central to understanding who you are and living true to yourself. Your identity helps guide your decisions and interaction with the world. Your everyday life can be disrupted and contorted when mental health disorders stand in your way, and you can no longer differentiate where the boundaries of your “self” start and where it ends. However, re-creating your story can be one way to realign yourself with the world again. You shouldn’t have to do this alone! Oceanfront Recovery is an affordable and exceptional choice to tackle mental health-related to identity and treat underlying causes and exacerbators. We offer programs specifically designed to care for a variety of mental health disorders. If you are looking for help for yourself or a loved one, don’t hesitate to check out the various programs we provide. Oceanfront Recovery promises to give our patients compassionate care, helping them become the best version of themselves. Call us today at (877) 279-1777.