Life is constantly changing, sometimes subtly and slowly, and sometimes on a seismic scale. As the world around us evolves, our thoughts and feelings shift. And as our thoughts and feelings change, so do the ways we relate to the world. Around and around it goes.
I think, therefore I am.
I am, therefore I think.
Though we often think of ‘who we are’ as being fixed, our identities grow and evolve in the same way our physical selves are ever changing. We live with ourselves 24/7, so we don’t always see how the change because it’s subtle and slow. Though these changes can give us pause when we take a step back and look at them, they don’t strike us at the moment because they are incremental and we can easily accommodate and adjust to them.
For example, when I look at pictures of myself from 10 years ago, I may think, “wow, when did I get so old?” but I’m able to look at myself in the mirror on a day-to-day basis without hurdling myself into an existential crisis.
But sometimes, life changes are significant enough to cause drastic shifts, like becoming a parent, losing a loved one, getting sober, getting a diagnosis, and the list goes on. These changes can shatter your sense of self and create a web of loss that quickly splinters in and around you.
In the past, we’ve specifically outlined what identity loss is and how it relates to grief in our article I Don’t Know Who I am Anymore: Grief and Loss of Identity. Today, we’re going to continue exploring the topic by looking at the intersections between change, grief, and identity loss. These concepts intertwined because each can be the cause or effect of the other.
Change, Identity Loss, and Grief: 8 Considerations
1. Change for the better still causes grief.
It’s important to note, even desperately wanted or needed changes (like getting out of a toxic relationship or making a healthy lifestyle changes) can cause loss. When changes are net-positive, people are often ashamed to admit they are anything but grateful. But we’ll remind you, time and again, our experiences are complex, and people can feel two things at once. So even if you feel you’ve changed for the better and you love your life, you can still grieve what you had to change or give up to get where you are.
2. Change makes you feel out of control.
Sometimes change is due to external forces out of your control—for example, someone else making a big decision that impacts you or getting laid off of a job. Changes such as these can cause identity loss related to your sense of self-efficacy and confidence. Whereas you felt you were in the driver’s seat of your life before experiencing the change, you now may feel ineffective, incapable, and powerless.
3. Changing your life and identity sometimes means losing your friends.
Sometimes the people you surround yourself with are the people who share a similar lifestyle to yours. And when your life changes, you may suddenly find that you have little in common with some people. As a result, you may make the sad but healthy decision to stop hanging around certain friends. On the other hand, people you thought your were your friends with may decide to stop hanging out with you, possibly leading to feelings of rejection and abandonment.
An example of this is when someone quits drinking. In many instances, the sober person will have to stop hanging around their old drinking buddies to protect their sobriety. But beyond this, they may find people stop inviting them places because (a) they only had drinking in common and (b) their friends are uncomfortable hanging around someone who’s not drinking.
4. You feel misjudged and (mis)labeled.
Sometimes an identity loss or change can feel a little more ambiguous. Something significant has happened that’s impacted how you think and relate to the world, but you are also still the same in many ways. You know all your nuances, but most other people don’t, so they may label and make assumptions. For example, someone with cancer might only view them as a sick person. Or a new mother might feel her boss now sees her as less capable and focused.
5. People keep expecting you to be who you were.
Somewhere towards the other end of the spectrum is the struggle of feeling defined by who you were before you experienced a change in identity. People who knew you before may have a difficult time accepting that you’re different. While you’re just trying to adjust to your life as the person you are now, they continue to treat you like you’re the person you were before. For example, people grieving the death of a loved one often say they feel friends and family are waiting for them to go back to “normal.” In reality, they have changed and will never be the person they were before their loss.
In these instances, it may be helpful to step back and ask yourself:
- Does the person know that I’ve changed?
- Have I shared with them how their behavior makes me feel?
- Are they doing their best but struggling to get used to a change that I’ve had longer to adjust to?
- Are they intentionally ignoring how I’ve changed despite knowing how I feel?
- Do they know their behavior makes me uncomfortable, but they continue to do it anyway?
If your answer to the last two questions is “yes,” check out our article on grief support gone wrong.
6. You struggle to find people who connect with who you are today.
It can be hard to make friends and connections as adults. So many people simply want a person or people who “get” them. And when you’ve gone through a significant identity-changing event, it can take a while to feel like people see you for you again (if they ever did). Sometimes it can help to deliberately seek out people who’ve been through the same experience you have. And it always helps to keep an open mind about people because you never know who you might connect with.
7. You miss the “before-you” sometimes.
Whether you’re happy in your life or not, it’s okay to miss your life and who you were before. Maybe you miss how you used to be able to run an 8-minute mile, or perhaps you saw the world as safer and more carefree place when you were younger. Of course, there are things you will grieve about yourself and your past life; it’s only human.
The one thing we’ll caution you against is negatively comparing yourself to the “before-you.” It’s not fair to compare the person you are now to an idealized version of the past. If you haven’t noticed by now, loss is inherent in change. And living authentically can require an immense amount of courage and vulnerability. So, of course, the new you comes with its challenges and hardships. But that doesn’t make the ‘you’ you are today any worse than who you were before.
8. You know who you aren’t, but not who you are.
A common but complex experience is simply feeling that you don’t know who you are anymore. Change has forced you to shed pieces of yourself that you may have once thought were integral to who you are. Now you realize these pieces don’t fit, but what does? And where do you fit? When you consider how much of your young adult life and beyond goes into constructing an identity, you realize what a difficult task rediscovering yourself can be. So, again, we recommend reading our article Grief and Loss of Identity. Also, the below activity may also help anyone who has a few minutes to scroll through the simple steps.
We invite you to share your experiences, questions, and resource suggestions with the WYG community in the discussion section below.