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Navigating a Lifelong Identity Crisis and Finally Finding Happiness in Myself

“I did not have an internal sense of self. It didn’t matter how much I accomplished or how many people I helped. I only measured positive outcomes by how others perceived and recognized me or my actions. The sooner we let go of labels, expectations, or the pain of past experiences, the sooner we will feel joy in our hearts.”

Hello! Who are you?

Hi, I’m Richard R. Becker. I’m an author living in Las Vegas.

I’ve lived here a long time, but I’m not a native. My grandparents raised me for ten years in Wisconsin. When my grandmother started to lose her battle with cancer, it was decided I would be reunited with my mother, who had remarried and had my sister. We moved to Las Vegas in the late 70s, early 80s by way of Minneapolis.

I left Las Vegas immediately after high school to attend college in Southern California before transferring to the University of Nevada, Reno. I eventually moved back in 1991.

It wasn’t my first choice, but I was able to start a wildly successful writing services and communication firm that worked with thousands of companies and nonprofits. Some of them were even Fortune 500 accounts.

During this time, I’ve concurrently worked as a journalist, communications director, and professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. I’ve also served on a state commission and currently serve on a city commission. Two years ago, I began my literary career with a collection of short stories. More recently, I’ve launched a debut novel. 

I’m married and have two amazing children. My son recently graduated from college and began his career in Reno, Nevada. My daughter is enjoying her senior year in high school. She serves on the student council and plays travel softball. I help out, too. I’m the assistant coach of her high school softball team.

As a family, we love traveling, art museums, and live theater. I also have interests in fitness, hiking, horseback riding, parks, and photography.

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I am definitely a positive person who has joy in my heart. I’m very grounded with who I am as a person and the choices I’ve made to get here. It feels like it took forever, but I’m starting to live the life I adore — one I could have never imagined!

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What is your struggle and when did it start?

I’ve lived with a chronic identity crisis, which sometimes manifests as anxiety and depression. I struggled with it for as long as I can remember. 

An identity crisis is generally defined as a period of uncertainty or confusion in someone’s life, most likely triggered by a trauma. In my case, I’ve moved from one trauma to another for the past 50 years, applying partial Band-Aids along the way. 

It doesn’t matter how successful you are. It doesn’t matter how valued others say you might be. It doesn’t matter how many accolades you receive. You still feel like you are failing, unloved, and worthless — like the bottom will drop out after every success and everything will be lost.

My biological father died in a car accident when I was two years old, which is why I lived with my grandparents. My mother, who was 17 when she had me, wasn’t equipped to raise a child and abandoned me in their care while she figured it out. 

It was an at-risk household. We were poor, and my grandmother was dying of cancer the entire time I lived with them. To make matters worse, I was born with club feet. It contributed to early social and educational challenges that stunted my ability to ever feel like I belonged anywhere. 

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When it seemed my grandmother would die, my mother and her new husband asked if I wanted to visit them for the summer. The visit wasn’t a vacation. It was permanent, and my grandmother died a little more than a year later. I was frequently told my grandmother was only hanging on to care for me. So when I moved away, she lost her will to live. 

Living with my mother was a disaster. I was provided for and, in some ways, benefited from moving into something more akin to a middle-class family. But the trade-off wasn’t worth it. My mother believed that my grandmother had spoiled me.

She feared I would turn out like my father, whom she resented. She harbored animosity toward me for ruining her life as a teenager, and after taking me into her household as a ten-year-old.

She set out to break the fragile sense of identity I had cobbled together. Her psychological abuse included long periods of silent treatment, frequent room confinement (once for a month, with everything stripped from the room), public humiliation, threats of being sent to juvenile detention camps without cause, demeaning talents, taking possessions, manipulating other family relationships, and generally dismissing me and my feelings because I had no value. What was worse was that I believed I deserved all of it. 

My primary motivation for attending college was to move out as quickly as possible. I was terrified I wouldn’t be accepted. What I didn’t know was the damage would follow me throughout my life, constantly trying to prove that she was wrong — and more correctly, trying to prove to myself that she was wrong. Because honestly, I believed her. I was worthless and wouldn’t add value anywhere or to anyone.  

