Who Am I?

Exploring your identity.

7 Clues to Identity Achievement Part 1

Why is it so hard to figure out who we are?

Identity Achievement, the status of high exploration and high commitment, is associated with many adaptive characteristics. For instance, compared to people who are in an Identity Diffusion, Identity Foreclosure, or Identity Moratorium status, those in an Achievement status are more rational, use more sophisticated moral reasoning, are in relationships characterized by greater intimacy, are better able to appreciate their parents' strengths and weakness, are more open to new experiences, and possess an internal locus of control.

So, if constructing an adult identity is such a good thing, why is it so hard? Why is it that very few adolescents and young adults are in an Identity Achievement?  Perhaps because, like most desirable destinations, the journey can be arduous. In fact, a review of the research on why Identity Achievement is so elusive suggests there are seven possibilities.

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Today, we consider #1: Equilibrium.

Huh? Well, consider Angela. She doesn't know what to do with herself. Angela is running out of time to choose a major in college, but no matter what her campus career services office suggests or her professors discuss with her, nothing appeals to Angela. When they provide suggestions, Angela just rolls her eyes and sighs, thinking all the careers that people mention are not just boring, but unsuitable as well. Nor does Angela follow up any of the suggestions with research of her own, either via the Bureau of Labor Statistics' Occupational Outlook Handbook, talking to people in the field, or searching via plain 'old Google.

Angela's (lack of) reactions are not unusual. Many of us are unwilling to consider further a future option for us that doesn't appeal immediately. Especially when exploring a possibility requires us to change the way we think about ourselves. For example, Angela's parents aren't professionals, and she is the first child in her family to go to college, so it has been hard for her to see herself as a professional. Angela likes children, and so she assumes she should therefore major in Elementary Education and be a preschool teacher. But she doesn't want to. And as we know, Angela visited the career services office, talked to professors, family members and so on, but nothing they suggest appealed to her. Therein lies the rub.

For instance, the career services office assessment of Angela's interests and skills indicated she is not only interested in children, but ethics as well, and that Angela scores high on measures of logic. So one of their recommended professions is a child advocacy attorney. When Angela heard this, she just laughed, never considering seriously that she could be, would enjoy being, and would be successful as a lawyer. Angela thinks going to law school and being an attorney is for other people.

Then what happens? Angela gets annoyed at what she finds to be a preposterous career suggestion, so she leaves the career services office, decides to not think about needing to choose a major soon, and then panics later after procrastinating about the issues. Angela then starts the whole process over again, only to scoff at what her professor/parent/boss/co-worker/friend then suggests she consider.

What's going on? Angela is misinterpreting identity-related information (i.e., specific career suggestions, such as being a child advocacy lawyer) as inappropriate for her. Why? Because doing so protects her current sense of identity, and doesn't challenge her to change her identity. This maintains an equilibrium, in which her understanding of who she is ("likes children") is not threatened or disrupted.

Distorting new information about ourselves in order to maintain the equilibrium of our current identity also provides us with a (temporary) license to continue to procrastinate about making a commitment...that which, alongside exploration, is required for an Identity Achievement.

And developing an adult identity, especially in regards to a career, can be complicated, frustrating, and downright scary. So Angela's dilemma is understandable. But in order for her to move to an Identity Achievement, Angela needs to start taking herself seriously and reconsider how she sees herself.

References:

Kroger, J. (2007). Why is identity achievement so elusive? Identity: An International Journal of Theory and Research, 7(4), 331-348.

Kristine Anthis, Ph.D., is Professor of Psychology at Southern Connecticut State University.

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