Wrestling with Identity

TAGS: teenage pressure, identity crisis, xanax, teen daughters, Jesus, culture, validation, social media, Mark Dugdale


As many of you know, I’m a father to three teen daughters. The irony is not lost on me that as a teenager, I embodied the young male traits I now loathe in most teen boys. Yet in a 3 ½ year span, starting 19 years ago, my life radically changed with the birth of these three girls. I confess to feeling grossly inadequate while my girls seek to find their identities, and I contemplate where I may have messed up in their younger years. It’s a difficult season for me as a dad to witness my young ladies at times believe the world’s version of their identities. To some extent, we all wrestle with identity, regardless of age. Various factors come into play.


Secular culture’s approach is not liberating when you’re told that your value and worth hinge upon your self-created identity. Culture says you dream it up but then also must achieve it. Precipitously, success simply inflates our identities and sense of superiority over others, whereas failure deflates it. Untethered freedom to pick our identities is no freedom at all. True freedom isn’t found in the absence of restrictions but rather in the presence of the right restrictions. Let that sink in.

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It’s peculiar to me that many people in today's society elect to do away with the belief in absolute truth, yet as a society, we can’t seem to shake condemnation. If there is no truth and there are no moral absolutes, then why are we so apprehensive and guilt-ridden? Xanax, which is primarily used to treat anxiety, was ranked as the ninth-most prescribed drug in the US. I surmise that the very identities we imagine for ourselves become enslaving because they are performance-bound.

The modern predicament is that although we don’t believe in truth or sin as a society, we find ourselves awfully remorseful simply through our own failure to achieve the identities we espouse. Don’t hear me calling you a sinner. That’s not my point whatsoever, nor is it my job. My point is that even in a culture bent on erasing sin, guilt still exists by our own doing in relation to the identity-measuring sticks we create for ourselves.


The pressure that teens experience today is not all that different in nature from that faced 25 years ago, but it’s certainly 100-fold more intense and immediate. The New York Times has written a number of articles on how we are all obsessing over our identities in search of a core sense of self and validation. I broadly believe that technology, and specifically social media, is at the root of the amplification of the identity crisis and teenage pressure. Everything is at our fingertips and much more readily available and accessible than ever before.


Science indicates that girls experience 15% more blood flow to both hemispheres of their brains in comparison with guys. Male blood flow while lower is also typically pumping to one hemisphere at a time. This phenomenon associates with the reason women on average use 20,000 words daily in comparison with men's 7,000. Sure, exceptions exist, but in general, girls need to talk. If we as fathers aren’t speaking truth into their lives, regardless of their receptiveness to what we say, the rest of culture will do it for us. Do you want Instagram and Snapchat shaping their identities? I’m speaking to myself here as much as anyone. This is why friends and/or community matter so much in terms of identity; regardless of a person’s age.


First of all, I suspect that the worst things ever said about you came out of your own mouth or from conversations taking place in your own mind. Sometimes we are our own worst enemies, but the role that friends and/or the community plays is monumental. Whom we talk to and what we talk about paints the picture of our identities. It’s why surrounding yourself with people who build you up, tell the truth, and are unafraid to be brutally honest matter so much. Never lose sight of the fact that you can trust a friend who wounds you with his or her honesty but that your enemy’s pretended flattery comes from insincerity.

Good friends guard against lies. Besides the harmful effects of creating self-made, performance-based identities for ourselves, believing lies is one of the single most damaging forces to cement our identities on a solid foundation. The quickest way in which to dispel lies is by proclaiming the truth, and herein resides the value of good friends and a solid community. They talk us back from the identity ledge by being honest when we are prone to believe lies. I’ve seen weary, self-defeated individuals embrace their past mistakes and make them their identities. Meanwhile, a good friend will step in and say, “Your past is what you were but does not define who you are.”


The path to change occurs by changing what you worship. You must reorient everything from how you think to where you run when life gets hard. I always say, show me a person’s bank statement and Web history and I’ll tell you what he or she worships. I don’t care if you’re religious. It’s not a matter of IF but a matter of WHAT we will worship. Many are addicted to worshipping the wrong stuff. It’s particularly true of teen girls but also of men my age. You know you’re addicted when you continually return to the same destructive behavior seeking the reprieve you’ll never find.

Without delving into the Christian faith too far, I will say that Jesus did not come to Earth to protect his identity as Lord and King. Rather, he took on a posture of service to people and submission to God. There’s a powerful takeaway here regardless of your religious convictions. Sometimes the best way in which to find an identity is to let go of the one you hold so dearly. It’s why often the world's wealthiest people and most accomplished athletes often find themselves depressed and asking the question, “Is this all there is?”

Bottom Line

Modern culture says your identity is achieved, not received. Whether you’re secular, agnostic, or staunchly religious, your identity hinges on your performance. If you follow the rules, you gain a sense of self-worth. I personally strive to appeal to a higher authority for my identity. Religion, regardless of which one, tells us we must earn our standing. The gospel, on the other hand, says, “In love, Jesus claims you for himself. You’re created in his own image and likeness. He adorns you with dignity, value, and worth. It’s a grace-given identity through adoption into a family; not something you earned.” Therefore, if you didn’t earn it, you can’t lose it. Sometimes you must die to yourself to find your true identity. Dying to self and walking in my God-given identity is something with which I wrestle and contend daily.

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