My identity crisis 🤕
The story of a crisis that started in my mid-teens, and lingered for over a decade.
Written for all those who have been – or are going through – some kind of an identity/career/life crisis at the moment.
And to those trying to “do their own thing” or otherwise navigating a career change – I got you 👌
I can't remember how, or when exactly it started. I think I had gotten used to living my life in some sort of safe “autopilot” mode and one that – despite others seeming to function and even thrive through is sort of life – eventually came to an undoing.
My identity angst really started in my last couple of years of school, when learning for learning's sake suddenly became learning without the joy. I didn't particularly enjoy the maths and science subjects I chose to study, and I felt under immense pressure to know what it was I wanted to do at university, as a career, in life.
Looking back, it felt like I had to choose and be comfortable with an identity there and then. Something I wouldn't settle into until a decade later.
This is the story of my identity crisis.
I got through the angst of my last two years of school, thanks in part to escaping with Prison Break episodes, PlayStation games, and an online chat/porn addiction that had started unfolding in my early teens. Aside from those subjects I hadn't particularly enjoyed, a largely pleasant school and home life at this time made life manageable – and even happy – at times, despite the big “what do I do with my life?” cloud that hung over me.
After dropping out of uni once, and then a second time, each time studying courses which I knew deep down wouldn't lead to any chosen fulfilling career because, deep deep down, I think I knew I was always destined to do something different and unconventional. I had no idea what that would look like. I also think on some level I had a really hard time figuring out what value university would have for me in my life. I was “academic” (good at working hard and achieving decent grades), and surrounded by similar “academic types” at my grammar school, and I was made to feel that going to university was a certainty. Despite, I felt, not holding much value for me and my aspirations... Which I hadn't figured out as yet, because I'd been given no time to explore the world outside of classrooms and lecture theatres, and see how I would fit into it.
I got my first real taste of the adult working world in a year of working for Unilever in my year between my two university stints.
I quite enjoyed the break from studying and trying to solve is identity crisis and think about what I wanted to do with my life. And then a year later, after dropping out of university for the second time, the option that appeared to make the most sense for me at the time was recruitment.
I learned a lot about myself and grew in confidence from my time in recruitment, coming out of my introvert shell and growing in my potential to introduce myself to, communicate and negotiate with, and develop professional relationships with people. Perhaps more than anything during that time I realised that, whether one cleaned offices for a living or was a Managing Director of/in a firm, people were just people.
I knew very shortly into my first recruitment job that this wasn't “it” for me in terms of my career. It was where I was and needed to be for now, but it wouldn't be forever.
I fooled myself into thinking that I might be able to ride out recruitment and city life until my thirties, and then go through a mid-life career change of some kind.
I was a little surprised when, just three or four years into recruitment, even in an office environment that was largely friendly, the bug to do something else started to bite me.
I really went for it in my last year of recruitment. I think I was on a mission to prove something to myself and to the world around me. Prove that I, Jas, could stick at something and do well at it. I finished the year as a top-earner in the firm, and also one of the youngest in said firm. That earned me the joint prize for Employee for the Year, given to me at the company Christmas Party that year.
To everyone in the company, I was firing in all cylinders that year. The deals were coming rolling in, the company was doing well, and I was starting to have conversations with the senior team about management, and even heading up an overseas office. At the same time, I was starting to read 'quit your job' books and blogs, and try to figure out what was next for me in life. I would sneak books like The Escape Manifesto and Screw Work, Let’s Play!.
I became increasingly burned out and disconnected from my work. My ‘self-help’ reading turned to positive psychology during this time in order to try and solve my own happiness crisis. I wasn’t ‘mentally ill’ at that time (and I hadn’t been diagnosed with depression or anxiety or mental health disorder), and yet I felt so unhappy. I didn’t understand it.
On the trains into work, and in the office, I felt like the only person there who was experiencing this misery and angst. Like the only person in the world. There were times when I wished I could feel less and be more of a robot who was able to survive in this mechanical, soulless corporate daily life I was living.
