Countless times throughout my undergraduate career as a psychology major, I’ve been forced to memorize lists of psychologists’ names and their corresponding theories. These theories are sometimes fascinating and other times mortifying (yes, I’m looking at you, Freud), but they are almost never memorable. Sure, I can generally tell you what Kohlberg’s theory of morality is, or half-heartedly explain what Piaget’s deal was. I’ve never fully understood what was up with Freud, but I could still monotonously recite his psychosexual stages if you really wanted me to.
My point is, none of the details of these psychological theories ever stood out to me. I never felt like I could really relate to any of the developmental stages that these psychologists came up with, be it physical, mental or emotional. That was until last semester, when I was introduced to Erik Erikson.
Erik Erikson came up with the only developmental stages model that is, in my completely unqualified opinion, accurate. It’s called “The 8 Stages of Psychosocial Development” and it’s beautiful. Basically, Erikson believed that there is a psychological crisis paired with every stage of our development into adults. For example, during infancy (under 2 years), we experience a crisis of “Trust versus Mistrust”: i.e., babies crying at the sight of anyone other than their mother and refusing to venture more than a foot away from her. Years later, in adulthood (ages 40-65), we experience “Generativity versus Stagnation”: struggling to feel useful and productive, and instead feeling like we aren’t making our mark on the world.
Naturally, the stage that interested me the most was the one that I fell into: adolescence (ages 13-21) and the crisis of “Identity versus Role Confusion”. Despite being at the upper-end of the age limit (I’m sure it’s flexible), I feel like this is the psychological crisis that I, and the people around me, experience most extremely at this point in our lives.
College is the first time that many of us are not forced to do things: we aren’t forced to go to class, or join clubs, or participate in a sport, or complete a certain amount of volunteer hours the way we were in high school. Ironically, because we don’t have to do anything, the things we do choose to do say a lot about us.
College is like the Instagram feed of our identity; we carefully curate the parts of ourselves we want the world to see and we participate in the things we think represent us. Why else do we change our majors? Why do we join niche organizations? Why do we go to protests? Or start podcasts? Or begin writing for the school newspaper? It’s because we’re trying to figure out who we are. But much like maintaining an Instagram theme, developing an identity is a lot of pressure.
Erikson was right to call this a psychological crisis; I’ve witnessed so many people have breakdowns about figuring out their identity. One of my friends deleted all of her social media platforms because she didn’t feel they were an accurate portrayal of her life. Another friend complained to me about how her childhood bestie seemed to have started copying her entire personality once they both got to college. Yet another friend told me she was unsure whether she genuinely enjoys Beyonce’s music or if she just likes it because her friends like it. All three of these dilemmas exist on different levels of seriousness, but they share the same underlying, slightly cliché question: Who am I?
While that question is overwhelming to think about, I think the important part is that we’re thinking about it. I can’t imagine going through my college years and never questioning how much of my identity is based off the identities of my peers or friends or parents, and how much of it is actually… mine. I distinctly remember when I told my dad that I was minoring in English, and he told me he could never see himself voluntarily taking classes that involved writing essays. Or when I told a friend that I was working as a volunteer on a rape crisis line and she responded with “I would never be able to do that.” It made me feel good to be taking part in things that were sincerely and genuinely my own; it made me feel like an individual.
Do I think I’ll graduate a semester from now having totally “found myself”? No, not really. And honestly sometimes I think the more I question who I am and what I care about, the less clear those things become. But somehow I feel like by being lost, I’m doing something right. And at least according to Erik Erikson, I am.
Faiza Ahmad is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. The Fifth Column runs every other Wednesday. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.