What is an identity crisis?
I have had multiple conversations in recent months about this issue, mostly with twenty-something women, struggling to put our finger on the root of the problem. Is it job related? Personality driven? Circumstantial? I always thought an identity crisis was for the weak, shallow individual without a plan…certainly not for ME! I knew exactly who I was and who I wanted to be!
Until one day…I simply didn’t know anymore.
I had a very different vision than how my life has unfolded. According to my 17-year-old self, there should have been a wedding and a few kids by this point. I should have a house, a dog, a career in music or entertainment (or maybe some executive, suit-wearing role in marketing and advertising, or maybe running my own publishing company? I was all about being well-rounded), and be on track for promotions and my very own office (while chasing my children, being a top-notch homemaker, and of course being involved in church ministry). Wow, I’m exhausted just trying to envision it. My “dream life” consisted of marriage, success, and a whole lot of DOING. I was going to play my cards right and make all the right decisions to land me exactly where I wanted to be as I approached my thirties.
Being on track meant I went to college and graduated with my bachelor’s degree early with honors, always the straight A- student. And then I was a working girl, trying to figure out where I was going with my degree that I just paid for with enough loans to purchase a small country. Paying the bills was my main focus. Throughout my early twenties, I recorded a few albums, played a few shows, did some domestic traveling, and entered the dating world. I jumped from one job to the next, trying to find purpose and fulfillment but falling short every time, experiencing many ups and downs of life but still driven by “the plan.” I moved out of my family’s home to the city for more opportunity, had a “network” of friends and acquaintances, joined a church and quickly got involved in ministry and leadership, which turned into a full-time job. I was certain this was the path for me!
On September 9th, 2015, I received the devastating news that I had a fast-growing tumor in the right side of my tongue, and I needed surgery to remove it. This involved total reconstruction of half of the tongue and a neck dissection to remove lymph nodes in a six-hour surgery that resulted in over six months of recovery. My entire world was flipped upside down, and dealing with treating my stage IV cancer through alternative methods, fund-raising, and recuperating ultimately became my full-time job.
This didn’t fit into my plan at all.
But this journey has blossomed into a blessing – in the worst disguise possible. I have discovered intentional rest. I have had the time to sit with God and seek, pray, and really listen. I have never been more frustrated with my body, but also have never been more willing to grant myself grace and understanding as I learn to deal with the changes and new “normal.” And everything really changes when you are faced with your own mortality. We all know we will die someday…but we never expect to see a possible, tangible expiration date. That realization was enough to flip my perspective and bring me into a whole new understanding of life on the other side.
I am writing this article completely cancer-free today. I know that it is by the grace of God and His guidance and faithfulness that I’ve been able to really hear His voice throughout the process, and to work on healing physically, emotionally, and spiritually. We are not simply bodies to take care of, we are also mind and soul. When one part is sick or failing, the entire being is affected. Taking time to heal on each level – and not leaving your whole self as an afterthought – is the best thing. I discovered an entirely new connection to myself and to God.
And most of all, I have found the solution to my identity crisis. As it turns out, it is less about finding yourself and more about losing yourself in Jesus. An identity crisis is created by my own standards and faults, not by those around me or by my circumstances – I am not a victim nor will I play the role of one. My identity crisis happens when I lose sight of who I am in Christ – chosen, adopted, redeemed, and set on a course that God prepared for me.
Even if that course is nothing like I would have chosen for myself.
There is a sense of going nowhere fast in our society and “American Dream” lifestyle. We’ve been taught from an early age to work toward something, as we were constantly asked: “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Our six-year-old selves were firefighters, doctors, astronauts, princesses and world explorers finding buried treasure. We knew no limits, our imaginations ran wild, and we could be anything we wanted, however far-fetched or impossible. But then, we got older. We discovered things like failure, fear, and disappointment. Heartache, broken dreams, and worst of all…the dreaded identity crisis.
Feeding this monster is comparing ourselves to others our age who seem like they figured out how to be what we’ve always striven so hard for. They’re thriving in the perfect job while you’re unemployed or struggling to find purpose at what you’re doing. They’re getting married or having babies, and you’re still single at 35. Always wanting something better than what we currently have. Doubting ourselves when those closest to us ridicule our decisions or discourage our ideas. Wishing your Instagram feed was as perfect as hers. Secretly feeling depressed and alone, needing to be involved in everything or else suffer from a severe case of FOMO.
Feeling like you’ve hit a wall in your twenties, when you’ve hardly lived yet, is scary, exhausting, and the very definition of “burn out.” To be completely transparent and honest, before my journey with cancer, I was desperately ignoring the burn out I was experiencing with my career, relationships, church, and pretty much with myself. Everything felt like a major struggle to really feel good about what I was doing with my life. I felt pushed and pulled in so many directions by people I had allowed to speak into my life as mentors (or those who had self-proclaimed themselves as mentors for me) and those I looked up to as spiritually mature examples. I had subconsciously lived my life letting others tell me what I was best at and what I should be doing. But while I had once had a passion and drive, that flame disappeared quickly as stress, drama, and a sense of being lost quickly settled in as things were just not quite right.
I needed to step back…to stop letting everyone else determine my course…and having cancer forced that upon me. I needed to get into a place of hearing God’s voice above the noise of everything I thought I was supposed to be, and feeling like a failure or like I was disappointing others. Funny how God speaks to you loudest when you’re letting Him whisper into your soul, instead of listening to everyone else around you tell you what He’s saying.
The day after I received my diagnosis, I was sitting in a parking lot in my car, bawling my eyes out, and decided to turn on the radio. It “just so happened” that Focus on the Family was interviewing Michele Cushatt, author of “Undone: A Story of Making Peace With An Unexpected Life” who also had battled oral cancer. In that moment, I don’t know if I truly understood how impactful that broadcast was to my journey. But looking back, it was exactly what I needed in that moment of crying out to God with such a heavy, confused heart. To hear someone on the other side of it, who had trusted God with the outcome and was now used to glorify Him through the circumstances she had faced, was like a burst of uplifting light into a dark and nightmarish room.
No matter what you’re facing right now, He hears you. He loves you. He’s working it all out for His glory and your good, even when you hardly have the strength to figuratively (or literally!) put one foot in front of the other.
Here are a few tips from my own journey of rest and recovery that have helped me work through my own identity crisis:
- Find and confide in a trusted counselor or friend as a sounding board
- Start thinking about your strengths and weaknesses
- What is God speaking into your heart? What is stirring and moving you?
- Pray, pray, pray. As Paul wrote to the Thessalonians, “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, in everything give thanks…” (1 Thess. 5:16-18)
- Begin your course of action as it becomes clearer and God reveals the next step
Allow grace with yourself. You don’t have to have all the answers and you don’t have to explain yourself. Life throws curveballs at us every day, some more challenging than others, and without a solid foundation, you quickly lose sight of your perfect plan. Sometimes, we are called to action. And other times, we are called to step back and rest. Proverbs 16:9 says, “We can make our plans, but the Lord determines our steps.” Meaning, He is control, no matter what. We need to have goals and dreams, but God is in charge of how those things unfold in our lives.
That’s all a part of surrender. Of knowing, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that God will use you and your story in any way He chooses, and your job is simply to let go when necessary for Him to take you to the next assignment. Better things are always yet to come, but if you don’t loosen your grip on today, you won’t see the beautiful blessing of release into tomorrow.