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

Today, we consider #3: Conflict.

We have been discussing why it is so difficult for many adolescents and young adults (if not older adults) to reach the Identity Achievement status, despite this particular identity status being associated with so many adaptive characteristics.

One reason is that many people strive to maintain the equilibrium and certainty of their current identity, even if their current identity is outdated. Another reason Identity Achievement is so elusive for so many is because stability of identity status is not an inherent aspect of development during adolescence and early adulthood, given these are stages of the lifespan during which we explore our identity and try on new possible selves.

A third reason is conflict, i.e., in order to reach the Identity Achievement status, we must acknowledge an external conflict (e.g., job loss) and/or internal conflict (e.g., disillusionment with the practices of one’s religion) -- and respond to this conflict with accommodation rather than assimilation, i.e., evolve in our identity and actually try on some of those possible selves, rather than change and distort facts to fit with our current (outdated) identity.

For example, both Danita and Bella worked in the same IT Department and were recently laid off after the company they worked for decided to outsource jobs. And we appreciate that after a job loss, many of us may need to find a new position as soon as possible.

But Danita, who has a tendency to respond to conflict with accommodation, would also explore the possibility of retraining for a different career. She would not distort facts or deny that IT jobs may no longer be as secure as they once were, but she would be open to considering something new, and perhaps willing to spend time, money, and energy on going into a different field.

On the other hand, Bella, who has a tendency to respond to conflict with assimilation, would find the thought of retraining for a career too threatening and would restrict herself to searching for another IT job. Doing so would maintain Bella’s identity equilibrium. And the urge to do so is understandable, given the distress associated with an identity disequilibrium (Danita’s questioning of her identity, her time, money, energy, etc.).

Yet Bella’s avoidance of anything that would trigger an identity disequilibrium may render her akin to someone in denial. How so? Well, Bella’s failure to read about the predicted growth and the predicted stagnation of various careers means that she fails to consider that IT jobs may no longer be as secure as they once were. This would therefore perpetuate her job instability -- not to mention prevent her from reaching an Identity Achievement.

So, although it can be painful, being open to both external and internal events that conflict with who we are can disrupt our understanding of ourselves, but can also ultimately lead us to more advanced identity development status.

About the Author

Kristine Anthis, Ph.D.

Kristine Anthis, Ph.D., is Professor of Psychology at Southern Connecticut State University. She is the author of Lifespan Development, Sage Publications.

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