I was 26 years old and this felt like a quarter-life crisis which started creeping in around the age of 24 though, as I've described, I somehow struggled with an identity crisis from the age of 16 when school life transitioned from learning about things “just for Jas’s fun”, to learning about things “because the rest of Jas’s life depended on it”.
For a long time I called this a “quarter life crisis”. A phrase that seems to have started appearing in the last decade and one which, based on conversations I’ve had and things I’ve read, lots of 20-somethings now appear to be experiencing.
I remember thinking, in my early twenties and feeling like a fish-out-of-water as I would commute into the city, that I was far too young to be having a mid-life crisis.
I even started a blog called the quarter life introvert.
But it was more a crisis that reached a breaking point in my quarter-life (aged around 24), but one that had started to unfold around the age of 16 when forced to think about what to do with my life and my place in the world.
It was as if this 'recruiter' identity wasn't enough for me. Rather, it really wasn’t “me” at all. Parts of it were, perhaps. But big parts of it just really, really weren’t.
I think after that top-earning year in recruitment I had the closure I needed to leap into a new chapter. I secured an offer to study a Masters in Applied Positive Psychology, and I was also going to do a part-time course with an organisation called Escape the City.
That summer felt like a lovely holiday before a bright new chapter of my life.
But here's the strange thing about identity. Up until that point I'd oscillated between student and recruiter. I had an identity, even if it was that I didn’t feel the most comfortable in.
When September rolled around that year, I was in this frightening limbo of having no identity at all. Little ground beneath my feet. Yes, I was studying a Masters, but I was going in just every 3 weeks and I didn't feel like a student. It was pretty unerring and mind-shattering.
During that time, away from the routine of waking up early, commuting and working long days, I suddenly had a lot of time on my own and a lot of time to think. My identity was in limbo, I didn't have the safe and solid ground of a job, and I had a LOT of time to worry and feel and try to figure out my career crisis.
In that year I struggled with the lack of routine, the uncertainty of 'doing my own thing' away from the societal norms. I realised that I needed an element of structure and purpose my life, which is why I ended up starting my first business alongside that full-time Masters. Being with my thoughts for too long on my own wasn't a good thing for me.
After this year of studying and trying to start a business that I hoped would construct my new identity, when both Masters and business came to an end by September of 2016, I felt like I was back at square one and perhaps the most helpless I’ve ever felt.
My mental health started to decline, the helplessness grew, as did my fear of failure and the terrifying thought that I was destined never to be fulfilled in my life. I got increasingly paranoid, even at the gym I would be looking over my shoulder and feel that people were thinking “This guy isn’t right… there’s something wrong with him”, even though I know now that was all in my mind.
I’m grateful for my mum noticing and not resting until I agreed to go and see a psychiatrist. She accompanied me by train to West London to the clinic where I would be diagnosed with mild depression and anxiety, and undergo a few months of 1:1 and group therapy.
I can really relate to others who have shared the same, from folks like Tyson Fury to my good friend Jamie who I first met just a few months ago in a local coffee shop.
For the next 5 years, even though I worked during that time, attempting various business ventures and going back to employed work for a year, the question “So, what do you do?” would absolutely terrify me.
A part of me would dread going to new environments where I could be asked that question (ie. most gatherings), and I would especially dread going to any big Indian weddings where parents would often share (or compare) what their children were up to.
I really felt for my parents at the time. Whilst many other people in the environment could proudly share the degree course or well-thought-of career their son or daughter was doing, I was either doing recruitment (i.e. sales, and so… not so prestigious), or in this state of limbo as I experimented with various business ideas.
One time someone at a friend's wedding a kindly man asked me what I was up to, explaining that my dad (bless him) wasn't so sure and said that I did “blogging”. And so as well as wanting to protect myself from that “So, what do you do?” question, I wanted to protect my parents from that too. I felt their worry and their concern for me, I know they wanted what was best for me and for me to be happy and healthy.
Can you believe it is only in the last few months, less than a year ago, that I've felt comfortable with an identity I have grown into, one that I am happy with and feels like me?
Around the age of 16, I entered into this state of identity crisis, and one that lingered until only last year.
