Seeking New Identity
June 5, 2014 10:18 AM   Subscribe

Somedays I feel like I don't know who I am anymore due to complicated life decisions. How do people find a personal identity with ongoing depression/mental heath problems?

When I was younger I was able to define myself by my role such as student or location. Now that I am older I realize that despite my best effort I feel like I've lost my sense of identity. Some times I read old journals and I recall being the anxious and unhappy person I was then but now I feel like I've not improved in any way.

I've been in therapy on and off for around 6 years from counselling in high school to college. I first was accepted to a local large state university after graduating college. I thought at the time it would be positive since I had grown up in a insular HS environment. I didn't expect my mental health to decline rapidly until my 2nd year where I had to take a medical leave. During my time off I tried to restructure my life around therapy and new medications. For 1.5 years I did part time work and prepared to transfer to a local city college.

I decided I would study Business and it was a smaller college than before and I could go home at the end of the day. Two unsuccessful years later I'm leaving the 2nd college due to worsening depression and low grades. I'm back to where I started 2-3 years ago. I'm aware that many or all of my HS classmates graduated or moved on with their lives. I feel like a useless failure at 22 years old with no job experience or college degree.

I did attempt part time retail work at a clothing store but I quit shortly due to my anxiety around the environment. My mother has considered my mental health issues and suggested I start preparing myself for a new job selling health insurance in 1 month. I have ambivalent feelings towards her suggestion because in the past I had followed her advice and I ended up unhappy and conflicted. She has a very "all or nothing" approach towards her ideas about careers and can be critical if I decide against it.

In fact over time I wonder how many of my ideas were not actually my own or but influenced by her persuasion. I'm having difficulty separating myself from my mother and considering alternative approaches to career due to this issue. I talked to (online) friends about how they chose college majors or future careers and some of them basically mentioned they were good at it or they were always interested in it on some level.

I feel like I am being ungrateful since my mother obviously cares about my well-being and future. I know she is under a lot of stress from her business and being a single-parent in general with 2 children.

I do not plan to rely on my mother for my entire life for financial support yet I feel trapped in my situation. I am attending weekly talk therapy and a psychiatrist once a month. I do find it helpful and am grateful that my mother has invested time, energy, & money to improve my mental health. Right now I know college loans will be coming since I left last semester and I know my time is short.

I have spoken to my therapist about these issues and he suggested I take a wider perspective on life. However, there are times when I fall into a dark place and I just feel like sleeping for days due to my inability to make decisions.

I can say I like art or reading books but I don't see myself finding a viable career in pursuing my hobbies. Right now my current self-identity is based on depression/mental health issues and feeling lost & useless.

Basically, I'm asking how do people have find a new identity away from their job/schools/family/location? For many years I identified myself as a "student" and now I'm lost after leaving college incomplete. I know that my future is limited due to not having a college degree and I feel extremely disappointed in myself.

I know it sounds odd to ask a bunch of internet strangers about how to find a career but I've lost touch with all my friends over the years between transferring schools and busy life in general. Thanks.
posted by chrono_rabbit to Health & Fitness (10 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
I would try temping. You call in on Mondays to let them know you're available that week, and if they have work, they send you out on it. It will give you experience, and, hopefully, some confidence. If you have office skills, they will send you out on those kinds of jobs. Some of them even teach classes in office skills.

Have you been talking with your therapist about what kinds of jobs you'd be interested in exploring? If not, I'd consider doing that. Or look into resources your local unemployment office might have for career counseling.
posted by Meep! Eek! at 10:31 AM on June 5, 2014 [1 favorite]

What are the things that you DON'T want to do on a daily basis? What things trigger your anxiety? Working retail may not be great for someone with social anxiety, for instance, while highly repetitive tasks might not appeal to someone with attention deficit issues.

Now think about what you would like your day to be like. Do you want to be left alone and do some technical work? Would programming do the trick? Would data entry?

That's how I would approach work, but don't make work into your identity. What I do for work isn't who I am, not by a long shot.
posted by xingcat at 10:32 AM on June 5, 2014

I cannot speak to the depression aspect here, nor do I really have any useful suggestions for how to get into a career and escape your situation.... these are just some scattered thoughts on what you've written.

But, I do want you to know that a lot of this sounds so, so normal. Specifically, not knowing what you want to do, and trying to separate your ideas from your mother's ideas. That's just part of the process of being 22, you're not weird or pathetic for feeling this way, and you will grow and get through it and come out on the other side with self-knowledge.

You sound like you're conflating college major/studies/career with identity, which again, is so common at 22 because life has been fairly structured up until then and you don't have a lot to base it off of. I will say, though, that in hindsight, the years I spent working retail are integral to my identity. This is not to say that working retail is great. It's not. It sucks and it's terrible, but my point is that sucky things shape who you are as much as being successful and having everything go right for you, sometimes more. You're not some kind of non-entity until you get onto a career track and buy a car and some furniture (or whatever). You're just figuring things out. That's okay!

