Lost in Transition: The impact of identity on psychological well-being during periods of significant life change

Author: Shannon DeSilva

DeSilva, Shannon, 2022 Lost in Transition: The impact of identity on psychological well-being during periods of significant life change, Flinders University, College of Education, Psychology and Social Work

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Life transitions are a core part of the human experience. The ease or difficulty of these periods can have long-term consequences for our life satisfaction, our well-being, and our engagement with our new identity. Consequently, there is a need to better understand the nature of transitions, and the factors that make one individual more vulnerable than another to psychological decline. Our present understanding of transitions, and the factors that determine how detrimental they will be, come from a variety of disciplines including social psychology, health, business, and anthropology. There are parallels within these transition perspectives, both in how they explain the core features of a transition experience, and in the factors theorised to cause psychological distress.

In this thesis I draw on parallels across these theories of transitions and integrate them with our understanding of social identity change to provide a novel means of identifying individuals at risk of psychological decline. The proposition developed throughout this thesis is that an individual’s vulnerability during a transition can be captured through their perception that they have ‘lost’ their past and/or future sense of self. This idea is inspired by the concept of liminality which first appeared in the anthropological work of van Gennep (1960), which suggests that during a transition an individual is ‘liminal’ as they exist between who they were and who they will be. The conception of liminality has been expanded upon and now appears in a wide variety of transition related contexts, such as workplaces, healthcare, and bullying. In this thesis, the perceived loss of connection to one’s past and future is operationalised as a subjective loss of self (SLS).

In this thesis subjective loss of self captures the perception that the individual feels disconnected from their past or future selves. I evaluate SLS with respect to core features of transitions, such as social isolation and group membership changes to explore the pathways by which an individual maintains well-being throughout a transition. Consequently this thesis suggests and explores pathways between the Social Identity Model of Identity Change (SIMIC) and SLS, which provides a more complete picture of how a transition affects an individual. Finally, I look at transitions involving grief to better understand how individuals adjust to a transition after losing an important part of their self-concept and look at whether this loss can precipitate an unending and continually debilitating transition.

Overall, the findings suggest that subjective loss of self provides a means to understand how an individual is coping with a transition, to a degree that is separate and in addition to their group membership changes. Additionally, it provides a proximal measure of transition vulnerability which could allow for earlier identification of those at risk of having a difficult transition experience. This thesis highlights the value in understanding and capturing an individuals’ perception of themselves whilst within the transition and emphasises the importance of social psychology to positive life transition outcomes.

Keywords: social psychology, self, identity, transition, psychological well-being, liminality, life transitions, social identity model of identity change, SIMIC, subjective loss of self,

Subject: Psychology thesis

Thesis type: Doctor of Philosophy
Completed: 2022
School: College of Education, Psychology and Social Work
Supervisor: Lydia Woodyatt