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Identity Crisis: How To Recognize It And What To Do

Identity Crisis: How To Recognize It And What To Do

You are at a crossroads in life and everything has changed. 

Suddenly you don't know who you are, what you want and where you are going. You feel like the ground is collapsing beneath your feet and everything you used to be is suddenly distant. Maybe you went through a divorce, lost your job, had an accident, lost loved ones, missed a big opportunity, had a mental crisis, had a baby, or a traumatic event and loss ripped something out of you. Maybe everything on the surface of your life looks "okay," but underneath you feel empty, restless and dissatisfied, even for no apparent reason.

Whatever it is, you no longer know who you are and what you want... I if it seems like a terrible, tragic situation, try to look at your situation through a different lens for a moment. Maybe it's a blessing in disguise.

What is an identity crisis

Most people feel internally who they are and what they want from life. An identity crisis means that all dreams, ideas, the stories and identities we once held as our own and valid suddenly seem insubstantial, empty and alien.

We may feel like the world is moving on without us and we are left behind, that we are "nothing" or "nobody" while everyone else seems to be "somebody."

Why we experience an identity crisis

An identity crisis usually comes as a result of some kind of shock, good or bad. Was we go through major life changes; we go through some degree of identity crisis. Because our human identities (egos) are based on beliefs, ideas, memories, and identifications, everything what challenges these mental stories creates an imaginary fissure that shatters our self-concept. The result is an identity crisis.

Causes of an identity crisis may include the following reasons and triggers:

  • Moving
  • Death of a loved one
  • Entering a new relationship or marriage
  • Having a child and becoming a parent
  • Getting a new job
  • Losing a job
  • Illness or injury
  • Retirement
  • Experience a spiritual awakening
  • Walking through the dark night of the soul
  • Having existential crisis, quarter of life crisis, or midlife crisis

Coping with mental health

Any traumatic event, shock or major life shift can also trigger an identity crisis.

Considering if this topic applies to you? Try looking at the next list and think how many of these expressions can you identify with?

How to recognize an existential crisis:

  • You are dissatisfied with your life
  • You lack a sense of direction or purpose
  • The way, the way you used to think about yourself and your life now seems false, dead or meaningless
  • You no longer know what you want, what you need
  • You ask for meaning of life
  • The world seems extremely big/powerful and you feel extremely small/powerless
  • You feel anxious, depressed or restless
  • Chronic distrust or doubt yourself
  • Feel ungrounded and disoriented (mentally, emotionally, physically)

Feel as if your life is not your own. You feel lost and isolate You may be experiencing all of these symptoms, or just a few of them. It doesn't matter how many you perceive, what matters is whether you feel like you're going through an identity crisis. Experiencing an identity crisis is painful and terrifying. And sure enough, eventually you can get back on your feet and find a new identity to cling to. But the point is that identity is inherently fragile - anything can come and make you question it again, look through it, want to change it or outgrow it. Like a forest fire, an identity crisis can burn away our identifications, leaving us with a smoldering pile of ashes. But within those ashes remain embers of light and brightness. And if you blow on these embers, you can get flames that you can use for deep inner exploration.

The identity crisis you are going through can actually be a gift, a great opportunity, a gateway to another world. If you feel that the "I" you used to be never fully authentic, true, real or satisfying, then read on.

Identity crisis can also be understood as a form of ego death, which is a form of grace on the path of spiritual awakening. She breaks us to wake us up. In other words, the purpose of ego death is to awaken us to our true nature, which is not defined by limited ideas of who and what we are—and it does this by showing us what we are not.

Ego death (or identity crisis) burns away and dissolves the rigid ideas and fixed beliefs that create a gilded cage (ego) around us and puts us in a state of unconsciousness, a state of absolute raw here and now, which can be terrifying for a fragile ego.

How to accept the call of an identity crisis and discover the truth about yourself

Not knowing who we are is terrifying to the ego. We need ego, yes. We need some type of self-awareness to function and interact with this world. But the thing is, we don't have to take our ego seriously. We don't have to delude ourselves that whatever mental construct of ourselves that comes and goes is who we "really" are.

If you want to experience a sense of real personal identity again, a sense of a solid ego, that's fine.

There are many ways to rebuild your identity, such as discovering your life values, finding ways to anchor yourself physically, exploring your likes and dislikes, talking to a coach or therapist, reframing experiences, determining goals, following a routine, etc.

However, the necessary goal every time is not to focus on re-establishing the ego, but to use this discomfort as sand in a shell that will eventually turn it into a pearl. No sand, no pearl…

An identity crisis is a deep call to rediscover your True Nature beyond the sense of a separate self.

Who are you when everything is taken from you?
Who are you when you no longer know who you are?

