I’ve studied Erik Erikson’s eight stages of psychosocial development in nearly all of my university classes. After a brief introduction in first year psychology, Erikson’s stages and I came face to face again in my nursing theory class. I’d mostly relegated his theory to the back of my mind until my maternal and child health class this semester.
We started applying Erikson’s stages to the stages of growth and development and the one that I was most intrigued by was stage five: Identity vs. Role Confusion which takes places roughly between the ages of 12 and 18.
I thought back to how I was in middle school and high school and realized that I did indeed have some major role confusion. No one chooses to feel confused, it’s just a natural part of growing up and realizing who you are. Most importantly, it’s about figuring out who you’d like to be.
In order to do that, you need to try on different personas, to see how they fit. These are the humorous phases that we all fondly look back on. Maybe it was the time you insisted your hair always cover one eye. Maybe it was when you decided you would only wear blue eyeshadow. These are the periods of rebellion, peer pressure, and decisions that we’re really in no frame of mind to be making in our teenage years.
I distinctly remember being an incredibly bratty 13-year-old. All I wanted to do was hang out with my friends and chat with them on MSN (oh my god, MSN) when I couldn’t actually be with them. I wasn’t the nicest to my sisters, and definitely not at all nice to my parents. Eventually my irrational teenage brain figured out that I couldn’t be the cool kid at school and at home.
So began my years of compartmentalizing.
I emphasized my boy crazy, Aeropostale wearing self at school with my friends and flipped into the smart, straight-A student at home. I became quite good at managing my split identities. Until high school that is. It all got a little more complicated when I wasn’t satisfied with just two roles – I wanted to try out more.
With one group of friends I was the witty, flirtatious girl, while with another I was the fashion and pop culture guru (obviously I’d left Aeropostale in my past at this point). For a few months I tried to be the mysterious girl who was talking to an older guy, but that obviously went horribly. To my friends from another town I was the wild party girl who was always having crazy adventures. At home I was a goofy teen just making it through high school.
I tried on role after role, and assumed identity after identity. The only thing that remained consistent was my ability to firmly file away each person I was to fully take on the role I was playing at the time. I’d compartmentalized myself into different faces for different groups, making sure no interaction between them could be had.
Slowly I began to ditch the personalities that just didn’t fit and start to put together a single (mostly sane) person. However, I couldn’t stop putting the people in my life into convenient little compartments that I could interact with at my own leisure.
To me it honestly seemed harmless. I thought I was keeping my private life where it belonged and behaving as was expected in particular social situations. It was more destructive than I realized at the time and I ended up losing someone who was pretty important to me.
I was secretive, dismissive, and selfish. I should hardly be surprised that it cost me. But of course, I was surprised. I didn’t even realize I was doing it until it happened to me. I was filed away in a neat little compartment, while the one who did the filing was busy with their other compartments.
As someone who’s done it and had it done to them, I feel I can confidently say don’t do it. Stop trying to keep the different people in your life locked away into different worlds because it just doesn’t work. Those worlds will collide and you’ll be left feeling anxious, guilty, and worst of all, lost.
Try to be consistent in who you want to be. If you’ve got parts of yourself that you don’t like, it’s okay. Everyone does. The only way to keep those parts from hurting the people you care about is to let people in and create a single world where you don’t have to pretend and you can finally relax. It’s a difficult habit to drop, and I still find myself trying to firmly divide up the versions of my personal self. As an obsessive organizer, all I want to is provide order to the chaos of life.
Then I realized… Life is messy. And no one knows how to keep it from being messy, so that puts me in pretty great company.
So, let’s make a mess to remember.
Image Source: Isaque Pinheiro