How did this struggle make you feel at your worst moments?

There was this idea that my father’s car accident was not an accident — that he purposefully veered off the road in Florida at high speeds and hit a tree so hard that the body couldn’t be identified. It wasn’t out of the realm of possibility. He had attempted suicide before, driving a car into a wall. 

Growing up with the notion that your father may have committed suicide puts that option squarely in your lap. As a teenager, I engaged in self-harm, risky behaviors, and contemplated suicide. I often felt alone, sad, and guilty for things beyond my control, including being alive and a burden.

I didn’t think anybody would miss me if I wasn’t around. I was scared because my mother had diminished the one talent I thought I had, which was an artistic talent. I had no faith in my abilities. I didn’t think I would outlive my father. He died at 19.

College wasn’t much different. I outlived my father, but I was still living two lives. In one life, I was working hard to pay my way, making new friends, and maintaining excellent grades. In the other, I played a part, got into fights, and drank until I blacked out. Even after college, I felt like I was chasing success and failure at the same time.

Nobody knew how I felt. Most people only saw me as one of the most driven, self-assured people they knew. Their belief in me only made me feel worse because I was certain I would let them down. It was only a matter of time. My only reprieve was alcohol. I drank the pain away.

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Was there a moment when you started to turn things around?

My initial reaction to this question was to say no. There was not a single moment when things started to turn around for me because there were several pivotal points in my life, independent traumas, that were important steps in my climb toward salvation.

But there was a crystallizing moment when everything came together. I was diagnosed with cancer ten years ago. A few months before surgery, I came to this revelation that the quantity of time we have is not as important as the quality. 

We always want more of it. We rarely use it wisely. And most of us sell it for far too cheap.

It was also the first time in my life that I looked at myself — what I had experienced, overcome, accomplished, and shared with others — and recognized that I had done enough. I had lived a full and ultimately rewarding life. I wanted more time with my wife and kids, sure. But I was satisfied with myself, not as a measure of some success, but as a person.

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What I didn’t know at the time was how much I needed to find this resolve. All the trials I had endured, books I had read, and mentors I had trusted. All of it, along with surviving cancer, gave me the strength I needed to weather what came next.

We lost four family members over the last decade — the most challenging of which included a battle for guardianship to save my paternal grandmother’s life (which failed) and a subsequent struggle to preserve her legacy (which partly failed).

As if that wasn’t enough, as those battles ended, I had to step up and help my mother transition to assisted living after she suffered a major stroke. While I had previously forgiven her, new wounds were inflicted. But I quickly forgave her for those too. 

What steps did you take to overcome your struggle?

Developing a solid identity took years, partly because I didn’t know that was what I was doing. As a result, every step felt like overcoming the struggle until a subsequent trauma would destroy my progress. 

I may have found a resolution sooner had the solutions come quicker. But because I hadn’t identified the problem, I suppose they couldn’t. 

The first bit of advice that helped me came from a colleague. He was a mentor in the communication field named Keith Sheldon. Shortly after incorporating my business, I doubted my identity as a new executive. 

Keith was instrumental in teaching me that we are not our labels. There wasn’t any difference between the freelance writer I was and the entrepreneur I became. It might sound simple, but it’s a challenge for many people.

We have this image of the perfect spouse, parent, employee, or whatever, but we never feel we can measure up to that ideal person. But people don’t want the ideal spouse or parent or whatever. They want the best for us, not some label we’ve adopted. 

Keith wasn’t the only mentor I was blessed to have crossed my path. During one family crisis, stress shaved 30 pounds off me in three weeks. While some people might be happy about that, I was already lean. So, I hired a personal trainer named Nelson Ellis, Jr. to help me properly rebuild my health.

After a few weeks of venting during our workouts, he suggested I take a break from all the problems going on when I was at the gym. I listened, and it gave me a safe place for the first time in my life. 

During another personal crisis, after discovering a good part of what I was told about my childhood was untrue, I began picking up little bits of wisdom from various authors. One of the first to significantly impact my life was Thomas Hora, the founder of metapsychiatry.

His book Beyond The Dream and others helped me find a foundation to build upon. Along with Hora, I also read Ask The Awakened by Wei Wu Wei and On Having No Head by Douglas Harding. 

