“How do I go back to college? I don’t know who I am anymore!” Thus spake a profanity-spewing puppet in the popular musical “Avenue Q”. While the musical is intended as a fun poke at the identity crises of the 21st century, it strikes on some surprisingly poignant issues. When we start out our lives as independent adults at university we tend to have a pretty clear idea about who we are, what we want and the direction we expect our lives are going to go in. We are at our most absolutely self-assured as we look at the world around us quietly assured that when we start our careers for real, the world won’t know what hit it.
Then life happens.
For the past few years, the UK has experienced a graduate job crisis, with many graduates leaving university and taking up non-graduate roles often with relatively low pay and long hours. In an age where the country pays the highest tuition fees in the world, it’s a recipe for disillusionment. While all graduates may start their careers with slightly naive expectations, it’s also fair to say that they should expect their incredibly expensive tuition to facilitate a better job and wage than something they could have walked into had they left school at 16.
Thus, it’s not uncommon to undergo an identity crisis in your twenties and thirties as the cold hard reality of 21st-century life conflicts so harshly with the package of ‘work hard, get good results, get a good job, attain happiness’ you were sold as a kid. Moreover, as you find yourself working long hours and coming home from work spent and exhausted, you’ll find your joie de vivre erode as you have less and less time to do the things that make you feel like you. The upshot of all this is that you don’t know who you are and you’re struggling to (pretentious as it may sound) find yourself.
Why don’t I feel like me anymore –
Firstly, it’s important to realize that you’re not doing anything wrong. These feelings aren’t an indication that you’re failing. It’s simply a matter of brain chemistry. Feeling that we’re not the same person we once were or that we’re somehow weaker and less worthy than our younger more optimistic selves is a common interpretation to a neurological process that occurs in the shift from education to work.
In youth and early adulthood our brains are in a constant state of learning. This means that we are making millions of neural connections on a daily basis. Everything feels fresh, new and exciting because we are experiencing it for the first time and our minds are paying close attention which is why our earlier experiences feel more real and vivid. If we find ourselves in monotonous, dull or repetitive jobs, our brains make enough connections to learn how to do the job then go into ‘cruise control’ mode. Thus we feel like the days (and subsequently weeks, months and years) go by quicker and we lose touch with the version of us that we were when we were younger and more excited as our brains were in a constant state of learning and absorption.Our emotions also play a large part in the way our brains work. If, for example, you grew up in a household where your parents and siblings were quick to anger, your brain will accept anger as the psychological status quo and ‘hard wire’ your personality for anger. Likewise, if your new job makes you stressed and irritable on a daily basis, your brain will adapt, making it easier for you to become stressed and irritable (which it now sees as your default values).
Our emotions also play a large part in the way our brains work. If for example, you grew up in a household where your parents and siblings were quick to anger, your brain will accept anger as the psychological status quo and ‘hard wire’ your personality for anger. Likewise, if your new job makes you stressed and irritable on a daily basis, your brain will adapt, making it easier for you to become stressed and irritable (which it now sees as your default values).
This perfect storm of factors can lead us to become someone different (and quite possibly someone we don’t particularly like or want to be). This problem is also exacerbated by the time of year.
Seasonal Affective Disorder –
The onset of Autumn is a problematic time for most of us as the days grow colder, shorter and more dismal. Waking up to pitch black skies and being deprived of sunlight and greenery (things scientifically proven to make us feel better) is a recipe for Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). This problem is exacerbated when one walks through town to see freshers bouncing around full of life and purpose and reminding us of the people we used to be.
Don’t worry though! You can get the old you back.
How to reclaim your sense of self –
If the you that you want to get back is a you that was making lots of neural connections, it’s partly a case of making new ones. While this is easier to do in youth, it’s still fairly accessible in adult life:
- Learn a new sport – Learning a new sport will not only help you create new neural pathways, you’ll also get in shape and make new friends with an entirely new social group. This is a perfect opportunity to re-invent yourself and be who you want to be. Get yourself over to theiconic.com.au, get yourself some new trainers and get active. You’ll appreciate the extra endorphin spike, too!
- Get creative – There are few things more likely to help you find yourself than expressing yourself. If you’ve always been into drama, dance, music or the visual arts then now is the perfect time to get back into the habit on your own or (ideally) as part of a new group.
- Learn to play a musical instrument – It’s scientifically proven that learning a new instrument can literally keep you young. It slows the effects of aging on the brain, improving your memory as well as your hearing. It’s also a great creative outlet that will keep you creating new neural pathways and feeling younger and more inquisitive.
- Re-engage with your friends – Modern living tends to turn is into isolated, insular creatures, experiencing the world through the rose-tinted window of social media. This can lead us to feel like everyone is so much happier and more active than us. Get out there and get actively social. Reconnect with friends from school, college or uni and have a great time. You’ll feel the old you bubble to the surface and the years positively melt away when you’re having a great time with old friends.
Love, Megan Anne
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