You Have an Identity Crisis Because You Think You Have Just One
Jim Carrey, Alan Watts, and traveling back in time
In the late 90s, Jim Carrey was the most famous actor in the world — and also one of the best-paid.
He once pulled out a check on Jay Leno for $10 million for “acting services rendered” that he’d written himself four years earlier. Later, he told Oprah that he ended up making that exact amount just before the deadline in 1995. A little over a decade later, however, after Bruce Almighty and Yes Man (on which he made another, staggering $35 million), he sort of, just, went away.
Less acting, fewer crazy stunts, no more insane paychecks.
He showed up again in 2017, seeming very out of touch at a Red Carpet interview and then spotting a huge beard on Jimmy Kimmel. He’s easing back into the spotlight these days with appearances in Sonic and his own TV show, but still, wherever he pops up, he seems as happy and calm as he seems mysterious and aloof. He’ll go deep out of nowhere, tell an odd story, or remind us that “we don’t matter” while simultaneously talking about “the limitlessness of our souls.”
It all feels like something has happened to Jim Carrey in the time he was away. Of course, things have. But instead of dismissing him as another lost-cause actor, maybe, we can learn something from him. Maybe, we should let Jim Carrey happen to us.
His ideas may be unconventional, but some of them feel more like uncommon sense rather than the crazy antics of a hopeless nutcase. The most interesting, I think, is his dissection of our concept of identity. It begins with his realization that his acting went way beyond the screen:
“As an actor, you play characters, and if you go deep enough into those characters, you realize that your own character is pretty thin to begin with. You have this separation and go, ‘Who’s Jim Carrey? Oh, he doesn’t exist, actually.’ And at a certain point, I realized, ‘Hey, wait a second, if it’s so easy to lose Jim Carrey, who the hell is Jim Carrey?’”
That’s not mumbo-jumbo. It’s an exploration of what might be the most human question of all:
Who am I?
It’s a question we all ask at some point in our lives, and whenever that might be, according to Jim, it’s bound to cause us a lot of headache.
The Many Characters of Jim Carrey
In 1999, Carrey portrayed his idol, the late Andy Kaufman, in Man on the Moon. Kaufman was known for acting out, pushing limits, and extremely physical comedy. Carrey remained so deep in the role throughout production that all behind-the-scenes footage was locked up for almost 20 years. In a 2017 documentary Jim reflects on the experience and deals with his troubles of returning to being his normal self after wrapping up the movie.
He suggests many people are quietly going through a similar process:
“What’s happening right now inside everybody is they’re going, ‘Who am I?’ and they’re depressed. Because they’re trying to hold up an image in the world.”
To describe how this real-life acting feels, Carrey uses an analogy from The Wizard of Oz, a movie in which a supposedly strong character is revealed to be nothing but smoke and mirrors:
“I was depressed when I was trying to be the Wizard of Oz instead of the sweaty guy behind the curtain. But now I know that Oz is a character. I think everybody deals with that.”
If you’ve ever felt tired of being “the good son,” “the sister who steps in to save the day,” or “the guy you can rely on at work,” you know what Jim talks about. Holding up our identity in our everyday lives can get tiring, which is why Jim says he’s trying to let his go. That’s something he discovered in his absence, he explained at the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival:
“It’s a weird little semantic jump that you make, where it sounds like, ‘Well, that’s totally fucking threatening man! I can’t not be me! I built this construct!’ And it’s just ideas. They’re just ideas.”
Because we’re given some of those ideas as soon as we are born, they tend to stick with us throughout our entire lives, Carrey thinks:
“There’s just a relative manifestation of consciousness appearing, and then somebody gave him a bunch of ideas. They gave him a name, and a religion, and a nationality, and he clustered those together into something that’s supposed to be a personality.”
After poking holes into the concept of identity as we know it, Jim then started turning the tables. Instead of looking at all this as a lack of meaning in our lives, we should see it as an opportunity to reinvent ourselves, he says:
“It’s just realizing that you’re complete. Once you realize you’re complete, then this life and everything in it becomes a play of form. Something to toy with, and play with, and make something good out of.”
This “play of form,” as Jim calls it, is something he’s been good at all his life — acting. Playing characters. And “Jim Carrey” was one of many he portrayed:
“They’re all characters that I played. Including Jim Carrey, including Joel Barish, including any of those things. They’re all characters. Jim Carrey was a less intentional character because I thought I was just building something that people would like, but it was a character. I played the guy that was free from concern so that people who watched me would be free from concern.”
Having succeeded in taking a step back and looking at his life from a higher perspective, Jim now deliberately expands the idea of playing characters beyond the big screen. In a way, he answers the big question — who am I? — with a question of his own:
Who do you want to be?
Of course, that one will have different answers at different times for all of us, and that’s exactly the point: you don’t need to play the same character for your whole life. In fact, you don’t have to play anyone at all. But you can choose to.
