Have you ever gone through a serious identity crisis?
It’s a weird feeling that can occur out of nowhere. At best, not being sure who you are (or what you stand for) anymore, can be very confusing. Worst case, it’s an endless source of frustration that robs you of your lust for life.
Until a few weeks ago, I had been struggling with that feeling all year. Which made 2017 seem considerably less epic than its predecessors to me. But that’s only a matter of how I perceived it of course. This year was still full of moments I’ll never forget. Only underneath it all, it often felt like struggle and left me confused on every level.
I guess I just forget my mojo somewhere and never noticed it was gone. I’ve always been the kind of person who’s 100% certain who they are and it made me very confident. Still, somewhere along the way, self-doubt started to creep in. Maybe it’s just a normal part of growing up as an adolescent? Who am I to say ?
It’s crazy what an identity crisis can do to you. Every time I wrote a blog post, I immediately started questioning my own message. I became insecure around my girlfriend at times. I took a lot of action to reach my goals. But even though I got some results, they were very small compared to the effort I put in.
In these past 2 weeks, I feel like I’ve finally come to terms with what has been going on inside this brain all year. And oddly enough, looking back, this identity crisis is one of the best things that ever happened to me ?
So if you’re currently going through something similar, this article may help you make sense of things. But even if you’re not, please read on… Why not go crazy and choose to have an identity crisis? ? The other side is more than worth it.
Losing Your Opinions
One of the first things that made me question my identity this year was losing faith in my own opinions about people and the world.
It started with very simple changes. My political views for example. I’ve never really voted or been involved with politics. But I’ve always had a strong vision for what I think would make the world a better place. And I guess if you would have to really fit in a category, it would be “extreme leftism”. I grew up listening to punk rock, and lots of my ideals overlap with a loving form of anarchism, and dreams of a utopian society like the one in Huxley’s awesome book, Island.
In short, I love freedom and treating people equally. And I’ve always been willing to take a stance on it. But early this year, I started to realize that a lot of right-wing views were just as right in some situations (pun intended). There is always a certain degree of inequality in nature. And sometimes there is actually merit in repression, control or regulation. Because let’s face it: Just like with their drugs & booze, some people aren’t very good at handling their freedom.
Now, did this realization make me change my opinion on politics to a more conservative one? Not at all. I merely lost my opinion. I didn’t get a new one to replace it.
Society probably needs both forces to be present at all times in order to maintain some balance in the world, so why should I bother to pick a side?
Besides, isn’t a little arrogant to think that a 26-year-old kid privileged to live in some well-developed part of the world could know enough about the infinite complexities of this society and the cultures in it to have a solution for problems that are way beyond his own reach?
(If you answered “yes” to that question, carefully read it again and replace that 26-year-old kid with your own name ? This should get you started with your identity crisis).
But from there on, it got more confusing. More and more, I started to realize this was true for just about any area of life, not just politics. Rarely did an opinion held by me or the other person actually contribute anything to the well-being of people involved in the situation we were talking about. The problem with my opinions (and everyone else’s) is not that they are wrong. It’s just that they are a limited and distorted perspective based on our own ideals and values as a person.
This was a scary idea to grasp at first. Just when I had decided to start promoting this blog to a larger audience, I had nothing I wanted to write about anymore. Ever since it started, this blog has been basically just me sharing my opinions about things, hoping that they can help some people live a happier and more fulfilling life. But now, every time I wrote something, I immediately realized that I could’ve written the exact opposite of that article. And it would’ve been perceived equally valuable or helpful to some people.
I know that sounds like a very extreme statement, but consider it this way: An opinion is just a positionality on something. When I share my ideas about unconditional love: , that includes the fact that monogamy can be a big, limiting barrier that stands in the way of creating a true, open, loving relationship.
This is true, but it’s also just a perspective I use. It is possible to find people who live monogamously and still love each other unconditionally. To them, not cheating on their partner is not “the rule of the relationship”, but a normal consequence of their devotion to each other.
On the opposite spectrum, there are also people who live non-monogamously, but do so because they are afraid of committing to someone. These people may read my article and use the opinions expressed in it to justify their lack of love, even though the article is about expanding your love.
