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For Some, COVID-19 Spurs an Identity Crisis: What Do I Want Out of Life?

Pandemic offers an opportunity to rethink priorities, goals and the future

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A year of pandemic living with a limit on socializing, intense time with spouses and children without a break, working from home, and fewer distractions has many people reevaluating their life's path.

Fold in the significant life changes that typically happen as people age — retirement, empty nests, health issues — and identity can start feeling as nebulous to those in the over-50 bracket as it does to a teenager.

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COVID-19 has pushed many to re-evaluate their lives. Are you where you want to be in your career, with your family, your friendships, your personal growth?

Licensed professional counselor Theresa Summer of Huntsville, Alabama, has heard plenty of people question their identity, but lately she's seeing a new trend.

"In previous times the idea may have been, ‘you make your bed for the first half of your life and then you lie in it for the second half,” she says. “It is more common for a client to come in now and say, ‘I just don't think this is who I am anymore.’ They want a different bed — metaphorically and, sometimes, literally."

Crafting a different future

Christine Lasher, 53, can relate.

"The pandemic has provided a really important stillness for me,” she says. “It's forced me to be with myself in ways I didn't have to before."

Lasher, of Fairport, New York, has always been a caregiver — first to her three siblings when her father passed away at age 37 from a heart attack, then to her four children, for “an ex-husband and a few wretched boyfriends,” and for her mother with health concerns.

But when COVID-19 hit, Lasher decided to start taking care of herself. She began therapy. She started meditating, writing fiction and painting, and lost 30 pounds.

"This is the first time I'm choosing me in my whole life,” Lasher says. “I'm crafting what my future looks like.”

She has also chosen “unequivocally not to be around toxic people” and to surround herself instead with people who are genuinely happy when things go well for her.

"Life is a journey of discovering yourself,” Lasher says, “and every single thing that we do shines some light on who we are and who we are not."

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Mid-life reflection leads to identity questions

Becky Bolen, a licensed master social worker in Powder Springs, Georgia, prefers midlife “reflection” or “evaluation” to “crisis,” for those assessing whether they need to make a change.

Many have followed a path from formative years into adulthood, and have continued on it for decades, either out of convenience or to satisfy outside expectations. And they are ready to shift gears — even if they can't quite articulate it.

Her clients usually describe this period “as a vague unhappiness, a feeling of something being ‘off,’ “ says Bolen. “They can't quite put their finger on it. They just know that they don't like it."

Bolen tries to help by suggesting people make a list of what has brought them joy and meaning throughout their lives. Do more of what's on that lis, and more of those opportunities start showing up, she says

"Just do the next true and right thing. Even if it feels silly or doesn't make sense — especially if it feels silly or doesn't make sense,” she says. “Joy and purpose lie where we least expect them."

When people make life choices based on what others expect of them, they can find themselves faced with a case of mistaken identity, according to Daniel Garcia, a psychologist and executive director of The MendCenter mental health treatment center in Houston, Texas.

Through therapy, they can create the identity they currently desire as opposed to an ideal that was impossible to achieve.

In this way, the coronavirus has allowed — even forced — the opportunity to reevaluate values, priorities, motivations and goals.

With all the fear of death that COVID-19 brings, it also is helping people recognize “the possibility that they are not truly alive to begin with,” Garcia says.

Continuing to ‘push the line'

No matter what age you are, your best years don't have to be behind you. In fact, you're never too old to pivot directions — and, at last, authentically peak.

Doing so takes deep contemplation and rigorous questioning, as well as prudence in not glamorizing where a drastic shift can lead. Be cautious about the decisions you make because reality doesn't always match our grass-is-greener expectations.

"Sometimes [clients] completely overhaul a slowly built life in favor of a different one,” says Summer. The change can be positive, but it can also result in “disillusioned employees, partners and children who did not factor into the new life, and people who have neglected their mental and physical health for decades."

Even those without regrets find themselves taking stock and reformulating in later years.

Washington, D.C.'s Chaka Freeman has been a self-described “gym rat” for decades, but last year, as he approached 50, he more purposefully carved out time to concentrate on every aspect of his health: diet, body, spirit and home life.

Doing so brought him peace and made him realize “who I was and what I did not want.”

It also has made him feel younger and more authentically himself: “It's almost like it took 50 years to really figure out how to be me."

Robin L. Flanigan is a contributing writer who covers mental health, education and human-interest stories for several national publications. A former reporter for several daily newspapers, her work has also appeared in PeopleUSA Today and Education Week. She is the author of the children's book M is for Mindful.

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