Life can be a very complex, twisting path that can leave many people feeling uncertain, insecure, or just plain confused as to who they really are. Identity is an essential part of being. What makes you "YOU?" How are you different than others? Several things in life can effect a person's ability to establish a strong identity.
From birth, our parents have a profound influence on how we feel about ourselves and the world around us. From a psychosocial developmental standpoint; if parents have fostered a sense of trust, autonomy, initiative, and industry then the child is most likely to develop a good sense of identity. If you can think of it like a video game, then trust is level 1, autonomy is level 2, and so on. You can not pass to the next level without mastering the previous. You can also imagine trust, autonomy, initiative and industry as layers of foundation that build IDENTITY.
Let me paint a picture for you....
During the first stage of life, it is important for the child to develop trust with the parents. If a child is often left alone, not fed properly, or badly treated, then the child will likely experience a crisis of trust throughout life until they are able to develop a genuine trust with another. The child therefore develops a sense of fear or mistrust for others and of the world. In order to build an identity, you must be able to trust.
Autonomy, or the ability to accomplish things on your own, is the next stage a person must accomplish in building a strong sense of identity. As a child, we go through a stage where, "NO" is our favorite word. Using the word, "NO" is symbolic and rebellious in a sense that we realize we now have CHOICES and can use this word to utilize free-will. Both over-protective and harshly critical parents jeopardize a child's ability to develop the capacity to do for themselves. The over-protective parent denies the child of autonomy through doing everything for them and not trusting the child to be able to do for his/her self. An overly critical parent denies a child autonomy through harsh punishments for accidents so much so that the child becomes fearful of thinking or doing for his/her self. One good example of fostering autonomy in a child would be if a parent was to "child proof" their home so that the child can be safe and be able to discover and play on their own. When a person has successfully acquired autonomy, they are then fully capable of making decisions on their own; even in spite of failures, shame, and doubt.
Initiative is the ability to lead independently, to imagine, and to act on that imagination. The feeling in opposition to being initiative is to feel guilty. Guilt is learned through being conditioned to feel badly for ideas, dreams, or even those "WHY" questions kids like to ask when thy begin to get curious of the world and how it works. Parents can stifle initiative by not allowing kids to use their imaginations or in reacting to the child's questions negatively. Children at play is the equivalent to adults at work. When children are denied play, they are denied the ability to lead, which can ultimately lead to guilt and insecurity. Someone who develops a sense of command or leadership through play early on in life will likely be able to be industrious or confident in their work as a teen or adult.
Industry lays the last layer of foundation that supports a strong sense of identity. The opposite of industry is inferiority. If a person has gained initiative then they will likely build upon this. Through hard work comes praise and positive rewards which condition the person to understand, "If I complete my work and I do a good job, then my parents/teachers/peers praise me and this makes me feel good about myself." If a person is already at a deficit of lacking initiative, however, a sense of inferiority can set in and paralyze the person from performing well. They may then look at those performing well and become jealous or compensate for their inferiority by bullying others. A person who has gained praise for their accomplishments is more likely to develop a better sense of self through the development of self-confidence.
The last obstacle, according to Erik Erikson's psychosocial stages, is to develop IDENTITY rather than role-confusion. Typically, during our teenage years we are experimenting and "trying on" different identities and roles in society. It is important for family and friends to be supportive during this time of self-discovery in order to facilitate the person in developing a healthy identity. A person can end up being confused about who they are and what their future looks like if the people around them do not properly encourage a sense of independence and control. Instead, a lack of confidence in desires and beliefs will leave the unsupported person feeling lost.
Personally, I remember wanting to be a firefighter, so I joined a Fire Explorer Program where I attended academy for 2 years. At the same time, I was also an environmentalist leading a campaign through my high school for Oceana and thought that I would enjoy becoming a Marine Biologist. Furthermore, I simultaneously became a Peer Counselor at my high school and thought that helping people through counseling would be my calling. So wild! Looking back I can see how confusing my identity must have seemed to my friends and family. In reality, these 3 work interests were all something I really enjoyed and in the end I picked the path that led me here, writing this article today. However, just because you must decide on a specific occupation does not mean that you can't incorporate the other interests of what makes up your identity. Even though I am a Licensed Professional Counselor, I am still an environmentalist and surfer.
Incorporating all of your interests into your identity and life can be a very fulfilling experience. People wear many hats throughout their day and even more throughout their entire lives. Learning to SHiFT. through your many roles in life is what makes you whole.