Building Identity in the Time of COVID19

Building Identity in the Time of COVID19

Wouldn’t it be amazing if we all emerge from our homes knowing more about ourselves and being overall “more than” when this first began?

Girls’ weekend!

My daughter, Kestrel, and I went on our first girls’ trip over President’s Day weekend. We hopped off the plane in Santa Barbra, jumped into our rental pickup truck, and headed to In-N-Out. Kes decided that french fries taste better on the beach so we forced ourselves to resist the greasy treat until our toes hit the sand. It was an amazing weekend. So why do I feel so melancholy when I look at pictures of our sunburned, smiling faces?

It feels like a friend moved away and a piece of my heart moved away with them. That is when it hit me: I am grieving for that lost piece of my identity. I love to travel, anywhere, everywhere, anytime. I even love the messy bits like giving myself food poisoning and Italian train worker strikes. Every time I travel it feels like I find a piece of myself; I feel awake, alive. Especially whn I work with kids, I like to use the language of the movie Inside Out, and in the movie, one of my “islands of personality” would absolutely be traveling alone and with people I love, and right now that island is not getting any power. I am grieving for that part of my identity that I have lost.

My kids are also grieving. A major part of both of their identities is going to rock climbing practice with their team three times a week. For Kess, it’s also climbing competitions, and for my son, Leif, it’s climbing outside. These are islands of their personalities, or identities, that are dark right now. 

Islands of Personality from the movie “Inside Out”

What parts of your identity aren’t getting power right now? What happens when major parts of our identities suddenly go dark? The psychologist Erik Erikson identified 12-18 years old as a stage when children struggle with the challenge of identity vs role confusion — how is this felt by young people? For our kids, our students, our patients, and ourselves, the grief of missing parts of ourselves is very real right now.

Understanding WHY you are feeling sadness, grief, or loss is the first step to feeling better. When we feel grief, our brains constantly scan our world to understand the cause. This can look like irritability, difficulty sleeping, and irrational thoughts. Maybe some of those behaviors sound familiar? When we do the hard work of understanding why we feel these ways, we connect our emotional experience with the events that are causing them. This helps our brains make sense of our current situation instead of feeling confusion and grief. Personally, my grief and irritability are strong enough to force me to do the difficult work of identifying the source. 

If you’re ready to do this difficult work (or if your grief is so strong, you can’t avoid it…), start by identifying “islands of personality.” Maybe this is something you want to explore with your students or patients, or as a family. In the movie Inside Out, core memories are major life events that power characters’ islands of personality. If a you or someone you love is having difficulty identifying islands of personality, you can start by discussing major life events, like getting a puppy or moving to a new home, and use these memories to help conceptualize these islands.

Islands of Personality

After we have a better understanding of our identity or islands of personality, we need to dig into the emotional work of discussing what islands are not getting powered while we are staying safe at home. What parts of our identity are missing in our lives? How does that feel? If you are doing this work yourself or with a loved one, resist the urge to distract, minimize, or ignore the difficult emotions that might come up. YOU DO NOT HAVE TO FIX THE SADNESS. We all need to sit with these difficult emotions so we can understand them and move on. It is ok to feel deeply and to allow children to feel deeply. 

Ok, now that we are all miserable and everyone hates me for ruining a perfectly good day, what next? AFTER, we grieve or feel whatever we feel for the parts of our identity that are now dark, it is time for growth. Time to build! With the right attitude this could be exciting and a good thing. This is the time to think about what NEW core memories we are currently creating and make decisions for yourself, your students/patients, and as a family to intentionally create new core memories to strengthen existing parts of our personality/islands or maybe you have the courage to create a new island. Maybe you are determined to create a new music island or perhaps a new gardening island or a new island of reading books. 

My “island” of new garden beds

Full disclosure: Most days I am not intentionally creating new core memories or building a fabulous new island; honestly, I am often still in the grieving stage. However, there are a few new garden beds happening in my backyard and I dusted off my old 10 speed bike to go for a ride every now and then. Maybe I am creating a few new core memories. And after all this is over, my old islands will go back to shining brightly and perhaps they will have a few new island friends.

Wouldn’t it be amazing if we all emerge from our homes knowing more about ourselves and being overall “more than” when this first began?