In a Tedx Talk presented in 2016, former Utah State University goalkeeper Jeannie Woller discussed the physical and mental toll she took after walking off the field for the final time.
Woller’s problem? It wasn’t losing soccer. It was losing the titles “soccer player” and “student-athlete.” When she introduced herself, she could easily pull these titles out to define and represent who she was.
That was her problem: she no longer knew how to define herself. She no longer knew who she was.
Woller’s titles at USU were socially accepted and backed by an institution of higher learning. There was no confusion in who she was: a soccer player for USU. When someone else can backup that you are, in fact, represented by this title, there is no need to question it. That is an identity we can firmly stand behind.
For many people, falling into a socially-accepted identity is far easier than it seems. A high school student quickly becomes a college student who quickly finds a job. The transition from “student at University of Southern California” to “investment banker” is almost seamless. There is relatively no time to question who you are. Your title tells you.
“Even if we do decide to talk about [our identity, or lack thereof] on a larger platform like a Tedx stage and receive that validation, it is only internally that we can understand our true success,” Woller said.
I faced a similar lack of identity once I graduated from college just as Woller did. While I didn’t have athletic strings tying me to my school or feel like I was leaving any important part of my past behind by moving on to a life without school, it did feel odd to have finished my education.
It didn’t feel weird at first. At my workplace, I was surrounded by peers with whom I enjoyed spending the summer. Once the summer ended and they all went back to school, however, it finally hit me: for the first time in my life, I was not defined by a class schedule.
It becomes comforting to have that next year of school to look forward to, whether you like school or not. At least you know where you’re going. The uneasiness of an undefined future rarely enters your mind. There are few questions to ponder about where you’ll be in three, six, or twelve months.
Once my colleagues returned to school, my situation became apparent: I was an employee at a place I didn’t even really like and nothing more.
The job search bearing no fruit only compounded my identity crisis: I’m a writer that no one will pay to write!
Even after starting my newsletter and journey on Medium, I still felt a lack of identity. I was writing, sure, but I didn’t have that external institution confirming my status. How can I call myself a writer with no job?
It took me months to figure out what it took Woller months to figure out: our identity comes from within, not without. We are what we do — whether someone agrees with that or not.
One day, this reality hit me: I am a writer, so I should write. That same day, I began writing my book, “From One Young Soul to Another.”
Now, if I’m ever confronted with the “Who are you?” question, my answer will be, “Writer,” whether I have anything to show for it or not. I know that to be true within myself, whether an external figure agrees or not.
If Jeannie Woller and my examples don’t relate to you, James Clear explained a good way to define who you are in his book, “Atomic Habits,” by breaking down what you do into the personal characteristics within you that allow you to do those things well and enjoy them.
“I’m an athlete” becomes “I’m the type of person who is mentally tough and loves a physical challenge.”
“I’m a great soldier” transforms into “I’m the type of person who is disciplined, reliable, and great on a team.”
“I’m the CEO” translates to “I’m the type of person who builds and creates things.”
Discovering these characteristics will give you a foundation to build upon in case you stop enjoying what you do. It will be much easier to parlay those experiences and characteristics into something you enjoy more, all the while not altering your identity. You won’t be as likely to feel like you’ve lost something.
Why You Should Diversify Your Identity
Don’t put all of your eggs in one character trait or accomplishment
Last August, I ran into another identity crisis when it became apparent that the girl I spent five months trying to date was not going to come around.
“Placing a piece of your identity onto the shoulders of another person will always cause heartache. People come and go, no matter what you tell yourself. In the search for a significant other, we often build a false reality in our heads. We think about the future and what could be. When it comes crashing down, it hurts. But not because something significant was taken away from us. The movie we directed in our head had a different ending than we originally planned.”
My lowest moment was the point where I wrote that paragraph and that article. It was the moment I realized I was out of control, I was not myself, and I was placing my happiness into the hands of other people.
Over the following months, I began to rediscover who I was and what I wanted. I properly defined myself and began to work on sticking to my path and my path alone. I have never felt happier and more comfortable with myself than I do right now.
Having an identity crisis is not uncommon. When we tie who we are to the people in our life, the job we have, or the money we make, we jeopardize losing our sense of self if one of those people or things disappears.
By getting in touch with who we are, what we do, and why we do, we build an unbreakable foundation that we can continuously fall back upon, no matter how many obstacles get in our way and changes present themselves.
And don’t fool yourself: the obstacles will come and so will the changes. Be comfortable with that, be comfortable with your identity, and you will never again feel lost.
Disclaimer: Much of this article was taken from my book, “From One Young Soul to Another” (you can purchase here). Alterations and additions were made for this article.