Ever since I went back to school in 2007, I have been curious about identity development. At the time, I was studying human development and early childhood education. I was learning about childhood development neurologically, intellectually, and socially. During their early years, children are finding out who they are in so many ways. They are learning they are someone’s child, friend, or sibling. They belong to a family and there isn’t too much outside of that. Their job is to continue to grow and learn.
After completing my bachelors degree, I went on to work with college students. For my students, college is possibly the first experience of being an adult in the world. It may be the first time someone leaves home. While in graduate school, I took a class called student development theory. In that class, I learned a model that has stuck with me and influenced me and impacted my work to this day. It is called Multiple Dimensions of Identity. The theory is explained in this article by Abes, Jones, and McEwin in 2007. The article is a bit lengthy and is probably something most people want to skim. There are great visuals throughout explaining the concept.
Identity is a complex concept. It is one of those things that changes throughout the lifespan. This model takes into account one’s core concept of self: including values and personal attributes, current context from their lives (job, cultural norms, family, friends, role in society, etc). It also considers the meaning they make from all of it. The context changes what parts of identity are closer to the core depending on the current situation. In summary, it is saying that our identity is somewhat fluid and ever-changing based on context and current life roles.
I sit here wondering about myself. What defines me? How do I identify?What are my roles? I am someone’s daughter, sister, friend, niece, aunt, patient, and so on. I get uncomfortable when people ask the generic list of questions when they first meet you. No, I am not married. No, I don’t have children. Yes, I am 35 and answering the question, “what do you do?’ feels really complicated to explain. If I answered “getting to know you questions” that way, I would never give the answers people are looking for. If I am 100% honest, it might be awkward.
It is not very often that people ask what brings me joy, what I am afraid of, or what my biggest adventure has been. They certainly don’t ask me about what may have led to my “unconventional” lifestyle. I don’t think I want them to ask those questions. My illnesses and difficult experiences are not what define me.
Don’t get me wrong. Other people aren’t at fault. They are being friendly and showing interest. As a society, we have kind of made a list of safe, generic questions to ask people when first getting acquainted. I ask people the questions on this list too. I’m not really sure why we focus on relationship status, career, and children.
My identity is based on a lot of things. Along with the roles I listed above, I am a scholar, a survivor, an entrepreneur, a caregiver, a traveler, an educator, a counselor, a patron of the arts, a lover of new experiences, and more. Just like the model suggests, identity is fluid and ever-changing throughout the lifespan. What I have learned from all of this is that it is important to make peace with that concept so I am not judging where I am in life in regard to the daunting question, “Who Am I?” I invite you to take a mindful moment to consider some of these things about yourself and what identity means to you. Then please have some self-compassion and understanding. Let yourself accept who you are in this moment and stage in your life