So while what I wrote in that article was valid, the opposite would be as well. Just like anything I’ve written. It would be impossible to give nuanced advice that accounts for every aspect of reality, because reality is infinite. Which made me wonder: What’s the point?
Ask yourself this: Why do you even have opinions about anything?
When you look at them closely, opinions are jus a vanity and have no value importance whatsoever. The opinions we have do not contribute to our lives in any positive way, they are merely thoughts we enjoy bringing up repeatedly, because we derive some sense of satisfaction from having them. And even though we are full of them, most of the time we know nothing at all about the subject we have an opinion about.
Think about it:
• How much do you really know about terrorism or Islam? And I mean real knowledge that you can personally verify , not things you read somewhere or heard about. Have you ever encountered a terrorist? Have you ever spoken with one about their motives? On the other hand, does that mean you can’t be right about your beliefs?
• What do you really know about this whole gender issue that’s been coming up lately ? The only verifiable knowledge you have about it stems from experiencing your own gender. All the rest are just thoughts and assumptions. And that’s only the identity part. What about the consequences that are bigger than one person’s freedom of choice?
If you still have any opinion you believe inabout the second thing for example, consider these 2 scenarios:
#1. A transgender woman competing in a woman’s boxing competition and beating everyone to smithereens until (s)he wins the gold medal. I guess it makes sense to illegalize having your gender changed, right?
#2. A transgender woman not being allowed into a beauty competition because her biological sex is male. Now it’s starting to feel like discrimination.
Who is right or wrong about these things?
It doesn’t even matter if our opinions are generally right or wrong. Since every opinion we have about something is just a limited perspective, all our opinions are by definition the result of ignorance.
I felt horrible about this realization for months. I just lost my entire world-view, the main thing I based my life philosophy on. I knew I couldn’t believe in it anymore but I kept frantically holding on to it anyway, because where would I find a new one?
On what basis would I now decide how to act in life, considering that everything I considered good or bad so far were just useless opinions that I picked up somewhere along the way?
And what if 20 years from now, I realized my original opinions were not so stupid after all? How would I deal with that immense regret of having given up on my teenage ideals?
But as with every aspect of this identity crisis, it ultimately proved to be a good thing.
Fixed opinions are a danger to those who hold them. Because they install triggers for sadness, anger and frustration to rise whenever they are challenged. Not only can this place an enormous stress on your relationship with the person trying to enlighten you, it is a complete waste of time and energy.
Why? Because an opinion only exists in your head. There is no basis for it in the physical reality you are experiencing at all.
It is one thing to be angry when a stranger just broke your jaw for no reason. But feeling angry about something you read in the paper or randomly thought about in your head? That’s just emotionally torturing yourself. There’s no benefit to it whatsoever, yet we do it all the time.
We also seem to enjoy randomly throwing them at people even when they didn’t ask for it. This alone should be an obvious hint that the existence of our opinions has more to with the ego’s need to feel right and superior, than the actual desire to spread positive change. How many lives throughout history were saved by an opinion? My guess is not a lot.
I already understood this a couple of months ago, but I found it very hard to do anything with this knowledge. Sure, I now understood my opinions were only worthless mentations. But then what? I still loved them because I thought “they made me who we are”. And if I let them go, what should I replace them with? The new ones would create the exact same problems.
Only recently I discovered that these questions were only fear based. It is perfectly fine to live without opinions. I would even say it’s easier, and much more fun ?
But to put an end to all the confusion I felt this year, I still had to let go of a lot more…
Ready for the rest of your identity crisis?
The Stories We Write
The first “seeds” of this realization were planted in my brains when I visited a friend who was watching Chris D’Elia’s awesome Netflix special “Man On Fire”.
In this show, Chris brilliantly uses comedy to bypass your defense mechanisms. Repeatedly, he has you laughing at a bunch of people and then makes you realize “Oh shit… Those people are me. I was just laughing at myself. Guess I’m not so cool after all.”
The main message of his special was that “Life is not your fucking movie.” You always think you’re living your life, in which you are the main character, things happen to you and you make cool stuff happen with your awesome side-kick friends. But in reality you’re not so special, mo’fucker. And neither are your friends or loved ones. You’re all just a person.
