How not to lose your identity? Am I Still Me?
How not to lose your identity ? Did you read Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland as a child? One of our favorite conversations in the book occurs when Caterpillar is sitting on the mushroom and says to Alice, “Who…are…you?” Alice is a bit stunned and not sure how to respond. “I—I hardly know, sir, just at present,” she replies. “At least I know who I was when I got up this morning, but I think I must have been changed several times since then.”Alice is frequently puzzled about who she is or is becoming. Earlier in the book, she says to herself, “I wonder if I’ve been changed in the night? Let me think. Was I the same when I got up this morning? I almost think I can remember feeling a little different. But if I’m not the same, the next question is, Who in the world am I?” Many aging adults feel a lot like Alice. We hardly know who we are. Like Alice, we seem to have changed so much that we hardly recognize ourselves. It may be too strong to say we’re having an identity crisis, but maybe that’s just how we should view it.
So, who are we? We know who we were (moms, managers, dads, kids’ coaches, factory workers, salespeople), but who are we now? Now that we’re retired and our identity isn’t defined by what we did or who we were caring for, how do we define who we are.
How not to lose your identity? To adjust successfully to older age, as to all developmental stages, you have to define yourself by who you are, not by who you were, whether you were a CEO, a farmer, a salesperson, a stay-at-home mom, or a teacher. Who are you now? If you don’t know, it’s time to find out.
You’re More Than Your Wrinkles
Your outward appearance affects how others label or perceive you. The pigeon thinks Alice is a serpent because of her long neck. Similarly, you may be wrinkled, you may stoop a bit as you walk, and your pace may have slowed; in other words, you may be showing signs of aging. While others may think of you this way, your inner self—your image of who you are—may not have changed for decades.Are other people’s labels meaningful in helping to define us? Maybe so. Like the woman quoted below, the first time we recognize we are changing may occur when those around us see us as an older person, even before we do.
For most of us, it’s not just that our sense of who we are has changed, but that we’ve also changed in the eyes of those around us. We’re not the same people we were ten or twenty years ago, and that can be a bit scary for the people in our lives. Sometimes the changes they see in us can make them realize that they, too, are getting older and their identities are changing. Parents may no longer be the emotional, financial, and helpful safety net they once were, and the adult children may sense that they will soon have to be the strong ones. This is difficult for both older parents and their adult children. Just as an uncomfortable, sometimes scary, shift in identity is happening in the older adults, it’s happening simultaneously in the adult children, and they may not like it. They may even actively resist it by trying to ignore the noticeable changes.
Our peers are likely to recognize that if we look older, they must look older, too, forcing some to redefine who they are in their own eyes, as well as in those of their contemporaries.
Many of our survey respondents told us that they saw themselves as separate from their bodies. They didn’t recognize the person they saw in the mirror or in the window as they were walking down the street. They were often caught by surprise and dismay and would ask themselves, “Who is that person looking back at me?” They were alienated and estranged from the person they saw in the mirror, puzzled by who that person was, and often refused to admit that the visible changes were really occurring and that this new body in the mirror was really theirs.
While this detachment from our bodies may seem harmless and something we can deal with, it can delay us from forming appropriate new identities as we age. Psychologists might call this a defense mechanism. They might also call it a poor one.
How not to lose your identity? Just as adolescents often feel uncomfortable about their bodies, so do older people. That is because, as author and psychotherapist Kristi Pikiewicz claims, we think of our bodies as home. Because so many changes are happening to them physically, both adolescents and older people feel they have lost their home. Other than in adolescence, we undergo no more drastic changes in our physical bodies than those that occur after age sixty-five. As in adolescence, adapting to those changes can be challenging indeed.
As your outward appearance changes, your first instinct may be to resist what is happening to you physically. On one hand, you may develop a defensive posture in an attempt to maintain the status quo. On the other hand, you may be more like this respondent, who accepted her physical changes with humor and pride. Identifying and understanding your resistance to all the changes you’re experiencing will help you adapt and to grasp that a redefinition of who you are is necessary.
There’s another scene in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland that may remind you of situations you’ve been in. While Alice is in the Looking Glass woods, she can’t remember her name. She becomes frightened by her lapse of memory. You may have that same sense of frustration and fear when you can’t remember something. Like Alice, most of us finally remember what it is we were trying to think of, but there’s still frustration, and we can become frightened. Yes, you are getting older, and a senior moment is a reminder.
As with all the changes you’ll experience as you get older, senior moments may seem significant. While they can be frightening, such lapses in memory don’t need to take on too great an importance. Some people, for example, can forget a few things and laugh it off, while others, having the same loss of memory, can convince themselves they have a serious disease, such as Alzheimer’s. It’s too easy to fall into the trap of letting a relatively minor change start a downward spiral of expectations about who you are now and what your life will be like in the future.
Consider some of these questions as you try to figure out just who you are now.
1.How do people react to you now that you look older?
2.How does this make you feel? How do you respond?
3.What age do you think of yourself? How about after you look in a mirror?
4.What experiences have affected your perceptions?
5.Have you had senior moments? How did you react to them?
6.What might these senior moments say about your attitudes toward aging?
So, Who Are You Anyway?
Have you ever tried to answer the question “Who am I?” It’s a difficult question to answer, isn’t it? Go ahead, take a moment, and try to answer the question. What did you come up with?
How not to lose your identity? Scholars tell us that as we age, we need to have a clear sense of our identity, because, like a compass, it guides us through the travels of our lives. It allows us to understand our life experiences and gives us a sense of self. Our individual experiences are also important in shaping our sense of self.
