“I don’t know who I am anymore”: an expert explains why we're having coronavirus identity crises

Struggling to do the things that make you feel like you during coronavirus lockdown? An expert explains the identity crisis many of us are feeling and shares tips on how to address what’s happening.

“I just really don’t feel like me at the moment,” my oldest friend, Suze, sighed down the phone. She’s been furloughed from her job and is living on her own in Leeds. Over the last few years, her side hustle and passion project has been freelance photography, so I suggest she gets out there and keeps taking photos. “I wish I wanted to,” she replies, “but I’m just too anxious to feel creative. I’ve even become bored of cooking, because I can’t share it with people – friends usually love coming to mine for food. It just feels impossible to do and enjoy all the things that make me… me.”

I continue to try give some encouragement, but I fully understand where my old pal is coming from. My passion is writing, and I’m lucky enough not to have been furloughed from the job that requires me to flex this muscle. But I massively relate to the loss of identity in social groups. 

I recently reframed loads of photos to remind myself that I have brilliant buddies who I travel the world and drink too many overpriced cocktails with. I match with people I’m not that interested in on Hinge just to prove that I’m still in the dating game. I put on lipstick and pick out bright springtime clothes so that I feel like the woman I am. Heck, I cut in a fringe the other night with a pair of nail scissors because I can only describe my hair as “a mop” right now.

But then of course, there are many days where I just think “what’s the point? There’s nobody here to see me in all my glory”. I can’t quickly bounce off my friends’ jokes over Zoom, I wouldn’t be able to let my personality shine over an awkward virtual date, and I just feel silly sitting in my living room with winged-strokes of eyeliner on. “All dressed up and nowhere to go,” as the saying goes.

This lockdown identity crisis is something that Stylist readers say they’ve felt too. One reader, who is a lawyer, says she finds it hard to truly express herself on work conference calls. Another admits she has also printed out photos of friends and family as a reminder that the good times will come again. 

My friend Laura is enjoying discovering a new side to herself, however. She hates her job and has guiltily enjoyed being away from the place of work that causes her so much distress. She now has the time to focus on the reading she has to do for her part time studies, and that’s what she’s been wanting to truly do for months. 

A Stylist reader who returned to her parents’ house during lockdown also says she is not sure she wants all of her old identity back at all, explaining: “It has taught me that I work way too hard and need to slow down such a fast paced life.”

Clearly, many of us are reassessing our identities during the pandemic, but why is it happening? And how can we make sure we don’t lose ourselves?

Michelle Scott, a psychotherapist from The Recovery Centre Group (TRC), tells Stylist that identity crises are normal. Just like the midlife crisis, or moving away for university, they tend to happen because we are so goal-led in life, but our goals change at different points and leave you unsure of who you are. 

In the case of where we are with the coronavirus pandemic, our goals have rapidly changed over a course of weeks. And the disassociative state many of us are experiencing right now might be affecting this unprecedented type of identity crisis.

“People cut-off from their usual reward system are not getting that usual feedback of doing well [or] achieving,” says Scott. “It’s hard to fire up any engagement to do anything that might give you another form of rewarding feedback. But it’s quite normal to base our identity on what we can do rather than who we truly are, so it throws us into confusion.”

According to Scott, the way we define ourselves by our tribes is making us feel lost at a time when we can’t meet others.

“You see it more typically when you’re younger – you dress the same as your friends, you get that sense of group identity,” she continues. “But we’re not out there, so we haven’t got that kind of feeling of belonging, which makes us question ‘who am I? who do I belong to?’ If we can’t achieve or don’t belong, how do we know we’re worth something?

“It’s something that happens in life anyway for most people, but it just never happens on such a mass level at the same time.”

The need for external validation – which I’m sure many of us know all too well – is also further heightened in the pandemic.

“When you’re a child and upset about something, you don’t know what to do about it because you’re too young, but your parents or an adult will explain why you’re upset – this validates your emotions and you start to know who you are because you understand how you feel. 

“It’s natural to be dependent on some level for external validation, but we’ve been cut off from a lot of that.”

This all makes total sense to me – I need to hit personal goals at work, I love belonging to my friendship groups, and I always crave external validation. So, at a time when these factors are up in the air, how can I retain a sense of self?

Scott outlines some helpful tips:

1. Take the time to stop and acknowledge what’s going on. Name what’s happening (that’s a regularity process) and say ‘I’m confused’ or ‘I’m not sure who I am anymore’ – that gives you more control of it. 

2. Focus on values. What are the intrinsic qualities that you’d want to still have in the next 50 years? Not what things would you have done, but what person would you be? Rather than goals, think about values.

3. Do some physical grounding. Get a sense of your body, which could simply be breathing or doing some exercise. 

And one other non-expert tip from me: surround yourself with as many photos of your families and friends as possible. Their smiling mugs staring back at me really are helping me get through this. They remind me I am Hollie.

Images: Getty

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