You may experience things from your point of view, but honestly, you’re probably not the awesome lead role in your movie. We’re all more likely to be one of the nameless background characters in someone else’s movie that is of no importance whatsoever. (And no, posting motivational memes and flexing your guns on Instagram does not make you an exception. Just like writing this blog post doesn’t make me one ? )
This made me extremely aware of how we interpret every situation encounter as if we were the central character in it. We constantly re-write the movie in our head to make it about us.
Don’t believe me? Spend 5 minutes observing yourself in traffic. You’re just some random driver in some random car that is contributing to the traffic just as much as the others, yet you still think “the busy traffic” is something happening to you that causes you to be late for this important thing. Nope. It’s just something forgettable that’s happening in the world. And you are completely irrelevant in this situation. The other driver wasn’t even rude. He just didn’t notice you because he was too busy thinking he was the lead role in the movie. Also, 99.99999% of people on this planet would not give a shit about you being late. They don’t even know your name, you little background character.
Every time something happens, no matter how small, we make a little story out of it. More often than not, this story serves to create an identity for ourselves. When there’s a conflict between people, or we do something questionable, we make a story around it that allows us to remain “the good guy” in our movie. Just like you have a map of reality, you also have a map of yourself. And it’s made up of a bunch of stories you invented.
When someone threatens these stories, you start to get highly defensive (or pissed off) at them, because it feels like they misjudge you. You think they don’t understand you. But just like with opinions, their side of the story is just as valuable, albeit equally limited and distorted as yours. Like with reality, who you are is a lot more complex than you think.
A while ago, I quit yet another job on the first day, after I felt they treated me unfairly. This has happened before when I noticed my employers had attitudes at work I considered unethical. Or when I had a cool job but they didn’t pay me for too long. When my ex-girlfriend asked about it, we got into a big argument. She felt frustrated that I was always creating victim stories about work that got in the way of me being the best version of myself (and our relationship). And I got super defensive. It felt to the ego as if she was threatening my sense of identity by questioning the truth about these stories I completely believed in.
Of course, a couple of days later I already realized that she was right. Were these stories untrue? No, I did not add any facts that didn’t happen. But I interpreted those facts as if I was the loveable underdog in my own movie. While in reality, the situation was not about me. It was just a situation in which I was just a person. And the other people involved had no reason at all to treat me like the main character.
Another thing that made me extremely defensive about this, was that I believed another story about me not ever feeling victimized anymore. So that “hidden” story, made me oblivious to the other ones. Egos are funny things ?
The next time I felt these victim stories come up (towards her or after I got rejected for a job I didn’t even want), I was able to let them go by accepting that they were just worthless stories. 2 weeks later, I finally got a job that meets my requirements and aligns with my competence. I like how the people treat me, and I have every intention to stay there and deliver good work. Coincidence? I think not ?
She may not know it, but this same woman was able to guide me to the next step of fixing this crisis as well (thank you for that, I love you!). When dealing with the fact that we are no longer sharing a love/sexual relationship, I noticed that my brain started making stories about the break-up and subsequent events in an attempt to “put it in context”. I started interpreting some of her actions in a way that made me feel duped. I started questioning some of her behavior towards me in the past weeks. I started feeling unloved, or like she hadn’t believed in our love as much as I did.
The funny thing was that I did realize they were just stories my mind came up with. So this brought up frustration. What if one of those victim stories was true? That would mean I had to accept it and face those feelings, right? On the other hand, the last thing I’d want to do is feel sad about something that is not true.
So I felt like to gain closure, I needed to share the stories that crossed my mind with her and check which ones were true and which weren’t. But when I did, the result was surprising. I found it very hard to tell any the stories because, seeing her and feeling my true love for her as a person no matter what our situation is, they all seemed trivial or ridiculous. And when I asked her about the ones I had been repeating the most, she simply replied: Why would it matter if they are true or not? What would that change?
So I let them go. Just like your opinions, your stories seem very important and righteous, but have no real value in themselves.
They’re just very hard to stop having, because we tend to repeat them in our head, But more importantly, getting rid of your stories has some unexpected side-effects that you need to learn to deal with:
I found it very difficult to socialize the first couple of days. No longer clinging to stories asked for some adjustment.
