Who am I? This PhD student studied the question of questions
Just being yourself. The quest to discover ‘who you are’ does not proceed without a hitch for everyone. Why is identity building so much harder for some than for others? And how do you in fact investigate this process? Lotte van Doeselaar earned a cum laude PhD at Tilburg University last Friday for research on identity formation among adolescents and young adults. Univers spoke with her.
First of all, what is identity?
“In very simple terms, identity is the answer to the question: who am I? Everyone will answer this question differently and that makes it a very complex concept. Answers that you might give include: I am a researcher at Tilburg University, I am a mother, a teacher, a friend, a partner. But more things are involved: religion, ethnicity, or certain principles: I am someone who does not eat meat. Together, the pieces of this jigsaw puzzle form the answer to the question of ‘who am I’ and thus your identity.”
Is your identity ‘finished’ at one point?
“No, keeping your identity ‘up to date’ is a lifelong task. After all, things in your life are changing all the time, so you regularly need to recalibrate your identity, for instance, when you become a student, have a child, or simply age. It could also happen at some point that you are no longer satisfied with a certain aspect of your identity. You realize you no longer like your job and go in search of a new challenge. Identity needs attention, over and over again.”
Your research focused on identity formation among young people
“Correct, in the period between childhood and adulthood, identity formation is in its crucial phase. It is a time in which many things change. In which you need to make your own choices and start to give shape to your identity. Identity formation is one of the core tasks in this phase of life."
‘Time and again, you have to reflect on who you are’
“In my study, I use data from the Project-IK, among other things, as part of which 13 to 15-year-olds in Brabant answered questions about their lives. What struck me was that, in two years’ time, young people started to think a lot more about their future plans. They try to find answers to questions like: what would I like to study, what is my sexual identity, who are my friends, what group do I belong to?"
“This is in line with existing theories: at first, when you are a child, you pick up a lot from your parents. However, as you get older, you start to think more about what you want yourself and what would really suit you.”
What do you call healthy identity formation?
“It is important that you first find out what suits you and that you also make choices in this direction. When you feel connected to those choices, and have no doubts about them, we speak of a healthy identity.”
‘Having no answer to the question of who you are is very stressful’
“For example: you have chosen a study program which you think will suit you. That program subsequently becomes part of who you are and that gives you a sense of security. You will later probably be working in that same area, so you have some idea of who you will be in the future. It gives a sense of continuity, and that’s what people need.”
Where can things go ‘wrong’?
“Some youngsters copy their parents in their choices: they do make a choice, but they do not really reflect whether it really suits them. Other youngsters do investigate, but cannot really make a choice. They start to worry about it, which often goes hand in hand with negative feelings. They become stuck."
“If, at a certain moment, you cannot really answer the question of ‘who am I?’, then that’s a flaw in your identity formation. That can be very stressful. Your own identity gives direction to your life. If you have made choices and they agree with you, they form a kind of compass of what you think is important and of where you want to be heading.”
How does research into identity formation take place?
“Roughly speaking, there are two different approaches to study identity, the dual-cycle and the narrative methods. In the dual-cycle approach, questionnaires are used to investigate how people make various life choices (education, job, partner) and to what extent they feel connected to those choices."
“In the narrative approach, the personal life story of people plays an important role. Based on autobiographical stories, researchers try to understand how identity formation works. The story and the way in which people tell their story determine their outlook on life; that’s the idea."
“A third element that you often come across in identity formation research is the extent to which people have the feeling they are unique. It is positive to think of yourself as unique in some way. It means you are different from other people and that gives you more sense of self. If you do not think of yourself as unique at all, then you have no idea how you differ from other people. You do not have a clear personal identity."
“However, if you differ too much from the people who are important to you, for example, your parents, your friends, or your partner, you may not feel connected to them. That can lead to loneliness.”
What approach did you use?
“I have used all these different approaches in my research and that is quite unique. Researchers usually specialize in a certain method and continue using it. That’s a shame. My research shows that it is helpful to combine all these approaches.”
Can you give an example?
“One example from my own study is that we asked youngsters to write about a turning point in their lives. That’s the narrative method. They wrote about a good talk with friends, their parents’ divorce, or someone passing away. Even if they did not always have control over an event itself, you can see differences in how youngsters deal with it.
“For instance, there was a boy who was bullied because of the clothes he was wearing. For a while, he considered changing his style of clothing. But in the end, he decided he cared less about what the others thought and kept dressing the way he wanted.*”
‘It is positive to think of yourself as unique in some way’
“I also received stories from youngsters in which they described a turning point over which they had no control whatsoever. The event engulfed them, as it were. We know from prior research that youngsters who are in control feel better about themselves.
“Besides the narrative approach, I also used the dual-cycle approach. That is how we discovered that youngsters who reported feeling more in control about the plot of their story focused more, in the next two years, on discovering what choices felt right for them and felt more connected to those choices.”
What do you hope will happen with your findings?
“The most important conclusion of my study is that identity is formed by different jigsaw pieces. It would be interesting to develop a measuring tool that incorporates people’s choices and connections, but also their sense of being unique and their life story. Now these are all separate aspects, but ultimately you learn most if you take all these aspects into account.”
*This example was modified to guarantee the anonymity of the respondents.