We have 3 levels of identity. When people want to discover their true self or find themselves, they really mean to create a new version of themselves that has something meaningful in all 3 levels of their identity. So how does one discover or form an identity they are happy with?
In this article, we’ll re-conceptualize identity/personality and all of its nuances into 3 levels called the self-construals. The next section looks at how stable our identity is throughout life. We’ll then look at putting your identity into words and how our memory affects our identity. We’ll also look at what a midlife crisis is and the value of tests, quizzes, horoscopes, and the likes in exploring identity. Follow the tips in each section to discover your identity and find yourself. These tips will also help you recover from a midlife identity crisis.
- When you have lost your sense of self or want to explore and define who you are, develop all 3 aspects of your identity: The relational independent self-construal (individual identity), the relational dependent self-construal (social identity), and the meta-personal self-construal (meaning and purpose identity). Focusing on all 3 levels will help you find yourself even during a midlife crisis.
- Identity and personality aren’t stable and will continue changing throughout life.
- Work on putting your identity into words so you can clearly define who you are.
- Our memories play a huge role in defining our identity. We actively get to choose how we remember and tell our personal stories.
- Fun activities like finding spirit animals and even BuzzFeed quizzes can be a good start to explore who you are as long as you don’t take them as permanent/accurate descriptions. Developing an identity isn’t as easy as taking a quiz.
Let’s introduce a term – self-construal. It means how you “construe” or understand yourself. Each level of identity is a type of self-construal. Think of the 3 levels as layers of your whole existence in the world. I’ve covered these in-depth here. The self-construal essentially describes your self-concept, personality, values, relationships, ego, your “true self,” etc., across 3 levels:
- Relational independent self-construal: Talks about individual-level identity
- Relational dependent self-construal: Talks about social- & relationship-level identity
- Meta-personal self-construal.: Talks about one’s connection with the world and unique facets of it
Your individual identity: Traits, characteristics, beliefs, skills
Level 1 identity: Relational independent self-construal
Level 1 is all about your physical traits, job, skills, hobbies, etc. This identity describes you as someone who has specific skills like guitarist/painter or physical traits like built/lean/fat or behavioral states like angry/funny/lonely or professional designations like carpenter/coder/writer.
How to develop it?
- Try new things out
- Do things for the fun of it
- Talk with people from different backgrounds
- Invest a good amount of time and effort before giving up
- Challenge yourself to improve
- Explore multiple skills
- Work on your body
- Learn to speak about yourself
Your relationship identity: Friends, romantic & sexual partners, family, and groups
Level 2 identity: Relational interdependent self-construal
Level 2 is all about your relationships and how you see yourself in a social context. This identity describes you as a lover, husband, daughter, friend, mentor, guide, leader, etc.
How to develop it?
- Make friends
- Talk to couples
- Develop a meaningful relationship with people from various backgrounds
- Find or nurture any relationship you like
- Do a group activity and actively engage with all members to reach a goal
- Explore your sexual likes and dislikes
- Work through a difficult time with a partner
If you are unsure about how you attach to other people, this is a starting point.
Your universal identity: Higher purpose, meaning, and connection with the universe
Level 3 identity: Meta-personal self-construal
Level 3 is all about things that go beyond yourself and society. It is about a vision, a dream, a spiritual connection, a purpose in life, etc. This identity describes you as someone who has a higher sense of self than jobs and relationships. This is often the level that gives people spirituality like oneness with nature and even activism. Things like being a god-serving person, vegan, helper, criminal, rebel, enlightened, etc., are all meta-personal. The 21st century has given a lot of importance to this level.
How to develop it?
- Introspect and ask hard questions about how you see life
- Notice your emotions and motivations in your experiences
- Talk with people and ask them about their world-view
- Learn about other people’s motivations and purpose in life
- Find a way to belong to something larger than yourself and your family
- Read books to explore ideas
- Watch science fiction and fantasy to gain vastly different perspectives
- Be open to anything, even if it is nonsense, just to appreciate that it is something new and different from what you think.
