In mathematics, one is a whole number. In relationships too, one should be a whole number. Relationships are not meant to compensate for us being less than a whole person. But, growing up into a whole person is hard to do. Especially if you don’t have many healthy people in your life leading the way.
Identity formation begins as soon as we are born. Its first shaping comes from the family we were born into and the messages we internalized about ourselves from the important people in our life. You’re not born with an internal sense of who you are, what you are like, and what you want out of life. You are a sin-broken blank slate.
As a child, identity formation is much like trying to draw a self-portrait in a world with no reflective surfaces. With no mirror to look into you must look to the important people in your life to tell you what you look like. Am I pretty? Smart or dumb? Worthy or a waste of time? Valuable, capable, and powerful? Worthless, incompetent, and helpless?
With no functioning frontal cortex (the part of our brain that enables us to be self-reflective), we simply accept what we are told. This picture becomes the starting place for our self-concept. And it becomes self-reinforcing. You see, we learn new things by comparing new information to what we already “know” to be true. So, if some piece of new information agrees with what we already “know” to be true, we accept it as true. If the new information contradicts what we “know” to be true, we reject it as false.
It is through this lens that we interpret the experiences of our life. For any situation we face in life there are many ways to interpret it’s meaning or significance. Of the options available to us, we accept the one that is most consistent with what we already believe to be true. So for example, if as a grade schooler I failed a quiz at school, there are multiple reasons why I might have failed:
- The information wasn’t presented very well by the teacher.
- The quiz was poorly written/designed.
- I need eyeglasses, that I don’t have, so I’m not getting the information.
- I’m dyslexic and that’s making it difficult for me to read the information.
- My home is chaotic; mom didn’t come home last night so we didn’t have any dinner and were up most of the night – so I could barely stay awake for the quiz.
- I’m being bullied by a kid in the class, causing me to be anxious and distracted.
- I have anxiety that causes my mind to blank when I feel pressure.
- I’m stupid and not good at school, like my dad says.
Now, if the consistent message from the important people in my life is that “I’m stupid and not good at school,” which explanation do you think I’m most likely to attribute my quiz failure to?
The bias from our early self-concept impressions leads us to view the world through a lens that reinforces the bias. As the years pass, we accumulate a lot of “evidence” to the truth of these biases, whether or not they are in reality, actually true. This causes them to be very resistant to change.
If your whole life you were told the color blue is called “red,” then when I point to the blue wall in my office and ask you what color it is, you will tell me, “Red, of course.” You will find it very difficult to believe me when I tell you it is, in fact, blue. You will also likely find it difficult to believe what the Bible says to be true about you at points where it differs from your self-concept.
Hello Frontal Cortex!
Mid-teens through early twenties is when our frontal cortex begins to flicker and then kick on in full strength, thank you Jesus! With our new-found brain capacities, we now have the ability to question information that is coming in and to evaluate information previously accepted.
We still have a strong bias to overcome from the experiences of our life up until this point, but we now have the cognitive capacity to overcome them. It’s also during this season (high school through college age) that we have the developmental task of determining who we are going to be.
- Defining our self, to ourself and others
- Considering goals and values, accepting some while rejecting others
- Pursuing continuity between our values, goals, and choices.
- Clarifying our uniqueness as well as our affiliations.
- Establishing our identity within our family, cultural context, personal world, and professional self.
If we successfully navigate identity development, through intentional reflection, exploration, and choices, we reach identity achievement. Here we are “comfortable in our own skin.” We know who we care about pleasing, what communities we want to be a part of that share our goals and values, and where we fit in.
If we don’t successfully form a solid sense of identity, it interferes with our ability to form a shared identity with others. We will find ourselves in one of three states of limbo:
- Identity Crisis – here we have not yet committed to goals and values or established a direction for our life.
- Identity Foreclosure — here we accept the expectations of others without exploring if, in fact, those are God’s design for us.
- Identity Moratorium – This is where we engage some social structure that tells us who/how to be for a given period of time, allowing us to avoid exploring identity. Examples could be military service, short-term missions, college, Peace-Corps, Masters Commission. Note: Just because someone engages one of the preceding doesn’t necessarily mean they have not achieved Identity. Folks who have not achieved Identity reach the end of these temporary seasons only to have a “now what” crisis.
What Kind of Person Are You?
You can’t talk about identity formation without talking about the Will of God for your life. Many a young person has spent a lot of time thinking about the question: What is the Will of God for my life?
Consider that first and foremost, the Will of God for your life has more to do with WHO you are, than WHAT you do with your life. Not that the “what” doesn’t matter, it just is far less important than the “who.”
Would you like to know what the Will of God is for your life? I can tell you. With absolute certainty I can tell you that the Will of God for your life is: That you would reflect God’s character and reveal His glory in the way you conduct your life, in every context, season, and human interaction of your life. If you do this, you can be certain that the Lord will make clear the “what” you should be spending your time on earth doing.
This is what it means to find your identity in Christ: To believe what the Bible says about you and to anchor your goals and values in the priorities and character of God.
If I am not free to reject something, then I am also not able to accept it. Part of the process of identity development is questioning what we believe. We start with a set of values and beliefs that are handed to us by the primary people in our life. But we have to ask at some point, “Do I believe/value this?”
It has been said God has no grandchildren. Each individual has to come to the conviction that God is and that Jesus is the Christ, Savior and King. It is the Holy Spirit that brings a person to this belief, not parents, pastors, or ministry leaders.
While it’s scary, especially for parents, to watch young people question the Gospel (because we know what’s at stake), it really is the only way for them to make it their own. Without wrestling with it, their faith will always remain superficial, something they do because it’s how they were raised.
I’m a person who…
There’s a game I like to play to help explore identity in a variety of different facets. It goes like this: Either by yourself or with someone who knows you well, create a list of self-descriptors using the following prompt:
I’m a person who…
Examples: I’m a person who…
- Loves the outdoors.
- Gets nauseous thinking about eating oysters.
- Loves Jesus!
- Is a father, and loves being a dad.
- Is a husband, and enjoys being married.
- Works as a professional, and loves the work God has given him to do.
- Hates exercise.
- Enjoys people, but also enjoys being alone.
- Loves the lake, but doesn’t like to fish.
- Is a snowboarder…who still falls down more than he would like.
- Is prideful and struggles at times to put his flesh to death.
- Hates to read, but loves to learn — so he does it anyways.
- Is interested in politics, but stays out of political discussions, preferring to focus on things he can directly influence.
All of these represent different aspects of who I am. Some of them are more important and core to me than others, but together, with many more, they make up my identity. Get to know yourself, in the things you like about you, the things you want to change, and the things you want to become true of you.
This list is helpful because there are only 2 components to self-concept:
- What do you believe others (people and God) think about you?
- What do you believe about you?
How accurate your self-concept is depends on how well the answers to these questions align with what God believes about you and what other people actually (not just what you assume they) believe about you.
An accurate self-concept is important, otherwise we end up painting a picture of ourself, how we like to think of ourself, hanging it on the wall and calling it a mirror. Or, we paint a mask, pulling it over our face to convince others that the mask is who we are, all the while knowing deep inside that it’s a farce.
Our capacity for self-deception makes it critically important that we invite the Holy Spirit to “turn the lights on” in our heart, drawing attention to who we are as He sees us. We also need to live transparently within a community where we invite others to provide honest feedback to us about how they experience us.
In addition to achieving identity formation, this is also a season in life where we, hopefully, achieve independence and differentiation from our families of origin.