We face many choices every day. What will we wear? Will we try to work out? What will we eat for breakfast, lunch, and dinner? Over time, adults get used to their patterns and habits, and these daily questions may start to feel a little less acute or stressful. However, for adolescents and young adults, these decisions hold a lot of weight. During this phase of life, there is a major focus on identity development. These questions: what to wear, where to work, etc. are all tied to a deeper question. Your young adult probably frequently wonders: who am I? For young college students trying to decide which classes to take, which roommates to live with, and which extracurriculars to join can feel overwhelming. Why is this?
Research suggests that the decisions we make every day reflect our sense of self. (For more on this topic, check out this paper in the European Review of Social Psychology.) Psychology Today published this article last year about the links between authentic decision-making and identity. They review two constructs of self: a ‘true’ self and a ‘false’ self.
A person’s true self is related to their goals, interests, and values. You might, for example, feel that maintaining your healthy lifestyle is a core tenet of your life and your identity. Perhaps being a mother is also a central aspect of who you are. Living in environments that allow for freedom, autonomy, and exploration of your true self can help you develop a sense of who you are and what you want. This is one of the great things about college: your children can have space and opportunities to explore.
However, exploration can also be a bit scary. Not every decision will go well, feel comfortable, or have great consequences. As the Psychology Today article points out, individuals’ decisions “do not occur in a social vacuum”. The choices that your young adult might make at school are heavily influenced by the social norms of those around them, either in person or on social media. College students want to belong! The opinions of their peers matter a lot to them as they strive to stay a part of the group. So, why might college students struggle so much to make decisions? Why is it a bit easier to make decisions based on your own values as an adult? When you’re still growing up, you may not have a sense of who you are yet. You’re still trying to figure it all out and, in the process, your need to belong influences both your behavior and your decision-making.
This is where the idea of a ‘false self’ comes in. Needing to make some big decisions (think about choosing a major!) while learning about who you are and trying to fit in is a big challenge! As college students try to juggle it all it is very possible to develop a sense of self that isn’t actually congruent with who they really are. Many kids this age can feel like they’re living a lie; they try to comply with the expectations others have of them because it seems too difficult to be who they really are. For example, developing a ‘false self’ is common among children who are LGBTQ+, who may feel that this identity isn’t a viable option and, therefore, they choose to remain in the closet. Living an inauthentic life takes a toll. Research suggests that living with a false sense of self every day might be bad for your well-being.
Many moms of new college students worry about the decisions their kids are making and their overall well-being. Are they drinking too much? Are they safe on campus? Do they eat nutritious meals? Are they living the life they want to live? This sort of ‘mom-worry’ is something I’ve seen quite a lot in my experience both as a coach and psychologist. Do you have a ‘big kid’ who is in the throes of rapid identity development? Reach out if you want support or if you want help thinking through how best to support them!
Beyens, I., Frison, E., & Eggermont, S. (2016). “I don’t want to miss a thing”: Adolescents’ fear of missing out and its relationship to adolescents’ social needs, Facebook use, and Facebook related stress. Computers in Human Behavior, 64, 1-8. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.chb.2016.05.083
Postmes, T. S., Haslam, A., & Swaab, R. I. (2005) Social influence in small groups: An interactive model of social identity formation. European Review of Social Psychology, 16(1), 1-42. https://doi.org/10.1080/10463280440000062
Shell, M. D., Shears, D., & Millard, Z. (2020). Who am I? Identity development during the first year of college. Psi Chi Journal of Psychological Research, 25(2), 192-212. https://doi.org/10.24839/2325-7342.JN25.2.912
Strayhorn, T. L. (2018). College Students’ Sense of Belonging. https://doi.org/10.4324/9781315297293