I talked to (online) friends about how they chose college majors or future careers and some of them basically mentioned they were good at it or they were always interested in it on some level.

This is just a thing people say. Not that it's not true for them, but there's no rule that you have to have always been interested in something to choose it as a career, or that it has to be your One True Career or something. Just try something, and if it doesn't work, try something else. This is way easier said than done and I don't mean to suggest that it's easy, but if an opportunity does come up, don't spend too much time worrying about whether it's "right" for you. If you hate it, you can always try something else.

Good luck, I hope you find what you're looking for.
posted by sunset in snow country at 10:48 AM on June 5, 2014 [2 favorites]

Once in my philosophy class the teacher wanted to explain to us two basic (and different) concepts of what it means to be a person. He said- one view sees the human as an orange and the other sees the human as a mango. The orange is a composite of different "textures" but has no core ; the mango has a definite core in the middle.

It seems like you're working with the mango conception, and trying to find your "core", but you're in a transitional stage between adolescence and adulthood and with all the changes that that entails, it's hard to find something to hold on to. I suggest you try with a different approach for now-- see yourself as the orange who's not tied to any unshakeable core, but still in transition. Work on exploring different aspects of yourself-- social, work, fun, relationships, volunteering and try to "make your orange bigger" without searching for The One Thing in the middle.

Did that make any sense?? I am not sure. . .

Also, if there's just one thing you can stop self-flagellating about- it's not being certain of your personal identity. It can take a lifetime to understand this- and you're only in the very beginning stages of adulthood. Acknowledging and accepting that you are "unsure of who you are" means you have the required openness for growth. A rigid conception of oneself at the age of 22 does not seem healthy to me anyways. Anyone who thinks they know exactly who they are at that age is most likely faking it.

If you need a label for this stage, use "Emerging Adulthood"
posted by winterportage at 10:49 AM on June 5, 2014 [7 favorites]

First of all, tell your mother how much you appreciate her while you struggle with chronic illness. Sometimes people just need to hear it.

In dealing with your mom, I suggest that you counter with another plan. Here's what you say to your mom about selling insurance, "Mom, I totally appreciate your suggestion, and I want to be self-sufficient and to help you with expenses, my current mental health isn't where it needs to be to sell insurance, or anything else. That really requires a confidence that I don't possess right now. But I have some other ideas, would you like to hear them?" Then talk to her about some ideas you have for what you want to do.

She's just worried that you're going to sit home and feel sorry for yourself, show her that you really are ready to dip your big toe in.

1. Go out and get any old job. Summer is a great time to do this, perhaps something fun, like towel person at the pool, or making subs somewhere. Work is a fun place to meet people, and you'll feel better about everything if you can contribute to the household, even if it's $100 a month.

2. I'd also recommend going to a Community College. Take one class or two classes, just in things you think you would enjoy. I majored in English Literature and I really enjoyed my classes. No pressure. Go for the fun, don't worry about the grades. If, it seems like you can handle it, keep going, transfer your credits and finish the degree. What you don't want to do is burden yourself, or go into debt.

3. Continue working with your therapist, I promise, it gets better.

4. Be the housecleaner and cook until you get a job. Your mom should come home to a sparkling clean house and a yummy dinner every day. I did this when I was unemployed and it really helped my self-esteem. Plus I cooked some really interesting things. Waterzooi anyone?

As for your identity, you are YOU. You like the things you like, you are kind and helpful. You're willing to try things and see how they go. Become a good cook. That's an accomplishment you can be proud of! (Plus, it is SO useful!)

If you want to go back to school, you can. You're not the sum total of your experiences to date. You need to realize that SO MANY of us hit the skids in college with our mental health. I went to 5 colleges and it took me 7 years before I got out with my BA. I had a 2.0 GPA, but I finished it. Husbunny dropped out of TWO Ph.D. programs. It happens.

Here are some ideas you might want to explore:

1. Registered Nurse. You can get an RN at a community college, you might be able to transfer some of your other classes towards the degree. There are lots of different kinds of nursing you can do and in the training you'll be exposed to them, so you can get a feel for it before you start applying for jobs.

2. CNA-Cerified Nursing Assistant. Quick ceritification to get and easy employability, in hospitals, nursing homes, even going to people's homes to administer care.

3. Administrator. You can take a training class anywhere, and once you have it, you can learn more as time goes on and you get more familiar with it.

4. Administrative Skills. Learn Excel, PowerPoint, Microsoft Word, etc. Admins are everywhere.

5. Customer Service. I started out in Customer Service at the phone company, then I learned Data Networking, Billing Systems, Sales, Engineering, it was a good life for 25 years.