Surprisingly, science delivers more than one piece of evidence to back this up.
In 1979, Harvard psychologist Ellen Langer gathered two groups of eight men in their late 70s and early 80s for a week-long retreat in a New Hampshire monastery. Both groups were told they would experience “a week of living in the year 1959.” The control group kept talking in past tense and continued to acknowledge the fact that 1959 had happened 20 years ago. The other group, however, had to live, speak, and act as if it actually was 1959. They were time traveling to become their younger selves. Each of the men wrote a biography of their 1959-self, the house was designed in contemporary style, and no talk of anything post-1959 was allowed. Books, newspapers, TV and radio shows, music, it all matched what they had known and seen in that time.
Before the week was over, both groups showed significant changes in how they behaved and carried themselves. In her book recounting the details, Counterclockwise, Langer writes:
Despite their obvious and extreme dependence on relatives who initially drove them to Harvard’s psychology department for interviews, they were all functioning independently almost immediately upon arrival at the retreat. After each weeklong retreat was over, we retested all participants and found that indeed, the mind has enormous control over the body. Both groups had been treated with respect, engaged in lively discussions, and experienced a week unlike anything in their recent past. Both groups also came out of the experience with their hearing and their memory improved. For better or worse — in most cases for better — they gained an average of three pounds each and the strength of their grip increased significantly. On many of the measures, the participants got “younger.” The experimental group showed greater improvement on joint flexibility, finger length (their arthritis diminished and they were able to straighten their fingers more), and manual dexterity. On intelligence tests, 63 percent of the experimental group improved their scores, compared to only 44 percent of the control group. There were also improvements in height, weight, gait, and posture. Finally, we asked people unaware of the study’s purpose to compare photos taken of the participants at the end of the week to those submitted at the beginning of the study. These objective observers judged that all of the experimental participants looked noticeably younger at the end of the study.
Like Jim Carrey, these men played characters in their mind, and their bodies followed suit. When we talk about our perspective shaping our reality, we usually mean things like, “Think positive, and you’ll see the good in a bad situation.” But physical changes following from a solely mental if powerful shift? That’s next level.
This isn’t to say you’ll get perfect abs by pretending you’re a cast member of Baywatch, but it goes to show Carrey’s behind-the-curtain analogy can have serious consequences. If playing an empowering character can make us stronger and happier, having to show up as one we feel is debilitating can damage our physical and mental health.
In a lecture called Image of Man, philosopher and spiritual teacher Alan Watts speaks of masks that resemble the different roles we play in life and society:
“When the curtain goes down at the end of the drama, the hero and the villain step out hand in hand, and the audience applauds both. Because they know that the hero role and the villain role are only masks. And so you see, behind the stage too, there is the green room, where, after the play is over and before it begins, the masks are taken off.”
Everyone you know is wearing these masks.
We perform different selves for different people. Your coworkers see one side of you. Your friends another. Your lovers still another. You’re all of these, and none of these — all at the same time.
However, if we never take off our masks, if we never spend any time in the green room, that can lead to confusion, frustration, anger, and sadness. Carrey might know this better than anyone. In his 1994 smash hit, The Mask, he plays a guy who transforms into a mischievous villain with superpowers every time he puts on a wooden mask. In the movie, a psychologist explains that masks are just more accepted versions of the people we really want to be:
“The truth is we all wear masks, metaphorically speaking. We repress the Id — our darkest desires — and hide behind a more socially acceptable image of ourselves in order to cope with the frustrations of our day to day lives.”
The id is Sigmund Freud’s description of our instincts, our subconscious wants and needs, a lot of which we can’t live out in everyday life due to laws, societal codes of conduct, and other limitations, like money or physical inability. This includes ideas we’d consider “crazy” by our usual standards, such as eating everything on the menu at Pizza Hut, running naked through your garden, or wanting to have sex with the stranger who just passed you in the street. Not succumbing to those is probably a good idea. But it also shows in more subtle yet still painful ways, such as not daring to make a funny comment, forbidding yourself from acting goofy, or complimenting that sexy stranger instead of following them around. Ultimately, if we always suppress who we really want to be, we risk feeling unhappy, regretful, or worse. To quote Watts again, we’ll never know what could have been:
“In reality, under the surface, you are all the actors. Marvelously skilled in playing many parts, and in getting lost in the mazes of your own minds and the entanglements of your own affairs, as if this was the most urgent thing going. But behind the scenes, in the green room, in the very back of your mind and the very depth of your soul, you always have a very tiny, sneaking suspicion that you might not be the you that you think you are.”
One way to reduce this pressure is to take time off, drop your superhero cape, and spend time alone. It also helps to be with people who make you feel like you can genuinely be yourself. But we can’t just be authentic in private, can we? In order to truly be happy, we must learn to be who we want to be in the hustle and bustle of everyday life too. The only way to do that is to embrace the fact that we have multiple identities and learn to manage them properly.
