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  • Carolyn Prins

Knowing Who You are in Times of Change



Life is full of transitions and changes. Sometimes we choose to initiate this change, like a musician who wishes to retire, and chooses to put away their instrument for good. In other cases, we don’t always get to choose when our lives take a sudden turn. An example of this would be an athlete who was sidelined by an injury that results in them leaving their sport. Transitioning from one passion or hobby to another is, very often, a difficult and uncertain process. In the midst of uncertainty, it is common to feel like we have lost more than just our music, sport, craft, or other form of expression. In many cases we feel that we have lost our identity. An idea that I want to propose to you is that our identity is not solely rooted in the passions that we possess at any one time, but rather is formed by deeper, more permanent characteristics. Although our hobbies and passions interact with and modify our character, in the face of change we can focus on the stable aspects of our identity, and use them to find the next pat

Now the question many will ask here is, “What is identity and how is it impacted by our passions?” Identity has several different bases, which are categorized as [2]:

1) How we view ourselves as part of social groups (ex. “son,” “student,” “artist”)

2) How we view our own characteristics (ex. “outgoing,” “kind”)

3) Our Goals and Values (ex. “helping others,” “becoming a nurse,” “honesty”)

Identity is not a completely stable concept: It can change due to different situations. For example, our goals and values can change due to a change in circumstances. What is important in these transitions is how we perceive the change, and our beliefs about its impact on our identity. It is also important that we focus on aspects of our identities that remain stable, despite the changes we are experiencing. Research performed by Dr. Sarah Molouki and Dr. Daniel Bartels examined what kinds and in what ways our identity may change while still allowing us to perceive our identity as largely stable[1]. What they found was that we perceive greater identity changes when we experience changes in our personality or morality, rather than our preferences, experiences, or memories[1]. Furthermore, positive changes are perceived as less threatening than negative changes [1], and “imagining a hypothetical worsening of characteristics predicted much larger perceptions of identity discontinuity than imagining the characteristics staying the same or improving.”[1]



So, how does this research apply to our own lives, and how can we use it to improve our response to change? In examining this research, I see two takeaways that are relevant to our discussion:

Changes to preferences, experiences, or memories are less threatening to our sense of identity than are changes to morality or personality. From this, one could hypothesize that focusing on the ways your identity stays stable (ex. your values and personality) could instill a sense of identity stability when your passions or life situations are changing.

How we perceive a change (i.e. positive or negative) impacts how threatening we view the change to be to our identity. We can use this finding to our advantage by focusing on the positive aspects of our life changes, rather than the negative ones. This is not to say that all change is pleasurable, or free of negative attributes, but rather that, by focusing on the positive attributes, the idea of change might become less threatening. Extending positive emotions into the experience of the change itself may also improve our ability to cope with change: According to the broaden-and-build theory of emotion, positive emotions expand our cognitions and behaviours, allowing us to better manage the situation[3].

To close I want to leave you with some lasting ideas to think about when you are experiencing difficult change, and when you feel like you are losing your sense of identity.

Identity is far more than our experiences or hobbies. Focus on the components of your identity that stay stable during change, such as your values and personality.

How we perceive change directly impacts how threatening it is to our sense of self. Try to frame change in a more positive light.

Exhibiting positive emotions during periods of change actually increases our ability to effectively cope with change and use change for the better.


References

1. Molouki, S., & Bartels, D. M. (2015). Personal Change and the Continuity of Identity. Cognitive Science, 1619–1624.

2. Passer, M. W., Atkinson, M. L., Smith, R. E., & Mitchell, J. B. (2017). Psychology: Frontiers and Applications. McGraw-Hill Ryerson.

3. Tugade, M. M., & Fredrickson, B. L. (2004). Resilient individuals use positive emotions to bounce back from negative emotional experiences. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 86(2), 320–333.

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