Identity, even by definition, is the set of qualities and characteristics that describe a person and distinguish them from others.
“Who a person is, or the qualities of a person or a group that make them different from others” Cambridge Dictionary
“The characteristics determining who or what a person or thing is” Oxford Dictionary
When living abroad for a while, we sometimes forget that identity is formed through our experience, growth, actions. We can shape it, explore it and choose what we identify with.
Just like we did when we were teenagers, during our first identity crisis. And then when we lived on our own for the first time. And when we start a serious relationship. And when we get married. And when we have children. And when these children leave the nest. And when a close family member passes away.
You see, life events happen. Whether we live abroad or not. And when they do, we tend to adapt how we act and how we think about ourselves. We grow. We evolve. The same happens when we go abroad.
We can choose different characteristics to describe who we are and what we identify with.
Good with people
Why then when we go abroad, the feeling of losing identity can suddenly become so apparent?
Maybe abroad you cannot be a lawyer because your degree is not recognised.
Maybe your people skills don’t work that well anymore.
Maybe you are not as resilient in this particular environment as you were back home.
Maybe you didn’t ever define yourself that much through your nationality, but abroad it became one of these traits… yet, you don’t quite feel so aligned with that nationality either.
You may start asking yourself many new questions too!
Am I still the same person who left?
If I adapt to the local culture, will I lose myself completely?
Do I need to fake it till I make it?
Identity formation explained
There are multiple theories around forming of personality and identity. I want you to know the most popular and prevalent one, which I find really helpful when thinking about such an abstract concept. Identity formation theory by J. Marcia dates back to 1966, but still feels very true. Maybe we’re not changing as fast as we would like to think! 😉
According to him, there are two dimensions/stages to the formation of identity: Exploration and Commitment.
If you’re just exploring and never commit to one path, at one point you may feel in this constant limbo. Quite a ‘stuck’ feeling actually, where there seem to be so many paths, but you don’t know which one to take. It is however also a good place to be for a while, this pre-phase leading to identity achievement. (Moratorium)
If you’re committed quite quickly to your identity, but haven’t explored enough, you may feel like you’re living someone else’s choice. Maybe you copied someone, maybe you were influenced by your culture, maybe you just didn’t give it enough thought. (Forclosure)
If you’re neither committed nor exploring, then that’s an even more stuck place to be. It’s not only the “I don’t know” what I want to do with my life. It’s also the “I don’t care”. Dangerous to be stuck here for a long time. (Diffusion)
Now, all three places above may end up being the end version for some people. In most cases though, usually in our late teens, we do achieve the identity to which we commit and which we’ve explored and which feels ours. It’s the place where you can say “I thought about it and I know what I want to do with my life”. (Achievement)
The last one sounds a bit idyllic, but the point isn’t to have it all figured out at 18 years old. There are life events that happen and that keep forming us further, building on that initial base.
Achieving this mature identity is important not only because it may feel good and true to us. It is necessary for us in order to enter the new relations as an independent autonomous person. With your own world, opinions, characteristics. This allows the other person (partner, friend, colleague) to also have their own opinions and autonomy. It’s a basis of a healthy relationship, where two mature people are independent of each other, but also can create something together.
Identity crisis – what should I do now?
When big life events happen, sometimes we may go through this stormy process again. Is this really what I want? Is this really the option I’m choosing? Who am I?
When these things start ‘hitting’ you after moving abroad, try to think about some of your characteristics that are context-agnostic, meaning that they’re irrelevant of where you live. Maybe you can’t be a good lawyer in the new country because you don’t know the local language and regulations. But you can still be helpful, cheerful, caring, organised, believing in human rights etc. Maybe you were a good ‘people person’ and somehow building relationships here is more difficult – but you still have another massive strength of yours: the openness to learning.
You still have the strengths which you had before. You just need to figure out how to put them to use in the new environment. Detach yourself from a certain identity of a lawyer who acts a certain way and that it’s “the only right way to be a lawyer”. Go beyond the picture you always had in your mind. See what you can find there!
Start the two stages once again to help yourself go through this crisis.
Exploration means searching, taking action, trying various alternatives, questioning status quo, asking yourself “what is important to me?”, “What do I agree/disagree with?”.
Commitment means making choices, decisions on a given way of functioning and thinking, stabilising, leading yourself to thinking “I know who I am and what I represent”.
It’s a journey. But you can do it. Sure you can!
Join me in the conversation on email. I am still a believer in connecting via email, this is a place where many great conversations with people still begin. Write to me – I’d love to know who’s on the other side of the screen 🙂