Luckily, science has some tips on how to do that as well.
Learning To Play Our Many Parts
During the middle of the 20th century, sociologists developed a new theory of interpersonal relationships. It’s called identity negotiation. As the name suggests, the idea is that different parties of a relationship will initially settle on “who is who.” This agreement then informs how those people interact. It reduces friction and, for example, allows coworkers to be productive together.
However, our negotiated identities also create expectations in others around how we should behave. People expect us to stay true to our roles — to play the same character. Any time we defy those expectations, the relationship is rattled. The other parties must adjust to the change or conflict ensues. We might not have a formal model of it in our heads, but, deep down, we know this. That’s why we try to live up to our roles to begin with. We don’t want to upend and potentially upset our relationships.
That’s fine for the many different people in our lives, each of whom has a limited set of expectations of who we are to them, but for us as individuals, it creates a lot of stress. That’s because we try to force all our characters into one consistent identity we can justify to ourselves which, of course, doesn’t work.
If you’re in a constant crisis about “who you really are,” it’s likely because you’re unwilling to accept that “you” are actually multiple people.
Here’s an example: Your boyfriend self wants to take the overnight train to surprise the woman you love. It thus rebels against your work self, who thinks you should be a professional and finish that important assignment tomorrow. Of course your silly, I’m-still-a-kid self wouldn’t have either of the two rob you of a night out with your best friends from high school. Two hours later, you’re still at home, now racking your brain in a full-fledged crisis. How do you reconcile all these characters?
The answer is you don’t, because our real dilemma is not so much deciding between these roles at different times, it’s that wanting to be different people at the same time feels wrong. But it shouldn’t because it’s not, and it’s definitely not supposed to drive you as crazy as it does. In fact, having a broad identity spectrum is healthy.
It’s normal for the process of identity negotiation to yield different outcomes in different relationships. Peggy Thoits, a Stanford sociologist, found out that having multiple role-identities reduces stress in both parties of married couples. Her research suggests there’s a U-curve an optimal number of identities at which we can best handle stress from various sources in our lives. A few years earlier, Thoits also found that having too few social identities can lead to isolation because our characters give us existential meaning and guidance in our behavior.
If embracing various personalities is healthy and people expect us to play different roles anyway, then, instead of desperately trying to cram them into one coherent self-image, we should rather learn how to seamlessly transition from one role into another. But how can we do that?
- You can use triggers to signal role changes for certain environments. For example, a “Welcome Home, Dad” sign on your door can help you take off your work hat and put on your family hat.
- Coach Tony created a practice called interstitial journaling that helps transition from one project at work to another with a few lines of writing about your mindset and next task. You could do the same for switching roles, for example by writing down your last thoughts as a painter after a session, and then your first thoughts as a friend who’s about to hit the bar with her girls.
- Try not to worry about violating individual roles so much. When people are surprised by your behavior or say something is “unlike you,” laugh it off, say, “So what?” and explain you’re trying something new. Being a little cocky every now and then won’t just boost your confidence, you’ll also show yourself that your identity is a living thing you can change anytime.
According to identity negotiation theory, we’ll never achieve 100% role-congruence in each of our many relationships, let alone a perfect, uniform picture of all those when we look in the mirror. That’s okay as long as we take timeouts, embrace our multitude of roles as a useful tool, and don’t stress too much about the little details that don’t add up.
Who knows? If we play our parts well, we might even hear the applause when we step off the stage.
How To Be Whole
Who am I? Thanks to people like Jim Carrey, Alan Watts, and others who openly explore the concept of identity in their work and lives, we can learn to better answer this existential question. What’s more, they show us how to ask better versions of this fundamentally human inquiry.
Jim’s message, I believe, is that you don’t need an identity to have a life, but you can choose to take on whichever identity you want. Feeling like a different person in your various relationships can and should be the norm, not something that causes you anxiety and stress.
Research confirms that the changing roles in our lives come with expectations and, sometimes, living up to those expectations can feel like a burden. When that happens, it’s time to take a break or slip into a different role, both of which can counteract this pressure from the outside and ourselves.
On the flip side, successfully navigating character switches can make us happier, healthier, and more relaxed. Doing so requires a strong belief in each current role, and making an effort to consciously manage transitions can help you get there. You can use small habits and environmental cues, a journaling practice, and a cocky attitude when breaking character to accomplish this.
Above all, however, exploring who you are in this life is an invitation to practice empathy. You’re not alone. Everyone is asking these same questions. At times, we’re all sitting in the green rooms of our minds, wondering, doubting, hoping someone might come along and pull up the curtain. Someone like Jim Carrey, who can see us for who we really are when they say:
“The feeling of wholeness is a different feeling than me-ness.”