Becoming aware of my own urge to tell stories during social interactions made me extremely conscious of the fact that almost every time 2 or more people get together and talk, all they do is share stories with each other. We share stories, beliefs and ideas with each other so we can find people who define themselves by similar stories. We tell people about our day and how we interpreted it. To feel understood and bond with each other. But when we do this, all we’re doing most of the time is repeating the script of the movie we believe we’re the lead character in. The only problem is that the stories are not real. So in a way we’re using them to re-affirm an identity we’ve created for ourselves, that is very limiting.
This really threw me off because it made me wonder, what’s the point of talking anymore? If all we do is share bullshit stories that don’t say anything about us or anyone else, how is there any real intimacy to be gained from traditional conversation?
Ironically, after a couple of days I realized that the opposite was true. More than ever I enjoy listening to people now. Hearing the stories they tell and the emotions they are infused with, constantly reminds me of how beautifully human that person is, just like me.
And it’s actually a social advantage to be aware of this: I have a radically different lifestyle from most people. One that is often a big barrier for me when relating with them. But the ego’s tendency to create stories and interpretations of events is one thing I can immediately relate to. This makes it so much easier for me now to empathize with people I used to dislike or judge. When I see them create a story around something, I think “Hey, your brain works just like mine.”, I see how funny humans (including myself) are and derive joy from understanding that deep down, we’re all the same.
Can we stop the brain from making stories? I don’t know, I don’t think so. I guess it’s something we do because we feel the need to add meaning to the meaninglessness of our lives. Mine still comes up with all these stories, that’s for sure. But when they come up, I now do recognize them for what they are. They are just entertaining stories that are not necessarily true. And must importantly, have nothing to do with who I really am.
This was a major shock to my indentity, because once you become aware of this, you realize that just about anything you believe about yourself is merely a story that you can choose to stop believing.
Why would you want to stop believing something about yourself that gives you a sense of security?
Well, contrary to what they feel like, these stories do not define you at all. They confine you. For example, my stories about work felt like they “defined” my personality as a good guy who sticks to his values and doesn’t get fucked with, but they robbed me of the freedom to actually get that area of my life together.
You may feel very unwilling to stop believing in “the truth”, but it’s only the truth because you believe in it. The stories and truths about who you are and the things that happen in your life are actually completely arbitrary.
Which means that whenever a story doesn’t serve the greater good, it is perfectly possible to ditch it and make a new one. But you don’t even have to. Just watch the story come up in your head and say to yourself “Haha, interesting that my brains comes up with that. You naughty little brain, you.” And enjoy the humor of it all.
Which stories lead to the best actions?
Which stories would have the most positive effect on you and the people you interact with?
I’m aware that everything in this blog post for example, is just another story my brain came up with. But I choose to keep it while I write because it can help other people. When I’m done, there would be no point in continuing to believe I actually had an identity crisis.
The stories will keep coming because you are a human being with an ego. But when you observe your own stories as they arise, you can choose to dismiss them or use them for good:
Just ask yourself what the purpose of the story is.
If your ego uses it to frame yourself as the victim, or to train to gain sympathy, approval and status among others: Throw it in the trash.
But you’ll find that sometimes you come up with stories for positive reasons as well:
• You feel happy and you want to tell someone the story how happy you are about something that’s happened. Great! Go spread the happiness ?
• You amazed yourself and sharing that story with others can empower them in a similar way. This is a good thing, share it ? (This blog post is an example)
• Even “negative” stories can have a positive purpose, but there’s a fine line here. When you feel like the story you came up with can help someone else feel understood, and bring them one step closer to dealing with their own feelings, it can be awesome to just allow yourself to use the story and then let go of it. On the other hand, our ego often uses stories like that to draw a conversation towards us that is really about the other person. So a good measure here is to just stay in “listener” mode unless someone actually asks for it.
So far I feel like the point with stories is not to not have any, but just to realize they have nothing to do with who you are, even though they always feel like it. In a social setting, you can use them for good when appropriate, as long as you remember to let them go afterwards.
