How the Pandemic Changed Our Sense of Self

fter more than two years of pandemic life, it seems like we’ve changed as people. What has changed? In the beginning, many wished for a return to normal, only to realize that this might never be possible—and that could be a good thing. Although we experienced the same global crisis, it has impacted people in extremely different ways and encouraged us to think more deeply about who we are and what we’re looking for.

Isolation hampered our ability to receive in-person social feedback. This affected our sense of identity. For decades, scientists have explored how “the self is a social product.” We interpret the world through social observation. In 1902, Charles Cooley invented the concept “the looking glass self.” It explains how we develop our identity based on how we believe other people see us, but also try to influence their perceptions, so they see us in the way we’d like to be seen. What happens to the sense of self when we isolate ourselves from others?

These are the four changes that occurred because of the pandemic.

Our identities were less secure when lockdown began, but our identity has since been rebuilt.

Our self-concept and ability to cope with crisis was tested. Guido Alessandri, along with colleagues, published a December 2020 study. An International Journal of Theory and Research on Identity, measured how Italians reacted to the first week of the COVID-19 lockdown in March 2020 by evaluating how their self-concept clarity—the extent to which they have a consistent sense of self—affected their negative emotional response to the sudden lockdown.

Self-concept clarity represents “how much you have [clearly defined who you are] in your mind … not in this moment but in general,” explains Alessandri, a psychology professor at the Sapienza University of Rome. People generally have high levels of self-concept clarity. However, people with personality disorders or depression often experience lower levels. “The lockdown threatened people’s self-concept. It was surprising to see that self-concept clarity increased in people who were locked down. [were] more reactive” and experienced a greater increase in negative affect than those with lower self-concept clarity.

In Alessandri’s study, people eventually returned to their initial stages of self-concept clarity, but it took longer than expected due to the shock and distress of the pandemic. This reflects a concept called emotional inertia, where emotional states are “resistant to change” and take some time to return to a baseline level. At the beginning of the pandemic, we questioned what we believed to be true about ourselves, but since then, we’ve adjusted to this new world.

People were often forced to assume new roles in society. However, the degree of discomfort that they feel depends on their perceptions about how significant this role was to them.

Our identities don’t stay the same. There are many roles we play in our lives, both at work and home. These social roles naturally shift over time. But in isolation, many of our social roles had to involuntarily change, from “parents homeschooling children [to] friends socializing online and employees working from home.”

In September 2021, an article in The New Way of Life showed how we adjusted to the new lifestyle. PLOS One found that people who experienced involuntary social role disruptions because of COVID-19 reported increased feelings of inauthenticity—which could mean feeling disconnected from their true self because of their current situation. People found it difficult to change their daily routines in crisis situations and still feel normal.

But the study also uncovered that “this social role interruption affects people’s sense of authenticity only to the extent that the role is important to you,” says co-author Jingshi (Joyce) Liu, a lecturer in marketing at the City campus of the University of London. If being a musician is central to your identity, for example, it’s more likely that you would feel inauthentic playing virtual shows on Zoom, but if your job isn’t a big part of who you are, you may not be as affected.

People can feel more at ease with their identity and accept it without having to go back to their former self.

Our mindsets and our control over what roles we play in different aspects of our life have made a difference to how remote learning and online work has affected us. “We are very sensitive to our environment,” Liu says. “[The] disruption of who we are will nonetheless feed into how we feel about our own authenticity.” But we can do our best to accept these changes and even form a new sense of self. “[If]As part of my identity, I included virtual teaching. [may not]For me to be authentic I must change my behaviors to get back into classroom teaching. I simply just adapt or expand the definition of what it means to be a teacher,” she adds. Similarly, if you’re a therapist, you can expand your understanding of what consulting with patients looks like to include video and phone calls.

Many people made voluntary changes during the pandemic. They chose to have children, relocate to another country or start a new career, and also changed their roles. Ibarra (2010) and Barbulescu (2010) have shown that while these role shifts may initially feel inauthentic, eventually they can lead to a sense authenticity as people take steps to become authentic to themselves or to start a new chapter. “The authenticity will be restored as people adapt to their new identity,” Liu says.

Our identities have changed, so it’s important to be authentic with how we present ourselves online and offline

We have more power than we may realize to navigate a crisis by accepting that it’s OK to change. But it’s important to act in a way that’s true to ourselves. “People have a perception of the true self … They have some idea of who they truly are,” Liu says. “When you lend that to the [looking glass self]My belief is that people feel the most unauthentic when they perform to other people in a manner that is not consistent with who they really are. [thinking and feeling internally],” which can happen on social media.

In isolation, when we didn’t have access to the same level of social feedback as normal, social media in some cases became a lifeline and a substitute for our self-presentation. This pandemic inspired many to make space for the Internet, and to be more dependent on it to improve their social lives. “[Our unpublished data shows] that time spent on social media increased people’s sense of inauthenticity, perhaps because social media entails a lot of impression management [and] people are heavily editing themselves on these platforms,” Liu says.

With all that we’ve experienced, many of us have fundamentally changed as people. “In the same way which the first lockdown required us to [self-regulate] and adhere to new social norms, these changes that we’re experiencing now require another self-regulation effort to understand what is happening,” Alessandri says. “We don’t expect that people will simply get back to their previous [lives]—I don’t think this is possible. I think we have to negotiate a new kind of reality.”

It will be easier for us to accept the fact that we are not the same people following this crisis.

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