Can you remember when you left your primary school for the excitement of secondary school; or when you sold your cherished first car and bought a better, more reliable one; or when you first left home?
These are all examples of how profound events prompt identity change. In these cases each previous identity, which had its own symbolic values, specific emotions and behaviours, was replaced by something considered better or more desirable.
Life is full of these smooth identity changes as we shed one sense of self and inhabit another. Importantly, this process is exceptionally easy when we perceive there is an improvement or a better fit for ourselves and the transition itself doesn’t cause distress.
However, there are occasions when our identity is threatened and there is a distinct loss of self, comfort, and a challenge to the different ways we know ourselves in our world.
This might be through an unplanned event that re-shapes our sense of self too quickly and we can’t adjust.
These events occur all the time in our community like, for example, when someone is reassigned at work and given a different role that isn’t their preference.
But COVID-19, and its social and economic fallout, has suddenly left many, if not most of us, simultaneously facing abrupt changes to our identities.
While many of us will be able to cope well with the circumstantial and identity change, and may even embrace it, some will struggle to adapt to how they perceive themselves, especially those of us with the least resources.
Those struggling in this way may disconnect and feel they don’t belong – it becomes harder for them to engage with others and commit to a new identity. They may experience fewer peak positive experiences.
For example, a student in their late teens before the pandemic may have identified as a person whose future is bound up with going to university and pursuing their ambitions of a career, as well as seeing themselves as someone with their own resources courtesy of a part-time job at a big retail store.
They may also have a sense of themselves as someone with plans to be an adventurous international traveller.
For this person, COVID-19 has changed all of these indicators of ‘self’, at least in the short term. And how they cope will depend on their own resources and level of security.
When people confront challenges like these to their identities, psychological therapy suggests there may be three broad groups, similarly reflected in research:
- The secure group: These are people with good resources – for example a stable income and family – who won’t see the threat of COVID-19 as anything other than a health threat. These people are the fortunate ones and need only to self-monitor their well-being and follow health warnings. Their identity – their world – isn’t threatened like those of others. While change may occur, the action is around them, not in them.
- The challenged group: People in this group will be unnerved by the implications for their future, and their identities will be shifting and possibly shrinking. This group will need to make major adjustments but the threat to them is conditional on the pace of change accompanied by the degree and number of changes.
- The vulnerable group: This group will be confronting a completely changed world and set of horizons. They will be confused. The indicators that the world is OK, and they are OK will seem to be fragmenting fast. Their present will no longer resemble what has happened in the past and their trajectories have been altered. Their possible future selves have been suddenly taken from them, and as yet they can’t clearly see an alternative future or identity. For a few, they may have experienced this all before and COVID-19 will be compounding past trauma.
Ideally, the secure group should feel a duty of care to the other two groups and may need to self-regulate their emotions and desire to think of others. This group are in a good position to provide leadership, solace and resources for those who are most affected.
Those in the challenged group may be able to fortify themselves by exploring how other people have met similar challenges in the past. This might be done through talking with friends or family or exploring narratives of hardship in literature or film.
A particularly rich source of support for someone’s identity can be the stories and diaries of family members who have coped with adversity. These narratives can be a source of consolation and can help people to build confidence in their future.
But for both the challenged group and particularly the vulnerable group, social support will be important.
By talking issues through and gaining advice, people can generate new cognitive emotional and behavioural pathways to possible worthwhile futures.
People in these groups may also need material assistance. Those in the vulnerable group will most likely need social support from family, social workers, as well as possibly psychological and medical support to manage their negative emotions – particularly anxiety, anger and depression to stave off apathy and hopelessness.
This assistance should also focus on reducing negative self-judgement and self-recrimination while waiting for new possibilities to emerge.
Generating a new identity, like a work identity, takes imagination and creatively testing new options.
Being still, and learning to be comfortable with a new self, especially a smaller self with fewer immediate prospects, isn’t something many Westerners are socialised to accept, but acceptance of those things we don’t control is critical at this time.
It also provides the opportunity for us to listen and commit to new possible selves that will not only bring enjoyment, but give us the sense of security that will help us reach out to assist others.
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