April 10, 2023

GUEST ROOM | Demystifying Derailment

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We all know someone who claims that they are a new person after some life change. Whether it’s a breakup, weight loss, switching majors or graduation, this person insists they are not who they used to be. Recently, psychologists have coined a new term to describe this trait: Derailment. Emerging research has demonstrated a close relationship between derailment and symptoms of depression, anxiety and more.

Derailment is defined as one’s “perceived changes in identity and self-direction.” It’s commonly viewed as a temporal discordance of the self, meaning that individuals high in derailment may have a hard time making meaningful connections between who they saw themselves as in the past and who they see themselves as now.

To better understand derailment, let’s use switching majors as an example. Imagine a student, Emma, who is passionate about helping children and decides she wants to be a pediatrician. She comes to Cornell as a pre-med biology major but realizes that chemistry makes her miserable. This leads Emma to switch to ILR where she studies law instead. If she is high in derailment, she may have a hard time drawing connections between who she was as a pre-med student and who she is now as an ILR student. She may claim that her life is now on a completely different track and may even feel like a different person than she used to be. However, if Emma is low in derailment, she would likely be able to connect her present ILR self to her past pre-med self. She would likely recognize that she still values helping children and could, through studying law, help improve the foster care system, for example.

It’s important to note that the content of the life change isn’t as important as the person’s perception of it. For example, a person low in derailment may claim that they’ve always been an artist, even though they were pretty bad at art until high school. In spite of this, they still considered it a part of their identity — past and present. Though this person’s objective artistic ability has changed, their subjective identity as an artist has not. In other words, the change in their artistic abilities is not important when assessing their level of derailment. The most important aspect is how they perceive the change in themselves (or lack thereof).

So, when does derailment seem to matter? In low-stress situations, people high in derailment are just as functional as those low in derailment. The problem seems to arise when a person high in derailment is put into a stressful situation. In general, people high in derailment tend to report higher levels of stress, increased anxiety and depressive symptoms, as well as a much steeper decline in positive emotions compared to those lower in derailment. In fact, recent studies support the notion that stress and derailment have a snowball effect, wherein each one may cause the other to grow.

But why are inconsistencies in people’s perceptions of themselves related to such negative outcomes? Though more is being discovered, one idea borrows from a simple, yet widely accepted stance in the field of human development and clinical psychology: Stability is better than instability. More specifically, stability in one’s perceived self has been shown to be an indicator of good mental health. Since college is such a high-stress environment, it is especially important that students are aware of the potential consequences of derailment. Though this may sound concerning to those high in derailment, some important points may provide comfort.

For instance, not everyone high in derailment is doomed to the negative outcomes listed above. While research has shown derailment to be strongly correlated with those outcomes, there are other factors (e.g., personality traits, environments and interventions) that researchers are uncovering which may buffer against the consequences of derailment. For example, a recent study found that when people wrote about the continuity of their life goals, their sense of derailment was significantly lowered. This suggests that one’s sense of derailment may be decreased through intentional practices of exploring and highlighting meaningful connections between one’s past and present selves.

College can be a time of extreme change and instability, so it is especially essential that we recognize the continuity of ourselves through our time at Cornell. For instance, some people may join a sorority/fraternity and begin acting differently. They may begin to see themselves as superior to their old friends as they climb up the so-called social ladder. Believing you are a new person is a dangerous game. If you join a Greek organization, get rejected from a summer internship or switch your major, you are not a different person. It is healthy and natural to change and if we all graduated as the exact same people we were as freshmen, that would be extremely disappointing — we can’t tie our identity too strongly to variable aspects of our lives.

Given the universality of derailment — whether personally experienced, observed in others or both — it seems to be an important, yet overlooked aspect of the human experience. Therefore, there is a clear need to better understand its role in our lives. From what we know so far, derailment can lead to negative outcomes, but it doesn’t have to. If people high in derailment can approach this phenomenon proactively, working to underscore the common threads of who they’ve always been, they may decrease the risk of its negative effects.

Tobie Bertisch is a sophomore in the College of Human Ecology. Comments can be sent to [email protected]. Guest Room runs periodically this semester.