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Identity Crises and Substance Use

It is not uncommon for individuals to experience an identity crisis before, during, or after substance use. Why does this happen and what type of crises are experienced? How can they be worked on?  Identity crises can be developmental or otherwise, so let's look at both.

Developmental Identity Crises

Formally, an identity crisis may occur during adolescent development and will either resolve successfully with a strong understanding of identity, or it will not. If it does, the individual will have selected this consciously and it will help guide decision making in years to come, particularly as development continues. If not, the individual will have difficulty committing and making decisions, which may lead to a lack of direction and motivation. This is not uncommon in substance use. The hard decisions that must be made and carefully selected are not, while the decision to use substances is. Substance use is highly rewarding to the brain so obviously substance use is something that will be normal in this group of lost individuals. Once this damage is recognized, the counselor can utilize appropriate intervention to help the individual make changes they need to make and learn skills to correct for this deficit.

Other Types of Identity Crises

Less formally, identity crises may occur as an individual struggles to resolve who they really are but do not accept, or change who they are when their current state no longer serves their best interest. Sexuality is an identity crisis state that occurs at times with substance using individuals. They may have acted out sexually to obtain money or drugs, which could lead to some very difficult emotions. Or, the individual may have been struggling to accept their true sexual identity for years and suppressing this with substances. A change in sexual identity may also threaten religious identity, which further exacerbates this problem. What if accepting a new sexual identity means the religious denomination will no longer accept the individual?

While there are many identify crises such as this that may or may not involve substance use, some are very specific to substance use. If an individual has been using substances their whole life and now they are attempting to stop, this will mean giving up an identity, and adopting a new sober identity. For someone who has abused drugs and alcohol for 10, 20, or 50 years, this may be a huge challenge.  Furthermore, if the individual sold drugs, this is another identity in and of itself. Being the connect can become a big part of who someone is and can be quite challenging to let go of.

Existential Therapy and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

One extremely useful way to counsel individuals who are experiencing identity crises is with existential therapy (ET). This type of therapy is a philosophical journey with counselor and client partnered together. Major life issues can be explored and ultimately resolved using this approach. ET can also be combined with cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) to facilitate a life changing experience. At the root of identity crises may be negative belief systems or cognitive distortions that are keeping the individual trapped in a false identity, or from exploring a new possible identity. We highly recommend if you are questioning yourself and your life on a deep level like this that you seek professional help. 

Independent Recovery

At Independent Recovery, we have much experience helping individuals resolve identity crises. We see these substance use-based identity problems constantly, but we are experienced with dealing with the host of co-occurring crises that may occur. If you identified with this discussion and want to learn more, head on over to our Get Started page and let us know how we can help! We understand that oftentimes exploring these issues is scary and may feel vulnerable. We will not pressure you into exploring these issues, but are here to support you in your journey if you do!