Identity: Exploration and Commitment

This post is another one where I pretend I'm a psychologist.

Another interesting concept I read in Carrie's papers that relates to identity is called exploration and commitment. It has to do with feeling safe and secure enough to find your way in life. I honestly don't really remember much of what the literature says about it, but let's just pretend I do.

There are tons of stories about losing your way and finding it again: Hansel and Gretel, Anchorman, Where's Waldo. As we grow older, we increasingly have to find our own way in this world. Some are better at it, some are worse. Exploration and commitment are two big themes in this part of life's journey. They have to work in unison, but some people are bad at bouncing back and forth between the two. We understand this concept in smaller cases, but sometimes we don't extrapolate it to larger, more important parts of our lives. For instance, we know how to follow GPS directions when we search for a new destination, but sometimes we don't know how to follow our internal GPS directions, even when it screams at us. That is, some people explore too long, others commit too quickly, and yet others choose neither. Some find the healthy balance and prosper.

If we explore too much without committing, that stage is called Moratorium. If we commit too much without exploring, then we're said to be Foreclosed. Finding the right mix is when you reach Identity Achievement. Neither exploring nor committing is called Identity Diffusion.

Moratorium is what you think of in the sitcoms and rom coms where the one person has commitment issues and constantly wants to date around until they find the right person. This person is addicted to the power of choosing without realizing how having too many choices is restricting. Certainly there is a power in being able to make decisions, but this kind of person can't stick with their choices. They'll eat at a restaurant and make the waiter wait on them as they continue reading every list item on the menu. Though we all take time to make decisions, these kinds of people simple can't live with the choices they make, so they delay even making them. They could be perfectionists, or maybe they are afraid of the unknown. They love ice cream shops because they can try everything, but they'll probably fill up on the samples without paying for a scoop size and flavour. You'll be able to pick them out by their stalling at a certain stage of life which happens to offer them a lot of choices, but I'm sure you've already thought of someone by now.

Those that are foreclosed are able to commit, but it's marked by a decidedly short exploration period. They stick to the usual, don't like to try new things. They find a relationship and get married within a month. Sometimes parental influence restricted them as children from making their own choices, so they only stick to what is allowed to them. In Asian youth, we find these students in medicine, engineering, and law. That isn't to say that Asian doctors, engineers, and lawyers are foreclosed, but the ones that have their career paths predefined by their parents or culture find themselves where they are expected by others. There is a frightening absence of questioning from the foreclosed where others have stopped to consider their options. 

The third kind of person is in the middle of both pendulum extremes. You'd think that would mean they are the most balanced, but in fact, they are the least. They aren't advancing at all because they aren't looking or choosing. They haven't even entered the ice cream shop yet because they can't leave the house. They are the most risk averse. I remember when working a minimum wage job, we'd sometimes play cards during our 15-minute breaks. One co-worker wouldn't join us, which I thought was because he was shy. I invited him to play with us once, but he said he didn't like playing cards. Perplexed, I asked why. He responded that he didn't play cards because he didn't like losing. Even though the stakes were so low (we played for sugar packets), he wasn't capable of taking the risk, so he stuck to a safe world where he didn't have to feel bad.

The best place to be is not in finding yourself in between both extremes, but it's in finding yourself at either end on a regular basis. You explore, then you commit, explore, commit. I take after the example of a Sahara desert ant. When they leave their nest, they run a little, then spin in a little circle like a John Deere lawn mower. Then they keep running and stop to do a pirouette. When they find what they're looking for, they run in a straight line back to their nesting hole. What they're doing each time they spin is to measure the angle of the sun at each stop so they know which direction their nest is in. Coupled with their internal pedometer, they also know how far away they are from home. This example demonstrates the perfect balance of exploration and commitment. Knowing where you're exploring and how much you're committing to that direction, you're better able to find your way home.

Maybe your home isn't so safe and secure, so you're happy to continue exploring and committing without knowing who and where you were when you started your journey. However, knowing where home is helps by anchoring us. Understanding your past informs where you are, which indicates where you should go.

Time for a personal example. When Carrie and I first met at 16, I already knew that I wanted to marry her. However, I wasn't ready to date her right away because of school and other time commitments, so we were just "together" long distance for three and a half years. Tired of waiting around for me, she broke things off, and why shouldn't she have? We spent the summer of '08 broken up, but she gave me another chance in September. Three months into our relationship, I casually mentioned marriage, but that caught her off guard. I spent our breakup considering what I wanted in life. Funny enough, I wasn't ready to date her until after she didn't want to have anything to do with me, and dating for three months, she wasn't sure if she wanted to be with me long term. What I'm saying is that the pendulum swung for me both ways, and quite far too. You can see how my position changed dramatically. There are numerous examples of us reconsidering if we wanted to be together, with many mini-breakups and hours-long phone fights. Even in marriage, that's a battle we both fought, wondering if we had made the right choice. Switching rapidly and frequently between exploration and commitment, that's what some call "the struggle."

My point isn't that we need to constantly switch indefinitely between pursuing what we want and wondering what that really is. It means that in pursuit of our long term goals, we need to also make short term goals. If we want to get to the top floor of a building, we could pick a certain set of stairs, escalators, or even the elevator. However, sometimes it's crowded, sometimes there are spills that put flights of stairs out of commission, and sometimes elevators are broken. Along the way, you'll wonder what you even wanted on that top floor in the first place. Is it really worth all the trouble? Then you cross the floor or check the directory. Something something stairway to heaven.