Having a strong and clear sense of self can help us navigate the challenges of growing older and help ensure healthy adaptation to the latter years of our lives. The trick is to strike a balance between our sense of who we’ve been and who we are becoming. Having a healthy self-perception isn’t all it takes to develop a healthy identity. How and where we fit into our social settings and social groups (family, friends, work, community) are also extremely important. Identity.
Like most people, we can’t help but unconsciously classify and compare ourselves to others. After all, a huge part of our identity is related to our social environment and how we measure up. And therein may lie a problem. It seems that, as we age, our most significant other may be our former self—who we used to be. And often we feel as if we don’t measure up. It’s very hard for some of us to let go of our former identities. Wasn’t it just yesterday that people were calling us for help with one thing or another? Are there as many such requests recently?
As we discussed in previous chapters, it’s part of the human developmental process to move from one stage to the next. Those of us who adapt best are constantly adjusting to our new stages of life physically, socially, and emotionally.
Our identity—how we live, what we do, the decisions we make—plays a significant role in shaping our lives at each stage of our development. We are pretty clear about what we need to do at each of the earlier stages to be prepared for the next, yet, as should be clearer now, many of us are woefully unprepared for getting older.
Our identities are not fixed in stone but change across major life transitions. Research suggests that having multiple roles is associated with better health and psychological well-being. Simply put, the more we do, the more people we interact with, the better off we are. Participation in the broader community is likely to lead to strong role identity, which is beneficial for both our health and the health of our overall community.How not to lose your identity?
What have you been doing to maintain some of the multiple roles you had when you were younger? Answering these specific questions may help you answer this broader one.
1.Are you involved in your community? What additional activities would you consider doing?
2.Do you volunteer? Would you like to?
3.Do you spend time in nature? There are many ways to do this, even if it’s just sitting under a tree reading.
4.Do you give yourself time to relax? You’ve earned it.
5.How about time for quiet reflection? How much such time do you give yourself?
6.What about your spiritual life (e.g., attending church, meditating, being part of or starting a study group, reading books on spiritual topics)?
Carving Out A New Identity
You may have already realized that how you feel has less to do with your chronological age and more to do with your health and other factors. You’ve probably met people who felt young at seventy and others twenty years younger who seemed old and felt old. What’s important is how old we feel, not how old we are.Identity.
Our age identity is totally subjective and can be unrelated to how old we actually are. Age identity can be affected, however, by objective changes related to our life experiences. These changes can include stress, physical health, and mental well-being.How not to lose your identity?
Those of us with significant health problems generally feel older than those without. Surely, illnesses such as cancer and heart disease are flashing banners reminding us of our vulnerability and mortality and, in some cases, of the short time we have left. Yet many of us know someone who has serious health problems and who continues to be happy, kind, and generous of spirit. Those of us who have less stress, fewer illnesses, and less conflict in our lives have a younger age identity, for sure.
The lesson here seems to be that while we can’t do anything about our chronological age, there are things we can do to change our subjective age identity—how we feel as we get older. Even if we have a serious illness, we can control how we adapt to the change in our health and its effects on us. Reminding ourselves of the countless numbers of people who continue to make the most of their lives despite their illnesses may help. Those who come back from combat as paraplegics are a good example. Many come home and continue to live full lives, learning new skills, furthering their education, and engaging in activities that meld with their physical situation. They can be inspiring examples of how to maneuver through life. The key is to accept new situations and circumstances and immediately work to find ways to adapt to them physically and psychologically.Identity.
As we’ve seen, there are a number of similarities between old age and adolescence. Author and therapist Pikiewicz claims that, like adolescents, older people are often clearer about the identity they don’t want than the one they do. In both stages, the outside world often challenges our abilities to be who we thought we were, as we struggle to find a new identity that better suits our new developmental stage.
Like adolescence, there is likely a conflicting sense of self as we get older.
There are opportunities, however, to create a new identity. One of our respondents did a pretty good job of doing just that.
One way to help form a new identity is to pursue hobbies and interests you may never have had time for. Maybe you’ve always wanted to learn Italian or play the flute or tennis or golf. Embracing any or all of these activities can help you carve a new identity that you may truly enjoy while keeping you young in spirit and engaged in the world around you.
Just because our bodies have changed doesn’t mean we aren’t capable of doing some awesome things. Remember, John Glenn went into space at age seventy-seven and was the oldest person to do so. While we may not all be capable of his achievements late in life, we can all still make a difference.
Becoming elderly often takes us by surprise. Unlike other stages of life, we have done little to prepare for this one. It’s clear with other stages of our life that we literally take on a new identity—of spouse or partner, parent, new brand manager, shift supervisor, doctor, lawyer, factory worker. Most of us, however, are not aware that we have a new identity or need to create one as we become older.
We began this chapter by talking about Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Like many of us, Alice sometimes doesn’t really know who she is and is puzzled by it. She is worried about her own power and autonomy. We tend to be worried, too, as we get older.
How not to lose your identity?Like Alice, you can keep searching. When that search is effective, you will meet the new person you have become. When you do, we hope the new person you find is wiser, mentally stronger, and, of course, kinder. Identity.
You may have to spend some time reacquainting yourself with your new body, new experiences, and new self. Keep searching until you find an identity and environment that fits and feels right. Answering the following questions may help:
1.Who are you now? How has your identity changed now that you’re older? This information has to be assimilated into what you already know about yourself. You need to change the idea of who you are to create an identity you’re comfortable with. Don’t settle on an identity until you find one that fits just right.
2.Now use this information to help you reframe not only who you are but who you want to be.
3.Then think about how to use the valuable time you have remaining.
Getting real about getting older
Linda K. Stroh, PhD
Karen K. Brees, PhD
Definition of Identity – Wikipedia