Wednesday, May 23, 2012

To Avoid an Identity Complex, Develop a Complex Identity

Last week, I wrote about the role of identity in athlete suicide - more specifically, how the athlete role can be come central to someone's identity, making it devastating when they are unable to continue in that role, as a result of injury, age, or whatever. Since writing that post, I've learned more about how a similar phenomenon may apply to other demographic groups. It all seems to boil down to self-evaluation.

Self-evaluation is something that we all do, practically without thinking: we evaluate ourselves based on how we're doing in various aspects of our lives that are important to us. Not just important, but important to how we see ourselves. How we define ourselves. Who we think we are in the world. When we're doing well in areas of our lives that matter to our self-image, we feel pretty good. When we're not doing well in these areas, we feel bad.

Now, nobody's perfect, and life tends to have ups and downs. Consequently, we're all liable to have times when we're not living up to our own standards in one area or another. How much these times affect us depends largely on whether we have a variety of areas contributing to our self-evaluation...or whether we only have a few. In other words, it depends on the complexity of our identity.

Take the star athlete, for example, who has been playing his or her sport since childhood, often setting aside other life domains to focus on athletics. Athletic performance - good or bad - is likely to have a significant effect on that person's mood and self-esteem. And, when athletics are no longer possible, there is nothing to fall back on to maintain a stable sense of identity and worth.

Athletics is an easy example, but it's not the only example. Plenty of people put "all of their eggs in one basket," as it were. Veterans often develop a military identity that makes it hard to transition to civilian life (after all, basic training is designed to create this kind of identity!). In eating disorders, people's self-evaluation is largely based on shape, weight, and appearance. Musicians, actors, models, politicians...many narrow their self-evaluative lens to a very limited number of areas. And while the risk of doing so obviously varies between these different groups, it's always risky.

It is far healthier and more satisfying to develop an identity and system of self-evaluation that considers a variety of different life domains: work, relationships, hobbies, interests, etc. If we have several important areas - even if they differ in level of importance, as obviously they will - our self-image is protected from the inevitable low points in any given area. Work isn't going that well, but you have a great family. Or there is conflict at home, but your tennis game has never been better. Whatever the specifics, having multiple "baskets" for your eggs means that you maintain a relatively stable sense of self-worth.

The bottom line: having several areas of life that feel important and contribute to your self-image not only enriches and expands your life, it also preserves your sense of yourself and your worth through life's ups and downs. In other words, to avoid an identity complex...develop a complex identity!

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