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What can cause an identity crisis?

One of the girls I was at university with here in Ireland was the brightest student in our class. She had got the highest score possible in her leaving certificate exam (the Irish equivalent of the high-school diploma), and always aced her exams at University. She was very talkative and well liked …and when she graduated, she graduated with a 1st class honors degree.

This girl basically seemed to have it all.

You could always tell by talking to her that she sensed she was going places. I remember talking to her one day about if she ever considered going down the line of becoming a university professor. Her response was that the only type of people who become university professors are people who have failed in their career and couldn’t make it in the real world. She described a university professor as being essentially just a “glorified teacher”.

While I thought this was a bit harsh on a field as honorable as teaching at a university, I had to admire her self-belief in her ability to become someone even bigger in her career in science.

Fast Forward 10 Years…

10 years later we had a college re-union. At it, I met the same girl again. I had lost touch with her since leaving college and was curious to know what she was now doing as I expected her to have gone places in her career.

I was surprised to learn that she had ended up going down the exact route in her career that she had thought so little of 10 years previously – teaching at a university. But what surprised me even more was that she wasn’t even teaching classes, but instead was a lecturer’s assistant (a much lower role).

I got talking to a few of my old classmates about her and found out that her career in the real world had stalled and hadn’t gone the places she had been expecting. And furthermore, when that happened, her personality changed. She stopped becoming the likable girl we had all known but instead had become difficult to get along with, had become a gossiper and had even fallen out with a few of her friends.

So what had happened?

As we talked more about this girl, it became clear to me what had happened – she had suffered an identity crisis.

This girl had always identified herself by her academic success …and when that deserted her, and she had to “settle” for a job that she had previously looked on – her identity was challenged of who she had thought she was.

She could no longer look down her nose at other people as she had previously done (ie university professors), and to counter this had become known for gossiping about other people in an attempt to knock them down, so as to elevate herself above them. This in turn had resulted in her losing friends.

This girl had made a major mistake in life – she identified herself by a single external object …her academic success. And when someone identifies themselves by a single external object, they are at risk of losing their identity if that external object gets taken away (in the case of this girl, she turned out not to be as academically brilliant as she had thought).

Many People Make The Same Mistake…

Many people make the mistake of creating an identity for themselves in their mind based on external things. For example:

  • Identifying Oneself By Money: Many people identify themselves (and others) by how much money they have. This is not a healthy basis at looking at yourself or other people. For example, if someone was a millionaire and mostly identified themselves by this, and then lost this money during a recession it would likely trigger an identity crisis that would affect other areas of their life too. During the 1929 wall street crash, many people were said to have jumped out of skyscraper windows after losing their money. If someone loses their identity, it can feel like they have lost their life …and so they see no reason for continuing to live.

  • Identifying Oneself By Their Partner: Some people, when they get into a relationship, can begin to identify themselves too much by their relationship. For example, subconsciously a guy might no longer consider himself as simply “John” …but “John” of “John and Mary”. A lot of people even begin to stop hanging out with their friends as they begin to hang out more and more with their new partner. Then, if a breakup occurs, they can be left feeling devastated because they have not just lost their boyfriend/girlfriend …but have lost the identity they had created for themselves in their mind. They and the relationship they were in had become one and the same thing.

  • Identifying Oneself By An Object: If someone thinks of herself as the woman who lives in the biggest house in the street, and then (due to financial reasons) she has to move to a smaller house …this can ignite an identity crisis. This identity crisis can then manifest itself in all sorts of ways. One way she might try to compensate, like the girl in this article, is by gossiping about other people. If she can’t elevate herself over other people anymore because of the house she lives in, one option many such people take is to try and knock other people down in order to maintain their sense of superiority over other people. Needless to say that this then can create other problems in the persons life.

As humans, subconsciously we all need an identity to form the basis of who we are. But, as you can see, identifying yourself by an external object is an unhealthy (and unstable) way by which to create an identity for yourself.

Check out my article How To Deal With An Identity Crisis to see the correct way to form your identity by building it on internal things which you have more control over. Doing this not only makes your identity more stable in that it will be more likley to last, but it is also a more healthy way to identify oneself. 

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