It's in the last year that I've gone from hobby blogger to blogging as a business, and I've also released my book. Last summer I was in an environment of supportive people who, for what felt like the first time, when I was asked what I do I would introduce myself as a blogger and actually felt like I knew who I was and what I was doing, and wasn't put off or terrified by that question.
Depending on who's asking, I say I am a marketer or a blogger or a writer. (Introducing myself as a writer or blogger can lead to... Interesting reactions. From others around me which, on a bad day, can throw me off a little so I give that answer to protect myself more than anything).
I am really happy with what, writing things, creating things, and connecting with and serving people.
It took me a while to build up the confidence to realise that I could do the whole blogging thing, and create a sustainable career as a creative person. That I could be an entrepreneur or, as I prefer to call it, an “indie” or a “solopreneur”.
Somewhere along the line, I found a way of living – of working – that fit.
Don’t get me wrong, I can still waver at times. I can still get caught up in tinking that I’m not a ‘proper solopreneur’ because I’m not yet making a full-time income from my work. Or I might feel disconnected from an environment I’m in at, say, a social gathering – or just like, anywhere – when most of the world around me is doing coventional, employed work.
And yet I am very grateful to be where I am right now. I remind myself that I am exactly where I need to be and I don’t, in fact, need to wrap my whole identity in the work that I do. The work which, I have to say, gives me the freedom to do things I love, and be the master of my time and energy.
I am also immensely grateful to the people around me, who have supported me. From my little family unit (mum, dad and my brother) to friends to strangers I’ve met and connected with who have helped me feel a little less alone, less weird, more connected and less “in crisis”.
I’ve come a long way, and it hasn’t been easy but, truly, I wouldn’t change anything at all.
Some things that have helped me
I wanted to finish the post by sharing some things that have helped me navigate this extended “identity crisis” of mine (and still helps when doubts creep in from time to time):
Not living for my work or putting my whole sense of identity into that This can be difficult! But I make time for myself, different hobbies, and for connecting with others outside of my work.
Looking after the fundamentals That’s sleep, diet, exercise, and such.
Routine As much as I love to have freedom, a routine is so important for me to have. It’s like putting stabilisers on the bike to help it keep gently rolling along the path.
Surrounding myself with other solopreneurs who get it, or in environments I feel I can be myself in When I was in ‘career change’ mode, I’d hang out in supportive communities like Escape the City and WDS; these days, I dip into things like Indie London and I’m super-grateful to have a couple of good friends who are fellow solopreneurs
Writing blog posts / journal entries like this one Digesting and processing helps. It was a conversation with a friend last week that inspired this post, and helped me connect dots and unpack this whole “identity crisis” of mine. I hope others get something from reading this but, honestly, I’ve gotten so much from penning these words myself.
Acknowledging that I am more sensitive than most, and this has led to me experiencing the world a little differently I’m a highly sensitive person, and possibly also an empath, and I know that I experience things differently to other people. This seems to be a common experience for INFP, INFJ and other ‘NF’ personality types
Not getting too caught up on the verbs that describe my job, but rather using verbs e.g. Saying to myself (or others) “I write things” or “I am writing”, as opposed to “I am a writer”. For anyone in a place of limbo or carving out a new identity, this can be really helpful when you aren’t “there” yet. I do feel like a writer now, but five years ago telling myself “I write things” rather than “I am a writer” probably would have been really helpful.
Engaging in therapy A space in which you can show up as yourself, with the right person can be so helpful. (Use your first session or two to feel out the process and, if your therapist/coach doesn’t quite feel right for you, you can always try someone else who may be a better fit)
Trusting in God / the Universe having my back My faith can’t really be measured or explained, but it has helped me for sure.
Conversations with my friends / family / people who can understand me My family have been so supportive. Sometimes it can be difficult to open up and have honest conversations with them; this is where therapy/coaching/conversations with friends and strangers has helped. I’ll probably send this post to my family after I’ve published it.
Thank you for reading. I hope my words have landed well with you, have helped you in some way, or you simply have just gotten to know me – Jasraj – a little bit better.