Can you describe who you are in a few words, or sentences? No… really try it! Not as easy as you might think. Quickly our minds and our mouths begin to think and describe what we do, some character trait we are proud of, our gender, politics, or what we are called… “Hi I am Steve and I am a fun person, loving husband, father and 7th grade math teacher.” These things are directional signs at best but don’t actually tell you who you really are. So who are you really and why is this so hard make sense of?
My own personal identity crisis
Recently I experienced a pretty legit identity crisis. I mean full on depression including a rough, not so little panic attack. This “crisis” shifted how I will forever view who I am. In 2020, I officially “retried” from being a pastor for over 20 years – sounds silly right? Why would that cause an identity crisis you ask? Well, you see, I didn’t grow up in the church, or in the faith. When I was 18 years old I surrendered my heart and life to Jesus (best decision of my life) and about 9 months later I was working at a church learning how to become a pastor (one of the most questionable decisions of my life). And so, that is what I have done for the last 23 years – I spiritually, emotionally and literally grew up as a pastor. Talk about blurred lines of identity!
Without trying, my whole life and identity were wrapped up in this idea that I was a “pastor.” Along with it came a lot of incredible things as well as so many dysfunctional things too. My work, friendships, income, self worth and value had all been tied to a role I performed for others. I say performed because it’s true… so much of being a pastor is based on performance, both on stage and off. Sick right? I have since considered myself like a child TV star who grew up playing a role for people but never really knew who they were, only what they thought others wanted them to be… an identity not their own. Even my kids would jokingly refer to me as a, “professional Christian.” This really screwed me up (not my kids, but the role) and has caused a tremendous amount of identity confusion. But before you judge me and all pastors, consider your own life for a moment.
Isn’t it true that most people attach their identity and self worth to what they do, who they do “it” with and how well they do “it?” We don’t even know how to describe ourselves apart from the roles we have played in the movie of our lives. Mother, father, friend, teacher, student, drop out, addict, businessman, protestant, Catholic and so on. It’s like we can’t escape it, but as long as what we label, or allow ourselves to be labeled, is agreeable to us we will just continue to play the role on and call it our life.
So what is an identity crisis exactly?
An identity crisis is a reactive response to an intensely painful problem or circumstance, in a person’s life which causes them to begin to question who they are. Essentially those labels stop working for us or making sense. Someone experiencing this type of crisis feels disoriented, unsure of how to make sense of the life and identity that they have held to be “true” their whole lives. You have to have to have built a solid structure of an ideal self (of who you think you are) and what your purpose in life is before you can have a true “crisis.” Your identity could also be formed entirely around what you are not, that too is an identity and something a person might begin to question.
So what’s the problem?
Henri Nouwen did an amazing job of identifying the problem we all face, even if we are not aware of it. Nouwen identified 3 lies we all buy into regarding the formation of who we are. He said we buy into the lies of…
- “We are what we have.” This is the basic idea that if you have a lot, you are a lot. Have nothing, you are nothing. The more and cool things that you “own” gives status and value to who you are.
- “We are what we do.” This is the idea that the more and better things you do, the more and better person you are (see the trap for us pastors and anyone in the helping profession?). If you “do” good things, well that must make you good. If you do something bad, than obviously you are a bad person.
- “We are what others say about us.” If people say good things about us, than naturally we are good. If they say bad things… well, you get the idea.
So how do I know if I’m facing an identity crisis?
The simple answer is… when the identity you thought you had no longer works despite your desperate attempts to control, rebuild and reinforce it. The lies listed in Nouwen’s list “work” for us until they don’t! Honestly, they never really worked but we felt good enough with these things that we played along with the game. The moment these things fail to produce, or reinforce the identity we have built so we can feel OK… watch out crisis here we come!
Which of these 3 have you allowed yourself to buy into and how has that impacted your life? There is actually one more lie that we are missing in this list of lies that is even more deadly and powerful than them all.