6. If you like art, study art and art history in college. Will it get you a job, no, but neither will a business degree. Having a college degree isn't about having a marketable skill, it's about learning how to learn, and think critically. I got my Telecom Job before I finished college, but I majored in English Lit. I didn't matter. Not one whit.

I will say that you need to learn resiliance. Okay, this one thing didn't work out, try something else. See how that goes. Failing at stuff isn't the end of the world. Champions get knocked down, but they also pick themselves up and keep fighting. It's not always easy.

As for your friends, sure, some had an easy time going to school, then out into the world. Lots more are working at Der Weinerschnitzel and wondering how they're going to pay back all of those damn loans. Don't compare yourself to others. It's pointless. This is YOUR path to walk, and only you can do it.

I believe in you.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 10:55 AM on June 5, 2014 [7 favorites]

You are only 22. That is very young and you have plently of time to figure out who you are and what career is right for you. I think the best approach is just to try something that interests you and see where it goes. Try making a commitment to something for a given period of time, and then reevaluate after that period is up. Don't think that you have to have everything figured out before you do anything at all and don't think that the choices you make are permanent.

Some people know what they want to do in life from a young age and remain passionate about that, but I get the impression that those people are in the minority, and even the people who seem to know exactly what they want and to have pursued it doggedly may not have gotten there by deciding how things were going to go ahead of time. For example, my father was a university professor in a scientific domain (now retired). When I was growing up, I always had the impression that he always knew that he wanted to be an academic in a scientific domain. However, my father has confided to me in the past that he had periods where he considered doing other things. I think it is only in retrospect that it looks like he knew exactly what he wanted.

Personally, my career and life decisions and my identity have been shaped through a combination of pursuing what I found I was good at and things that interested me at various points. I don't know that there is any one subject that I have had an overwhelming passion for, and I have shifted a bit from one area to another as I lost interest in things that I pursued with some level of passion at a given time. I have been relatively succcessful with this approach and have had some interesting experiences as well. I have definitely experienced some periods of major doubt about things where I felt kind of directionless. I have found that some time spent thrashing around being unsure of things is healthy, as it gives time to consider various possibilities, but that in the end what has made me feel settled or to feel like I know something about who I am is to commit myself to action.
posted by thesnowyslaps at 11:18 AM on June 5, 2014 [1 favorite]

You might try googling up some online aptitude tests. Don't expect them to tell you definitively which career to pursue, but they might be super helpful in terms of helping you narrow down what sort of work interests you. They might also bring up some career-related issues you haven't thought of, such as whether you prefer to work alone or with others, etc. If nothing else, it might just help you rule out some potential career paths.
posted by jessicapierce at 11:32 AM on June 5, 2014

Also, focusing a personal identity on a career (or even a temporary job) is kind of a long-term goal. Nothing wrong with that! But what might help you more quickly is finding something you're passionate about, especially if it's something you can share with other people.

If I were you I would check out ALL the local groups and join everything that looks even half interesting. That, or volunteer with local groups. You might stumble into something awesomely fulfilling.
posted by jessicapierce at 11:36 AM on June 5, 2014

Even though you haven't graduated from college, you're at the age where most people either have or will soon. You and your peers are entering post-student life. Not to say you'll never be students again but it is a major shift from how your life was structured before. The education system has provided a very clear path with set goals and signs of progression for most of your life. Around 22 is the time when, degree or no degree, the pressure to have a personal path starts to set in.

Fight the urge to give into that pressure. It's ok to be confused and not have a clear path. It's really is. There's so much pressure to be driven towards something. To define yourself by your work. To know exactly who you are and the ways you can articulate yourself. It's going to take some time to find your footing again. And that's ok. Life takes time. Depression and anxiety are great at warping perspective, making difficult changes and progress that much more complicated. Tying your sense of identity to your search for a career only complicates things more.

I'm 29 and I've just stumbled into what might turn out to be a career. But it might not. I'm still deciding and keeping my options open. My mom was recently telling me she didn't start what she considers her career until 41. My dad completely re-invented his career at 49. Most of my friends are still in the process of finding or just now starting theirs.

So, try to find ways to enjoy being 22 and embrace the changes and confusions that come with it. Take jobs, any jobs. Quit the ones you hate for ones that sound more interesting. Quit those when they get boring for better ones. Try to only move up in pay. Work on supporting yourself emotionally and financially without dwelling on where and who you should be. Pursue your interests in art and reading. You'll get there.
posted by AtoBtoA at 12:33 PM on June 5, 2014

Because your question mainly deals with identity issues I strongly recommend Eckhart Tolle's books and audiobooks. His most famous is The Power of Now, but my favorite is called Stillness Speaks. His main message is about finding your identity in your real self rather than in outside things like mental health and career.

SideNote: I'm guessing you are male since statistics show that males are most depressed in their 20's and they get happier as they enter their 30's and beyond. Just keep this in mind when you're feeling down.
posted by manderin at 11:50 PM on June 5, 2014

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