Is The Search For An Authentic Self Worth The Hassle?

Crises stink. They're full of questioning, futile consideration of options that will be discarded, and feelings of being downright confused, lost, and miserable. Such fun. But as we've discussed in the past, identity crises are vitally important to finding your authentic self. No crisis, no true identity. As we've also talked about, many people sidestep the whole crisis issue by adopting the identity of someone around them or simply jumping on the first "self" they think up. I call this path Rent-An-Identity. And as anyone who has been to Rent-A-Center can attest, rentable equipment just ain't as good as the real thing.

Or is it?

The thing is, I've always presented Rent-An-Identity negatively (which is technically, and ho-hum-ingly, called identity foreclosure). In reality, it's not so clear cut. In fact, the psychologist who came up with the term "emerging adulthood" - the man who, in essence, identified the quarterlife crisis before it was named that - doesn't think renting an identity is such a bad thing. He says:

Most scholars on identity tend to see exploration as a necessary part of forming a healthy identity and therefore to portray foreclosure in negative terms. However...some people have a distinct ability they recognize when still young, and they happily build on it until it becomes satisfying work in emerging adulthood. In a way they are fortunate, because they have definitely found a kind of work they enjoy and wish to do as adults, whereas emerging adults who go through a process of exploration may find such work but may not. - Jeffrey Arnett, Emerging Adulthood (2004)

Fortunate? Fortunate? <Pause for me to have a panic attack.>

To throw an even bigger wrench in my argument that an authentic self is worth fighting for (and miserably groping around for), people who have a Rent-An-Identity look a lot like people who have found their real identity. In fact, they score exactly the same on:

  • —Self-esteem
  • Belief that they're in control of life's events (called internal locus of control)
  • Satisfaction with life
  • —Psychological well-being
  • Purpose in life

Even worse, people who have found their authentic self have MORE anxiety and depression then people who have adopted someone else's identity. In other words, identity crises bring up a lot of issues, even after the crisis has passed.

We will stick tog...

Yikes. This isn't looking good for my claim that identity crises are worth having.

But wait, before you click back to YouTube while shaking your head that I've misled you, there's more to the picture. And it's important.

Although people who have found their authentic self look similar to Rent-An-Identity folks in many ways, they don't look the same in ALL ways. And I would argue (actually, I will argue) that the differences are no small thing.

People who have a true identity score higher on:

Big deal, you may be thinking. Are these three little things really worth having a crisis over?

In a word:  yes.

In many words:  absolutely, without a doubt, are you crazy to ever question me, YES!

It's abundantly clear where I fall on the issue of whether the search for an authentic self is worth it, but let me try to convince you.


Or rather, let Aristotle try to convince you (he probably has more pull than I do, huh?). Long before there was Career Avoidance 101, Aristotle was presenting his own set of lectures on the good life. (But his class so lacked a sense of humor.) He spent much of his time considering the highest human good. And guess what he believed it was? Eudaimonic well-being. As in, the type of well-being that people with an authentic self experience. The highest human good. How can you argue with that?

Man, you are feisty.

Alright then, how about something a bit more recent? Contemporary psychologists agree that if you want to be truly happy, you need to find meaning in life, self-actualization and/or eudaimonic well-being, as writer Ilona Boniwell discusses in her terrific article The Concept of Eudaimonic Well-Being. We talked about this ourselves in a past class.

To sum up:

  1. To find your authentic self, you have to go through an identity crisis (a period of searching and questioning).
  2. If you decide to avoid having a crisis (they are messy things, after all), you end up with a Rent-An-Identity (identity foreclosure).
  3. People with true identities and rented identities look a lot alike, but they differ in their sense of living up to their potential.
  4. Living up to one's potential is related, undeniably, to lasting happiness. Nothing else - pleasures, social admiration, money, things, status - can substitute.
  5. So to be happy, you have to find your authentic self, and you have to go through the uncomfortable crisis process to get there.
  6. Eminent developmental psychologist Jeffrey Arnett (quoted above) is wrong. Oh wait, this last point is just for me; it's fun for us lowly psych people to attack the big guns. You know, just because we can.

So did I convince you? Or are you heading down to the Rent-An-Identity-Center tomorrow? I'm warning you:  it's nearly impossible to get those microscopic bugs and dead skin cells out of rental identities. I mean, yuck.

Schwartz, S. J. (2004). Construct validity of two identity status measures: The EIPQ and the EOM-EIS-II.  Journal of Adolescence, 27, 477-483.


Schwartz, S. J., Luyckx, K., Beyers, W., Soenens, B., Zamboanga, B. L., Forthun, L. F., Hardy, S. A., Vazsonyi, A. T., Ham, L. S., Kim, S. Y., Whitbourne, S. K., & Waterman, A. S. (2011). Examining the light and dark sides of emerging adults' identity:  A study of identity status differences in positive and negative psychosocial functioning. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 40, 839-859.


Steger, M. F., Oishi, S., & Kashdan, T. B. (2009). Meaning in life across the life span: Levels and correlates of meaning in life from emerging adulthood to older adulthood. Journal of Positive Psychology, 4, 43-52.

These hippos may look equally happy, but only one is actually satisfied with life. Or something like that. (Photo credit: Thai Jasmine (

Are you really going to argue with this guy? (Photo credit: Wikipedia)