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How Do We Bounce Back: Resilience and Identity

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One of the recurrent themes of 2016 was the notion of resilience, the capacity to recover quickly from adversity or difficulties. The word resilient is generally used to describe individuals who overcame tremendous misfortune or disappointment.

One example of someone who has demonstrated resilience is Hillary Clinton. While Senator Clinton could have easily disappeared following the public embarrassment she endured during her husband’s second term as president, she went on to become a US Senator. After losing her party’s nomination for president in 2008, she went on to become Secretary of State. And instead of retreating after she was judged in the media and subjected to hours of questioning during the Congressional inquiry into the Benghazi tragedy, she won the Democratic nomination and won the popular vote for the highest office in the United States. And while all of this would have broken the strongest among us, her resilience shone through in a respectful and dignified manner.

Stephen Hawking is another great example of someone who is resilient. He could have easily ended his intellectual pursuits as his medical condition slowly immobilised him. Instead, Stephen Hawking has become one of the most respected thinkers in the fields of cosmology and physics. He writes, presents, and inspires thousands with his theories and life perspectives.

How did these individuals become so resilient? Were they just born that way? Or was resilience borne of some sort of life experiences? Well, we are beginning to think that it has something to do with their identities. 

At some point in her life, Hillary Clinton defined herself as a person who was going to help others, to serve her community. She was so confident in her identity that even when people call her names or otherwise ridicule her, the manner in which she defines herself, her identity – remains unscathed.

Stephen Hawking knew, without a doubt, that he was meant to study and gain a deep understanding of science. So when his body began to fail him, he pressed on. A fully functioning body would have helped, but was not essential. Again, his identity was not broken despite his adversity.

Teenagers and identity

Another example of the connection between identity and resilience is seen among teenagers. According to Erik Erikson, adolescents struggle to resolve the conflict between identity and role confusion. It is during the teen years when we decide who we are and who we are meant to be.

Anyone who works with teenagers can easily recognise those adolescents who have developed a sense of identity: they are more confident, more motivated, and less likely to experience the adolescent angst and depression so common among that age group.

Conversely, those who do not develop their identity become confused, disoriented, and aimless. They fail to develop a mission in life and are more likely to experience ‘failure to launch’ by remaining in their parents’ homes well into early adulthood.

These teens may become so depressed or anxious that they find it difficult to enter the workforce or finish their schooling. Some will marry the first person who gives them attention, while others are unable to commit to any relationship. Without a clear and consistent identity, they remain adrift.

Mental illness and identity

There is also an association between identity and mental illness. First, mental illness can slow (and sometimes prevent) people to formulate a true sense of self. Those who suffer from depression often fail to see positive attributes about themselves or to find pleasure in various aspects of life. Those with anxiety, and even ADHD, often experience symptoms that prevent them from exploring all that life offers.

On the other hand, mental illness can be the consequence of not formulating an identity. As we enter adulthood, most of us recognise that we need to have a direction or a goal to pursue. Those who don’t, become lost in a somewhat unforgiving adult world. Your landlord does not care that you did not develop an identity, do not know what you want to do as a career, and are unemployed. He wants to be paid, or you are out.

Treatment considerations

So what does all this mean when it comes to managing mental health issues in teenagers and adults? Is there an argument that the root problem for many of those suffering from depression and anxiety lies in the absence of true identity, and therefore, a lack of resilience?

I think so. But before you jump to the strategies, I encourage you to resist the urge toward too much specificity. Though specificity is typically recommended, it should be avoided here for fear that with too much specificity, we miss the forest for the trees. That is, we fail to see the big picture because we are focusing too much on details.

For example, it is easier to first find and maintain an interest in the medical field (as a whole) than it is to maintain a passion (or opportunity) for working in paediatric neurology. The specific interest will come later, but first, spark the interest for the broad areas.

Now on to the strategies. Here are 10 things that you can do to help find your identity and begin to create a foundation for the rest of your life.

  1. Get out there. Whether you are an adult or a teenager, you are not going to find yourself if you remain locked up in your room. You have to get out of the house and see what the world has to offer.
  2. Talk to others. Talk to your friends and family members and see how they are managing things in their lives.
  3. Talk to strangers. When you are at the coffee shop or bookshop, talk to the barista, clerk, or even other customers about what they are doing.
  4. Read. Read what other people have written on a range of subjects.
  5. Write. Writing forces you to think about things more deeply than you otherwise would.
  6. Stretch your comfort zone. Logically speaking, if you have not found your identity inside your comfort zone, you will have to push those boundaries to find yourself; so change some of your habits.
  7. Get educated. Go back to university and/or take courses on subjects you never studied before.
  8. Do trial runs. Get a seasonal, part-time, or temporary job to try out different professions.
  9. Volunteer. Volunteering is a great way to get experience, try out new things, and get your foot in the door for a future position.
  10. Self-reflection. Who are you? What do you see for yourself? What do you want others to see in you? Dig deep and really search for the answers.

Dr Berney Wilkinson is a licensed psychologist who specialises in paediatric psychology, neuropsychology, and forensic psychology. 

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