When they cross your mind when you’re alone. Let them actually cross it and leave ? Don’t stop them in the middle to keep listening. Just have a laugh about what your head is doing, and then get on with the next thing.
Hi, How “Are” You?
One thing that finally helped me make sense of all these confusing changes going on in me, was that for the past 2 weeks I’ve been rising early and meditating for 60 minutes every morning. Having to deal with feelings of loss towards the intimacy I had with my ex-girlfriend in this same period actually gave me a very beautiful opportunity to learn more about emotions and the way we relate to them.
From the start, my dominant attitude towards this perceived loss has been one of simply feeling happy for her and wishing her all the best. This was yet another cause of confusion for me, because we are socially conditioned to believe the dominant feeling after a breakup should be one of grief. And if there is one, to dislike the next guy/girl they fall in love with.
Interestingly, a part of me actually felt these feelings. The feelings are probably what inspired the stories my brain made about the situation. I would still love to be in a relationship with her. So how could I be so happy at the same time?
Getting a chance to observe this in myself made me realize that I have misunderstood the concept of emotions all my life. And I suspect most people do.
Generally, we tend to see emotions as a state of being.
Someone asks “How are you?” and then you either genuinely answer “Great” or you lie to them and think to yourself “Horrible.”
But staying calm while the feelings came up instead of letting them “overtake me” gave me a totally different perspective. Emotions have nothing to do with how you are. In fact, emotions come up like “waves” of energy in your body that make you feel a certain way. And when they come up, you can allow them to pass through the body until you feel calm again. (For my fellow word-nerds out there: This makes etymological sense. The word “emotion” has its origins in “movement”. Not in “state”.)
For example, when an extreme feeling of joy comes up, that moves your body until you let it out by laughing and feel calm again. Sometimes while meditating in the morning, I noticed that missing her presence and our intimacy in my life, or losing “future memories” we could’ve made, brought up intense sadness. Even though I would’ve much rather gone to work those mornings, or done something I enjoyed doing, I dealt with the emotions by just lying in my bed and crying for as long as it took to let it pass through my body. On the surface, this my seem like a pathetic thing to do. But every time I did it, I just got up and felt super happy again afterwards.
After this had happened a couple of times, I even started noticing that I was equally happy while I was feeling sad or angry and crying about it. In fact, the happiness never left. It’s a bit of a mind-fuck, but it’s true. The happiness (and the unconditional towards her going on without me) actually was my state of being. The other emotions were temporary energies that passed through this body, and felt very intense. But they didn’t stop the happiness from being there. They were merely a detail in the foreground, while the happiness and love continued to be in the background.
To a skeptic, this idea may sound like a dangerous form of detaching from your emotions. But that’s definitely not what I advise doing (I’ve detached from emotions before and it’s not a good thing). What I mean is actually experiencing them even more intensely, but also allowing all the hurt, anger, pleasure or pain to pass through the body, while realizing you are still perfectly fine while this is happening.
The problem is that most of the time we don’t like the feeling of the wave when it comes up, so we try to push it back. This causes the energy of the emotion to stay in the body. It’s trapped in there. It can’t leave until we allow it to pass. And if we don’t allow it for a long time, we hold on to it. So we indeed believe the emotion is “how we are” at the moment. And when you aren’t watchful, you create additional stories about the emotions that take it one step further from how you are to who you are.
A funny side-effect of being aware of what emotions really are and releasing them from my identity, was that it actually changed the way I talked and thought about them.
I never thought “I am angry about this situation.” or “I am sad about no longer being able to lay with her at night.” anymore. Instead the words that came up were “I feel sad / nostalgic.” And “I’m starting to feel slightly angry.”
Observing this in other people as well has shown me there is definitely a part of our identity that is based on emotions we choose to hold on to in our body.
If you’re up for a little experiment, try to pay attention to the way you speak during the day and see if there are any emotions you currently identify with too much.
When you catch yourself saying “I am stressed”, remind yourself that you are not. You currently feel stressed, and you don’t allow the feeling to pass because you are resisting it. You can deal with the stress by turning away from it (and towards more pleasurable sensations, like food, medicines, smart phones or television), but that will only keep it inside your body, because you don’t acknowledge it and let it pass. It’s paradoxical, because not inviting the stress response to fully come (and go), actually makes you a stressed person. And that’s how emotions become part of your identity.
