Who Am I, and Who Can I Be? An Invitation to Living Alive Phase I

Living Alive Phase I is a fabulous opportunity to explore and commit to who you are and how you want to live. This article by Toby Macklin looks at the program through the lens of James Marcia’s model of identity statuses.

By Toby Macklin

Living Alive offers exciting opportunities to delve into the questions “Who am I, and who can I be?” A useful frame for thinking about those questions is provided by James Marcia, a Canadian developmental psychologist who taught at Simon Fraser University. His model of four identity statuses offers a way of thinking about the process many people work through in Living Alive Phase I (and in other Haven programs such as Come Alive).

It was Erik Erikson who coined the term “identity crisis,” proposing (for the first time in his 1950 book Childhood and Society) that the central challenge of adolescence is to resolve a tension between identity achievement and identity confusion. Starting in the 1960s, James Marcia elaborated on this by suggesting that adolescence is better understood as an opportunity to both explore and commit to an identity, in areas such as intimate relationships, friendships, gender roles, politics, occupation, and religion.

While Marcia’s work focussed primarily on adolescence, it also applies to later life, especially when a person is confronted by other forms of crisis, or circumstances that lead them to question their identity and reassess their life. People often come to Come Alive and Living Alive Phase programs in situations of this sort – experiencing separation, loss of loved ones, health challenges, disruptions at work, depression, crises of confidence, loss of purpose, and so on. Marcia described these situations as states of disequilibrium.

Marcia discusses four identity statuses – ForeclosureDiffusionMoratorium and Identity Achievement – and characterizes them by the levels of exploration and commitment present in each, as shown in the chart below.

Here’s a quick overview. You might recognize yourself, now or at different times in your life, in some of these statuses.

Foreclosure (high commitment, low exploration): This is what happens when a person takes on a “ready-made” identity, with little or no exploration of alternatives. For example, a young person will go into the same profession as a parent, or take on their political or religious beliefs. As Marcia put it, “the individual about to become a Methodist, Republican farmer like his Methodist, Republican farmer father, with little or no thought in the matter, certainly cannot be said to have ‘achieved’ an identity, in spite of his commitment.” Marcia also discussed “negative foreclosure,” where a person takes on a fixed identity in direct opposition to what is expected.

Diffusion (low commitment, low exploration): People in this state attempt to sidestep the whole question of self-definition by avoiding both exploration and commitment. They are amorphous and tend to be socially isolated. They may not experience much anxiety, because they do not care about much; if they begin to care more they will either move towards Moratorium (see below) or become increasingly disturbed, negative and self-destructive.

Moratorium (low commitment, high exploration): These people are actively exploring themselves and their environment, searching for an identity. Marcia says they “report experiencing more anxiety than [others] … The world for them is not currently a highly predictable place; they are vitally engaged in a struggle to make it so.” In Living Alive Phase I you’ll have opportunities to increase your “tolerance” for anxiety, since being in this struggle can be a springboard into greater aliveness, courage, and commitment.

Identity Achievement (high exploration, high commitment): These people have experienced a crisis, have explored, and have made commitments. Marcia suggests that they have developed “an internal, as opposed to external, locus of self-definition.” If you’ve already done a Come Alive, for example, you may recognize this as a recurring theme in The Haven models.

Do you recognize yourself in this model, in the ways you have reacted or responded to crises at different stages of your life? Are you facing a crisis right now? While crisis and disequilibrium are inevitable facts of life, it’s also unfortunate that our attempts to deal with them –  perhaps by shutting down or acting out – often make things worse. Potentially, however, these crises can lead to periods of “reconstruction,” which Marcia called moratorium-achievement-moratorium-achievement or MAMA cycles, a growth process developed through both exploration and commitment. This is where Haven programs can help.

Living Alive can help you see the places you have been in your life with understanding and compassion. It is an invitation into an exciting, relational process of exploration, commitment, and self-definition. In Erikson’s scheme of life stages, successful negotiation of such crises of identity opens the door into a life of intimacy, care, and faith. For many people, Haven programs have been vital steps on that path.


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