- Clearly notice what you like, don’t like, want to change, appreciate, and hope for
- Choose what and who you want to associate with
- Understand your values like caring for animals, oneness with the world, improving global health, making the world a better place, etc.
How stable is our personality and sense of self?
We should first clarify a few terms like personality and identity.
Personality: Relatively stable patterns of behavior, adaptations, and thinking.
Identity: A conceptual understanding of who you are including personality, ideas, skills, values, social connections, etc.
There is no true/hidden self.
Finding yourself is not the best metaphor but re-inviting yourself is. You can’t find yourself even if you are exploring and trying things out because you are effectively always “creating” yourself. At each step in life, you will have new neurons, new cells in your body, and new brain activity, and that’s an act of creation. Knowing yourself is basically validating your identity. That’s your opportunity to define yourself with words, memories, and behaviors. There is a notion that we have our true self, a private self, and a public self. In reality, we don’t have any true self because our sense of identity is a constellation of behaviors, thoughts, attitudes, hopes, memories, and wishes within a particular context. For example, on the internet, we don’t reveal our hidden selves. We just create a different persona that is just as true and real as our offline personality. The 3 self-construals can and will change with time. Assuming there is a true self creates a conflict between what you actually are and what you wish you could be. Assuming that you are only creating a new version of yourself removes that conflict.
Keep creating your identity as you go through life.
Building an identity is a life-long process. We may feel our life has gone through many changes to settle on a current path, but that is an illusion called the “End-of-history illusion.” It describes how we often incorrectly believe that we have moved from an exploratory, dramatic, and unstable life to reach a current level of stability with a fixed identity. However, this illusion continues all throughout life and people of all ages experience this illusion. That only shows how we incorrectly believe we are more stable right now than we were in the past. Avoid giving into this illusion and continue working on any of the 3 levels of identity.
Our personality isn’t stable either.
According to research, people’s personality changes throughout the lifespan. Some personality tests like the MBTI give different results within a month but others like the “Big-Five” personality test are relatively stable. Yet, we see changes in personality across the lifespan, particularly when we are young and old with some stability during the middle years. One study on 132,515 adults (21 to 60 years of age) found that people’s agreeableness and conscientiousness increase as they move from young adulthood to middle adulthood. Agreeableness is the personality trait that describes our tendency friendly, socially warm, optimistic, and cooperative. Conscientiousness is the trait that describes our tendency to be disciplined, meticulous, and mindful. The neuroticism trait, which is a proneness to negative emotions, typically declines in women as they age, but remains stable in men. One reason for changes in personality is how societal demands and our roles, needs, and goals change. Basically, our personality changes through the lifespan because all 3 levels of our identity go through varying changes.
Writing a bio helps to define changes in identity and know yourself better
Write a bio about yourself. You don’t need to use it on social media or dating profiles but writing a bio by itself can help us articulate our identity. Follow these steps to define your identity.
- Start with a few sentences. Make a few variants. Choose the one you like.
- Write a few sentences about yourself according to each level of self-construal.
- Expand it with your values, likes, and dislikes.
- Add your vision/purpose in life, wishes, goals, and achievements.
- Describe yourself in adjectives.
- Describe yourself in terms of all your important relationships.
- Include the type of things you like to purchase.
- Describes the type of brands with whom you like to associate.
- List the skills you have or wish to have and are working on.
- Highlight the most important things about:
- Your beliefs
- Your expectations from the world
- How you see yourself
- How connected or disconnected you feel
- Your physical traits
We are what we can remember and imagine
A key aspect of who we are today is what psychologists call “episodic memory” and “semantic memory,” which are a part of long-term memory. Episodic memory is our memory for experiences, and semantic memory is our memory for facts we can put into words. These memories are necessarily a part of our identity. The events we focus on, the memories we recall and share, the details we pay attention to, and the narrative we create about our lives contribute to our long-term memory. We reference that when we think about what we like, how we behave, and what we want.