These are key questions that need to be thoroughly explored. How do we look at these questions? How do we receive this call?

Here are some methods you could use:

  1. Enjoy standing
    Standing still can feel like death when you've been used to moving frantically all your life. But stillness is peace. Silence invites us back home, into ourselves. Silence helps us stop, think and be. Silence is not your enemy; it is your friend.
    An identity crisis throws you into a dead end that seems to lead nowhere and forces you to stop. This can be confusing at first. The ego identity loves movement because it is distracting and self-reinforcing. So stand still and have the courage to find peace and clarity.

    2. Enjoy ignorance
    Trying to 'fit in', 'get it right' and use the 'right' words are all part of an intellectual game based on the fear of revealing the fact that we don't know something. In the words of the Greek philosopher Socrates, who decades later learning, thinking and theorizing he came to the conclusion: "I know that I know nothing."

If we are truly honest with ourselves, we will realize that even when all is said and done, we cannot know anything with 100% certainty.

It's okay not to know who you are or what you want. Take it as permission to embrace your unconscious. It's normal to feel a little scared or disoriented. But once you let go and accept the fact that it's okay not to know, you can find more inner space and peace.

If you keep trying to trust the flow of life more and embrace your unconscious, look at nature. Look at children. They "don't know," and yet there is so much freedom and spontaneity, so much freshness and liveliness. Once we think we "know," we enclose ourselves and others in tight little boxes with labels that don't allow for the full expression of the sacred wild movement of life.

  1. Work with your soul
    Unlike inner work, which is psychologically oriented, soul work focuses on the spiritual aspect of ourselves. Soul work includes everything that which helps us open up, surrender, rediscover and rest in our true inner home.

Some methods you can explore to help you accept the call of an identity crisis may be the following:

  • Prayer
  • Mindfulness practice
  • Meditation
  • Contemplation
  • Ecotherapy (connection with nature)
  • Lectio divina (spiritual reading)

Focusing on a simple spiritual practice can help ground you when you're in a state of crisis and open you up to connecting with your true nature.

  1. Understand That It Wasn't Your Authentic Self

When we go through an identity crisis, we experience the collapse of something that was never really who we were. In the West, we fixate on that we are our 'authentic self' and yet the 'self' we think we are not authentic because it is based on thoughts, beliefs and memories - hence the search for 'authenticity' is always so elusive. How can something within us—a memory, belief, identity, preference, etc.—that is subject to change really define who we are? The self, or ego, is a construct that can easily change. It has no real depth or substance. So how can it be authentic? If you are honest with yourself, you will realize that you have constantly moved and changed throughout your life .Take your time on self-reflection: when you were five, fifteen, twenty-five and beyond - what actually remains the same in you? This authentic Self is a deep-rooted quality or essence that we carry within us. On the other side, there is an authentic greater Self. This Self precedes all thought and is what is known as our True Nature.

  1. Ask yourself “Who am I?”

Who am I? is the central question of the spiritual path, known as self-enquiry, which is the core practice of the path of jnana (or self-knowledge). If you are going through an identity crisis; it can be very powerful. There are many other questions than Who am I, you can ask yourself, for example: 

What am I? What was my face like before my parents were born? Who is thinking these thoughts? Who is experiencing this moment? Who am I if I do not refer to the past or the future?

Pick whatever question resonates with you and stick with it. The powerful thing about undergoing an identity crisis is that it presents an opportunity, or a gateway, through which to explore who you really are.

By asking the question: “Who am I?” and releasing attachment to all mental descriptions and ideas, you enter into a space of inner silence. You enter the realm of pure being, where the false self (ego) dissolves for a few moments or minutes and the truth of who you really are remains.

Initially, self-inquiry may seem like a mere mental activity. But if you pursue this question with curiosity and openness, deep inner shifts can eventually occur.

The sage Ramana Maharshi said: “Self-enquiry is the only infallible means, the only direct way to realize the unconditioned, absolute Being that you really are.

Losing contact with our old identity can be disorienting, depressing and scary. No one wants to feel like their world has collapsed. No one wants to be lost, without purpose, or without answers. No one wants to feel like a "nobody". But going through an identity crisis can be considered a form of spiritual initiation if we decide to accept this call.

Not only does questioning who we are remove all that we are not, it also reveals our inner light beneath the fog of the mind if we dare to look.

It is good to have an ego. But when we start mistaking the ego for the real truth of who we are, then we suffer. Our egos are always changing. Any construct that is defined by thought or feeling must come and go at some point. But what doesn't change is the consciousness that underlies it all. Consciousness cannot be defined, captured or destroyed. It is the immortal true nature.

Image and Translation by CrystalWind.ca


© Alue K. Loskotová, www.aluska.org 2024

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