The Rocky Road to a Sense of Self

Adolescents spend a lot of time figuring out who they are, and for good reason. A coherent concept of self — based on commitments, standards, and life roles — is associated with positive mental health outcomes. Now, a group of researchers in the Netherlands has fleshed out some of the details about relationships among identity, self, and mental health in young adolescents. The results appeared in the European Journal of Personality.

Seth J. Schwartz and his coauthors collected data from 580 Dutch sixth graders. They took daily measurements of personal identity (the degree to which one has developed a clear, internally consistent bundle of goals, values, and beliefs) and self-concept clarity (individuals’ tendency to feel sure of themselves and describe themselves in positive, consistent terms) during three five-day weeks, which were spaced evenly over six months. Depression and anxiety were also measured at the beginning and end of the study.

Schwartz and his team found evidence of a reciprocal relationship between personal identity commitments and self-concept clarity. Strong personal commitments to specific courses of action appeared to reinforce a sense of clarity about who an individual thought he or she was. In turn, this sense of clarity seemed to help individuals stay committed to their choices. The tendency to ‘reconsider’ or disregard personal commitments in search of something new also affected clarity of self-concept, but to a lesser extent.

Yet reconsidering personal commitments seemed to have a more significant and important influence on anxiety and depression, according to Schwartz’s results. Specifically, fluctuations in levels of commitment reconsideration (rather than the reconsideration itself) predicted future anxiety and depression in Dutch adolescents. Anxiety and depression, however, did not predict future changes in personal identity or self-concept clarity, which suggests that solving on identity- and self-related issues may alleviate mental health problems for some young people.

Based on their findings, Schwartz’s team thinks that striking the right balance between making commitments and reconsidering commitments may be key for adolescent identity development. Some reconsideration of commitments is necessary for healthy development; “However,” the researchers write, “when one becomes ‘stuck’ in the daily process of developing  a sense of identity — especially when one is not willing or able to stop thinking about what choices to make — … negative outcomes may result.” Seth J. Schwartz, Theo A. Klimstra, Koen Luyckx, William W. Hale III, Tom Frijns, Annerieke Oosterwegel, Pol A. C. Van Lier, Hans M. Koot, Wim H. J. Meeus (2011). Daily Dynamics of Personal Identity and Self-concept Clarity European Journal of Personality, 25, 373-385 DOI: 10.1002/per.798

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