The latter two books derive their ideas from Zen Buddhism, Taoism, and other Eastern philosophies. Surprisingly, reading them helped me reconnect to my faith as a Christian. Faith has become an essential cornerstone in who I am today and why I carry joy in my heart. 

Looking back, it’s easy to see how each of these things became a pillar in my life: intellectually, physically, and spiritually. All of them are so important in finding peace, assurance, gratitude, and love. 

Have you shared any of this with people around you in real life?

This is the first time in my life that I have openly shared the story about my struggle with anyone. When friends, family, or colleagues read this article, I suspect most will be shocked. Even with friends and mentors who have helped me, I limited what I shared and when I shared it because it ran contrary to the identity I projected. 

When feelings of vulnerability and betrayal are the norm, opening oneself to risk doesn’t come easy. I can only talk about it now because I don’t feel like I have anything to lose or that anyone can hurt me knowing what I experienced. I’m hoping that being open with my struggle will help other people who feel confused about who they are or uncertain about their value. 

I recently wrote a debut novel, Third Wheel. It’s fiction, but the protagonist and I do share some life experiences. Specifically, I used my childhood as his framework. It was challenging and liberating at the same time. In the book, the character learns that it is never too late to change direction. The question is whether or not he is able to do it in time. 

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If you could give a single piece of advice to someone else that struggles, what would that be?

Properly identifying the problem is a pivotal part of overcoming any struggle. I spent many years believing that my treatment growing up was deserved and that my fragile identity was just indicative of being deficient. I used to joke about it — defending how I was treated by my mother as evidence of something being wrong with me. 

Only after I spent years confronting symptoms did I eventually recognize the problem. I carried so much self-doubt and sought affirmation because I did not have an internal sense of self. It didn’t matter how much I accomplished or how many people I helped. I only measured positive outcomes by how others perceived and recognized me or my actions.

The sooner we let go of labels, expectations, or the pain of past experiences, the sooner we will feel joy in our hearts. There are many ways to lighten the load. Meditation, contemplation, communication, and forgiveness can all play a role in recovery. Don’t wait. 

What have been the most influential books, podcasts, YouTube channels, or other resources for you?

I have a go-to list of books that I sometimes share with other people who are struggling to find themselves. Collectively, they helped me shed the labels assigned to me in the past and the labels people prescribed for me in the future. We don’t need any labels.

  • Beyond The Dream by Thomas Hora. It helped me learn how to live life as more than a nonparticipating observer. There is truth to his thesis that all problems are psychological, and all solutions are spiritual. How we choose to see the world directly influences how we feel about it.  
  • Ask The Awakened by Wei Wu Wei. It taught me that the easiest way to get rid of a negative self-view is to recognize that there is no “self” — at least not one defined by trite labels like a “good son” or “successful person.” 
  • On Having No Head by Douglas Harding. It helped me understand how what we allow to appear in our consciousness is how we experience the world — unless we start to understand how to look inside ourselves first. There is more to us than our behaviors. 
  • The Philosophy of Andy Warhol by Andy Warhol. There is a piece of wisdom in here that I always found comforting. He mentions that all of us have painful experiences. So what? It’s a great reminder that the past doesn’t have to influence our future. 
  • “What Do You Care What Other People Think?” by Richard P. Feynman. He is an exceptional example of a Nobel Prize winner who always blazed his own path and never took what others laid down first as fact. He also reminds us that the more we know, the less we know. 

Where can we go to learn more about you?

The easiest place to learn more about me and connect is by visiting my Biosite, which includes links to my author page, blog, website, and most social networks. You can also look for my novel, Third Wheel, on Amazon and anywhere books are sold.

💡 By the way: If you want to start feeling better and more productive, I’ve condensed the information of 100’s of our articles into a 10-step mental health cheat sheet here. 👇

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Hugo Huijer AuthorLinkedIn Logo

Founder of Tracking Happiness, with over 100 interviews and a focus on practical advice, our content extends beyond happiness tracking. Hailing from the Netherlands, I’m a skateboarding enthusiast, marathon runner, and a dedicated data junkie, tracking my happiness for over a decade.

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