Identity crisis

September 18, 2012
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I am grateful that LTL has given me the chance to write a blog. Those who know me are surprised that someone so rooted in traditional communications more characteristic of academia (books, articles, etc.) as I am would try this. But this is an opportunity to put some thoughts out for people to consider and comment on that are less extensively worked up than other formats, making it more of a notebook than a publication.

In his memoir Witness to an extreme century, psychiatrist Robert J. Lifton, who chronicled the lives of survivors of some of the 20th Century’s greatest catastrophes, wrote about his being a student of Erik Erikson. He found Erickson’s concept of “identity crisis” (the sub-optimal outcome of adolescent identity formation in the stage he labeled “identity vs. role diffusion”) especially valuable to give him insight into the mental health challenges of the survivors of these catastrophes he treated. Many of us have come to know the concept as an almost cliché shorthand for labeling what we thought ailed so many adolescents. In the 1960’s it was common to say that a confused teen-ager was “having an identity crisis”.

In his memoir, Lifton recalls reading a paper of Erickson’s in which he describes how young people “struggle to sustain a sense of personal and historical continuity, which under duress, could break down and lead to an “identity crisis which led to forms of confusion that should not be considered symptoms of psychiatric illness (emphasis added).This made me think that what we may be seeing in older persons who feel that they are under duress as a result of sensing personal and historical discontinuity in aging, whether from physical or mental infirmities, leaving home to reside in a congregate care setting (even a good one) and perhaps too quickly classifying as psychiatric symptoms, actually may be an “identity crisis” as Erickson described it. Adolescence and older age, I have observed, share many characteristics, among them perhaps this one.

He recommended that the solution to an identity crisis lay in providing opportunities to experience a “greater sense of coherence” through “rearranging and expanding the components of one’s identity” (not psychiatric treatment). I would call that person-centered living.

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