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Our Identity: "Who Am I (Really)?"

Defining our identity is a lifelong challenge.

“What’s It All About, Alfie?” That’s the title of a touching film from the late sixties about a young man trying to “find himself” (played by Michael Caine).

Presumably, when young people “find themselves” they have developed a sense of what they’re all about, or their true “Identity.” “Coming of Age” is a similar theme often represented in film (“American Grafitti”) and novels (“The Catcher in the Rye”).

All these terms refer to the stage of life when a young person has matured, feels good about themselves at work, play, and in relationships, and is looking forward to the future. We first become interested in our personal identity during adolescence, when we begin asking ourselves identity-related questions, along the lines of, “Who am I? What do I stand for? What do I want out of life?"

Most colleges offer a Freshman course “Introductory Psychology” (“Psych 101”), which teaches eager young students about the concept of identity (which is largely about them!) The concept was developed by Dr. Erik Erikson, who held that developing a core identity was the major existential challenge to adolescents, and that this “task” had to be successfully resolved before they could ably embark into young adulthood.

Adolescence is a period marked by dramatic transformative developmental changes over a short span of years, which occur relatively rapidly and involve every cell and sinew of the human body and mind. There may be some turmoil at that time of life, and many parents expect adolescents’ lives to be filled with turbulence, as depicted by Shakespeare in A Winter’s Tale: “I would there were no age between ten and three and twenty, for there is nothing in the between except getting wenches with child, stealing and fighting.” Anna Freud called this “Sturm und Drang” (emotional storminess), and deemed it an inevitable rite of passage.

But here are three truisms about Identity:

1) Many adolescents do not experience emotional upheaval; 2) “Identity” is not the sole domain of adolescents; 3) Coming to grips with our identity is not “resolved” during the adolescent years: Defining one’s Identity is a Recurrent Lifelong Challenge.

We revisit the same existential questions we asked during adolescence throughout our lives, but while the questions remain the same, the answers change significantly and are very different over the course of one’s life.

Who among us hasn’t looked in the mirror (real or metaphoric) from time to time throughout our lives and asked ourselves these identical questions? (“What am I doing with my life?” “Is this what I am all about?”)

The answers to those questions are related only to that specific moment in time, and are frequently modified over a lifetime, depending on one’s age, health, relationships, mood and life situation. But checking in with ourselves is important.

We wrestle with these questions during major milestones or during crisis situations. Or when there are significant changes in our live, during new relationships, career moves, illnesses and losses.

We are sentient beings and as such we are constantly reevaluating ourselves and our goals. We think about these identity-related issues and they appear in our dreams and unconscious thoughts.

Wrestling with existential quandaries like “Who Am I (really)?” is a necessary part of our lifelong quests for understanding ourselves. They are important bellwethers and beacons to help us set our personal directions and goals, make important choices, and evaluate how we are doing in our journeys.

Ultimately, of course, we are all seeking fulfillment and meaning in our lives.