More often than not, you’ll find the emotions you identify with will be linked to a story as well.
Even when you replace the “being” in your sentences with “feeling”, you often still end up with thoughts like:
• “I feel hurt by something he did.”
• “I feel stressed because of work.”
• “I feel angry because she shouldn’t have treated me that way.”
In every case, the second part of that sentence is a story you made up. Which means that like the other stories and opinions, is limited in perspective and always based on ignorance.
• You do not feel stressed because of work, you feel stressed because you’re stressing yourself out over a work-related situation. Which may or may not be justified.
• You don’t feel hurt or angry about something the other person did. You feel hurt or angry in reaction to something they did. Even though the deed was done by them, the feeling came from you.
But doesn’t that mean it did come up because of what they did? No. Different people feel different emotions in response to the same events. So why do you experience this particular feeling?
In most cases, that doesn’t matter. But if you’re up for it, you can dig deep into your psyche to figure it out. But you’ll mostly find stories of past events. So you’ll have to keep digging and recognizing those stories as made up until you get to the root. This is usually underlying fear or insecurity. (E.G: You feel angry when your boyfriend had sex with another person because are insecure of your own value as a person and afraid they may leave you for someone “better”.)
But the funniest thing of all is that when you dig even deeper, beyond those fears, you’ll usually find it’s simply nothing. There is no real reason. It’s all an illusion. A distraction from the awesome truth that you have the chance to be alive in this world. And that it’s a limited time offer ? So what are you waiting for? Let that old emotion pass through, as it’s one of the many interesting things you get to experience here, and go enjoy the shit out of life ?
The point here is not to stop feeling any emotions you tend to regard as negative. Only to stop holding on to them and making them part of your identity. They are not who you are (which is a very common thing to believe when going through a depression). They are not what you are. They are just a feeling you’re feeling. And you’re just a person. Feelings are normal, and they make for an interesting sense of diversity in your inner world. Allow yourself to feel sad, euphoric or angry for some time, just don’t become it.
Perceiving it this way, even sadness, anger or heartbreak can be very beautiful things. They’re just a little weakening if you let them dominate and influence your decisions. But if you see them for what they are, it can be nice to hang out with them occasionally because they make you feel alive.
So why is all of this a good thing?
Wouldn’t it just be easier to not confuse yourself and hold on to your identity?
What’s the point in going through the effort of losing who you are and having nothing left?
That’s exactly what I thought, and why it took me almost a full year to actually deal with this confusion.
Because from where I was, it seemed that if I fully let go I would stand for nothing anymore. I would be weak. And void of substance. A body without personality in it.
But funnily enough, the opposite turned out to be true.
It’s actually by losing who you think you are that you discover who you truly are.
Most of who we think we are is actually nothing more than things we do, things we say, and things we choose to believe.
You could ask me who I am for example, and I could say “I’m Pepijn”. But that makes no sense and actually says nothing.
“Pepijn” is not who I am, it’s just the name the parents chose to give to this body, and 26 years of stories, feelings and opinions my brains made up and piled on top of it. Brains that, just like my body, are only a part of me.
And the same is true for you. It’s all made up.
So who are you really then?
You’ll find out when you let go of the need to know for sure. The only thing I can tell you is that paradoxically, after all these layers of who I thought I was were stripped off, I didn’t end up with the big confusing “nothing” I expected. Instead, I now feel much more clear who I truly am and how I relate to others.
It’s funny because all this time when we’re having an identity crisis it feels like a big loss.
But that’s not what it is, it’s a big liberation.
The old personality is still there. Just like the emotions still come, I still have my habits, styles, likes and dislikes, but they are just not very significant or important, and they have no consequences on my happiness or unhappiness.
Where to go from here then? I’m not sure yet. The possibilities are endless.
But that is ultimately having an identity crisis is a good thing. It’s like shedding your old skin. It frees you. You can now do or be anything you want to, instead of just being who you think is “you”.
Because in the end, after the crisis, you are still you. Only a you that’s more free and more happy.
So maybe while we can all benefit from having one from time to time ?