So how do we build our identity using our memory?
- Pay attention to the details you want in your mind. While you introspect (look inward into your mind), don’t limit yourself to a few defining experiences. Whatever you focus on gets reinforced and becomes more accessible to ourselves when thinking and making decisions. That availability, called the availability heuristic, becomes fodder to conceptualize yourself and make your identity concrete.
- Remember your memories with a narrative that aligns with your ideal personality. If you wish to be a more hopeful person, try to remember the times you overcame problems against all odds. Memories of you bouncing back will then affect the narrative. Reinterpreting memories is a common “task” in many psychotherapies, and it helps us recalibrate the contents of our mind, which affect our identity.
- We often bias our memories with negativity and emotional content. We also forget the core experiences and often remember the first or last bits. These biases in our memory carve out a tiny portion of everything that went into building our identity. Train your mind to remember and notice the less emotional aspects and the middle sections of experiences we tend to forget.
How to find yourself through a midlife crisis?
A midlife and quarter-life crisis occurs when we start losing definition in at least one of the 3 self-construal identities. For example, losing a job and getting outclassed by a different employee can create a deficit in the relational independent self-construal. Losing a relationship creates a deficit in the interdependent self-construal. Not having purpose or meaning in life creates a deficit in the meta-personal self-construal. In short, a loss in any of the 3 levels of identity creates a crisis, and internal conflict gives us the feeling that nothing makes sense anymore. We are innately motivated to restore that deficit in identity, and we take strong measures to rebuild our identity. We start exploring preferences, take tests, start socializing, start doing things our heart says no to, etc.
A midlife crisis or any identity crisis usually breaks ones sense of self, confidence, and approach toward life. It creates ambiguity and uncertainty to one’s place in the universe.
What can you do about a mid-life crisis? To come out of the midlife crisis, recreate your identity with the 3 levels of self-construal identities. Then create a bio and revisit your memories to recalibrate your definition.
Knowing yourself through tests, astrology, MBTI, spirit animals, and Buzzfeed-esque quizzes
You may want to use all sorts of fun quizzes like “Which grape variety are you?” and “Which avengers characters will be your ideal partner?” to explore possibilities. However, acknowledge that they usually only help us explore and formulate our actual identity with some reference point. We may forget what we should focus on so these tools can remind us.
People often commit too strongly to a personality evaluation they get from casual, fun tools, MBTI included (since it is a very weak tool). One reason for this is that they like the label, and it gives them a sense of clarity about who they are, even if it inaccurately describes their thoughts and behaviors. The emotional satisfaction of getting some sense of self-concept can become an irrational reason to stick to identities formed via these tools. And that can be damaging because it may prevent exploration and growth in any direction.
Two reasons people participate in astrological and horoscopic exploration are self-expression and self-description. People use astrology and the likes to reduce ambiguity about who they are and what defines them. Identifying with a sun sign creates an opportunity to align with personality traits and behaviors in a seemingly cohesive manner, even if it isn’t accurate. These frameworks, whichever way they are conceptualized (zodiac signs, MBTI type, TV persona, spirit animals, etc.), reduce uncertainty about oneself. It is easier to portray an identity based on a zodiac sign or MBTI type than listing behaviors, preferences, thoughts, and values. This ease in self-expression is also a motivation to emotionally commit to that identity.
As ways to find yourself, so to speak, tools like pop-culture quizzes and MBTI can be a fun starting point. Once someone begins exploring all 3 self-construal levels, the more detailed and refined aspects of identity pop out through various experiences and attitudes.
Hey! Thank you for reading; hope you enjoyed the article. I run Cognition Today to paint a holistic picture of psychology. Each article is frequently updated with new research findings.
I’m an applied psychologist from Pune, India. Love sci-fi, horror media; Love rock, metal, synthwave, and pop music; can’t whistle; can play the guitar.