What does it mean to be Aniket Panda? What does it mean to be Ashley Tosh or Jacob Mogey? When we say the words “be yourself,” what happens if “yourself” is not a thing yet? The concept of identity is such a fluid idea, but we all seem to create our own solidly unique versions of it throughout our lifetimes. That’s not to say the process is always easy. The shared pain of adolescence is so popular that coming-of-age movies have always struck a chord with large audiences at the box office. Identity is a universal principle, it is what makes me different from you but also what makes you similar to me. While the importance of identity to feelings of happiness or satisfaction cannot be understated, the pain of identity confusion can affect an individual for years. The time period most associated with this journey though, is a time most adults do not remember fondly: adolescence. Adolescence is a time of growth, but sometimes this period of rapid change leads to an inability to understand our “path” and place in the world. In today’s world and in younger generations in particular, we prefer what is known and planned out to what is unknown or daunting. Identity does not play by these rules. What can seem like a time where you have no idea what you are doing can actually be a gradual process of discovering your sense of self. We are a product of the world around us, but also a reflection of the uniqueness within. Identity is a complicated topic, something that will never remain static but will always help you find your way in the world.
Identity: the unique character or personality of an individual.
It is uniqueness, that sense of self you feel only you have. When you ask the question “Who am I?”, the answer is identity. The way you seek to distinguish yourself from others, no matter in what way, makes up that sense of self. Whether that means dressing in Parisian fashion or becoming vegan, your view of yourself shapes your literal personality too. Your social interactions, family, friends, and significant others all shape who you are. Your interests and activities influence who you’ll be in the future, like becoming a lawyer or learning to play the guitar. And perhaps most importantly, the way that you think about your place in society makes up a lot of who you personally think you are. If you feel society is an evil destructive force and decide to reside in seclusion like Thoreau, that relationship is just as important to your identity as if you decided to run for president of the United States. Identity is the sum of many different parts of a person, but it is also entirely what you make of it.
Identity is the sum of many different parts of a person, but it is also entirely what you make of it.Aniket Panda
So what is this process of finding yourself after all? Simply put, adolescence is a time of rapid change, whether that means revamping your fashion sense or discovering an interest for community service. Even if it may not be a linear path that is the same for everyone, there are striking similarities in how teenagers transition to adulthood. A lot of this comes from the important events of adolescence that change our lives dramatically. Perhaps most notably, high school offers the opportunity to explore different versions of yourself. Different interests, cliques, and goals let teenagers experience what their future life could be like in each of these roles. Leaving for college transforms our sense of dependency and self-confidence, thrusting us into a world of making our decisions by ourselves. The search for meaning or purpose in life is a common challenge that teenagers face during this time. While younger kids see themselves as the center of their universes, the adolescent searches to accomplish something personally meaningful that makes a difference to the world beyond just them. Even though the path to being “someone great” can be difficult and challenging, achieving self-actualization can be incredibly gratifying.
The journey an individual takes to develop their identity though, is too often romanticized and glamorized by authors or directors who never explore how identity confusion can affect someone. Coming-of-age films portray a structured process that makes it seem like everyone follows the same timeline and magically knows for sure who they want to be. Filmmakers force a timeline on their audiences, implying that the only time to find identity is during someone’s teenage years. In truth, people remake themselves many times over, and the challenges of coming to terms with one’s innate truths make finding yourself at 50 or 60 a likely possibility. It’s not only movies though. Society prefers people who create solid identities and those who help others do the same. We ask kindergarteners what they want to be when they grow up, even though they’re decades away from entering the workforce. Society’s refusal to embrace the unknowns of identity confusion and stray from a cookie-cutter path poses the obvious question, why is it a bad thing to not know who you are? We as a society have effectively linked identity confusion to failure, saying it leads to unemployment or impacts mental health. But is our outward apathy towards identity confusion just a reflection of our personal fear of failure? If we keep believing that uncertainty equates to instability, then yes. But identity is nuanced, and so are we. It is more than possible to find solace among the uncertain, and to find ourselves in a world telling us the opposite.
Being comfortable with different versions of yourself is vitally important to discovering who you are most comfortable putting forward. It’s common for teenagers to change their personalities depending on the contexts that they’re in. You probably act differently around your parents than you do around your friends, but your different identities still have some aspects in common. Towards the end of adolescence, multiple roles are merged into one, this sense of self is further developed to become your very own identity. But the continual change and switching before that is once again, too often stigmatized and mistakenly labeled as a mini “identity crisis.” The doubt and fear of being called “fake” that teenagers face can make this period of uncertainty seem a hindrance to identity development. What you will hopefully later come to realize is that every moment of adolescence is equally important in finding out who you are. Your life doesn’t need to resemble To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before for you to define your identity. It is perfectly okay for you to be watching Netflix alone at 3 in the morning instead of attending wild high school parties. Allowing yourself the opportunities to see what identities you possibly would not want to have forces you to be comfortable with the uncertainty of change. Basking in the chaos, laughing at the confusion – these are the moments which may help you the most in understanding yourself.
As a society, there’s a clear need for us to rethink the way we think about identity and identity development during adolescence. We need to become comfortable with an uncomfy truth: identity confusion is not a bad thing. Forcing high schoolers to choose their lifelong careers at 18 years old is foolish at best and harmful at worst. The same goes for younger kids. Raising children up to be someone they don’t necessarily want to be is only going to lead to confusion and unhappiness. If someone’s extracurriculars or school courses seem discordant at first, it may just be the sign of someone exploring multiple interests. When people suddenly change their interests and identity, that is a good thing that signifies progress. Whether it’s changing your college major or joining new clubs, evolving as a person is only possible when you’re free of the constraints of a strict, prewritten identity.
If all of this seems daunting or even scary to you, that’s completely normal. Not only is being confused about your identity a common hallmark of adolescence, it’s beneficial to the process. We have to stop acting like our lives follow a scripted path that gives us all solid senses of self. Wandering aimlessly, switching identities – these are all just stages of development and shouldn’t be treated as negative outcomes. It’s clear that identity confusion is not the goal people are aiming for, but it shouldn’t be something that becomes stigmatized. The unknown is inevitable, and many American adults look back with gratefulness upon times of uncertainty. College seniors report having a much clearer picture of their life than they had in freshman year, and attribute that towards having the space to explore their place in the world. So the next time you feel like you have no idea what you want to do with your life, try to repurpose those feelings of despair to be comfortable with the moments that might help you discover what could be. The truth is that the uncertainty we experience as teenagers is a necessary part of the journey to find identity. It’s time we start acting like that too.
Aniket Panda is a senior at Washington High School. He has lived in Fremont for most of his life, after moving at age 9 from Hoffman Estates, Illinois. This is his second year at The Hatchet and his first year as Editor-in-Chief. He is interested in politics, world affairs, and food reviews. Aniket is also president of Washington Speech & Debate and a SURFBoardE representative. His hobbies include playing with his golden retriever and watching Netflix. In the future, Aniket hopes to study political science or international relations.