Why living in a “state of unsettlement” is necessary for our growth

“Adult experiences should take certainties apart; complexity should make human beings less categorical, less certain”

The Uses of Disorder, Richard Sennett

Being open-minded is a buzzword nowadays, but what relevance does it actually have for ourselves, in our own lives? It’s easier now than ever to live in our comfort zones – to surround ourselves with people who think similarly to us, who agree with us, and don’t pose a challenge to our carefully constructed selves.

We’ve all heard that this is bad, that echo chambers further political divides. But something I’ve been learning about recently, is that this isn’t just about politics – it’s also about our own growth as people.

We learn to exclude disorder and painful disruption from conscious consideration”, and over time, we create a purification process for experience, so that the “threatening or painful dissonances are warded off to preserve intact a clear and articulated image of oneself and one’s place in the world.” [1]

Richard Sennett, in his book The Uses of Disorder, suggests that this process of closing ourselves off from challenging experiences starts in adolescence – it’s the first time in our lives where we can consciously decide how we want to experience the world. We are freed from other influences (parents/caregivers) and it’s up to us to decide how we want to continue living – it’s “the conscious attempt of the growing human being, for the first time, to formulate rules or patterns of the relations between a self-image and an image of the world outside the self.” [1]

But this is also a time of great change – a lot of new things are happening quickly, so quickly that there’s not enough time to process and integrate these experiences into our sense of self – “the time scales of growth are not in harmony.” [1]

And this overwhelms us – everything we thought we knew is being shaken up, nothing feels certain anymore, and everything is constantly changing.

So, logically, Sennett suggests that adolescents close themselves off from experience to “acquire a certain immunity to the pain of conflicting and tangled events that might otherwise confuse and perhaps even overwhelm them” – an attempt to control the uncertainty. [1]

They cut themselves off from the world around them, by defining themselves in a rigid way, making themselves “fixed objects, rather than an open person liable to be touched by a social situation”, in a way that encourages experiences that are similar to what they already believe in as a “weapon against the outside world” with its threat of the pain of uncertainty. [1]

On some level though, we do see the flaw in that – that if we are limiting our experiences, we are missing out on some points of view and can’t know everything.

Yet instead of opening ourselves up to the potential of pain and confusion again, we convince ourselves that what we have experienced can be applied to other aspects of life too – we attempt to explain the future totally, completely, all at once, in order to gain control over the outpouring of new life and new possibility” and learn toassume the lessons of experience without undergoing the actual experience itself. [1]

We basically decide that what we have experienced can be extrapolated to the rest of life and presume to understand what the experiences we’re blocking out will teach us, instead of actually going through them ourselves.

The thing is, Sennett says this is normal in adolescence – it’s a coping mechanism. He suggests that the problem starts when we don’t lose this attitude as we get older, and instead bring this into our adult lives.

He argues that adult experiences should “take these certainties apart; complexity should make human beings less categorical, less certain.” [1]

And this lack of certainty should be liberating.

But because uncertainty scares us, because taking apart these uncertainties means exposing ourselves to pain again, we choose not to do this, and we live in the bubble of the world we have created.


Sennett suggests that our capacity for change – “the material for change, change in one’s feelings, one’s beliefs, one’s desires” – is then weakened in life because “new events or experiences are being measured in terms of how well they correspond to a pre-existent pattern”, this pattern we have constructed ourselves. [1]

The ultimate result of this is that “experiences that don’t fit our preconceived feelings and sense of place [are] deflated in [their] truth value” – we basically see things that don’t fit in our worldview as
unreal, because they don’t fit the “our set of beliefs, likes, and dislikes” that we take to be ourselves. [1]

And it’s easier to see something as ‘not true’ or ‘not valid’ than real, but different – something we might actually have to consider seriously.

So, eventually, we learn to judge experiences and other points of view by how much we already agree with them.


A large part of forming an identity is based on our interactions with others, followed by a reflection about who we think we are according to these social exchanges. Naturally, this creates an idea of “the Other as that against which one defines themselves” – an idea which is perhaps not too problematic if it’s just used as a reference point to make sense of who we are. [2,3]

Another fundamental human need is the need to belong to something larger than ourselves, usually to a group. [4,5,6]

When these two facets of identity are combined, groups are naturally formed, of people our identities match up to and we feel we relate to. Again, this is not necessarily a problem. However, this also leads to the idea of ‘In-groups’ and ‘Out-groups’.

In-groups are people who we see as similar to ourselves, created out of “a sense of connection and…empathy” and to whom we also extend empathy to.

Out-groups on the other hand are seen as ‘different’ and empathy is not just reduced but feelings of aggression even emerge.

And so, instead of personal identities being constructed, group identities centred around differences are created, which give a reason to form divides based on supposed, or real, differences. [7]

Yet now, when so many things are polarised into groups, including political stances, it’s much easier to simply ‘Other’ people we disagree with, instead of even considering their experiences. Returning to Sennett’s ideas, it’s easier to decrease the ‘truth value’ of sentiments belonging to groups we ‘Other’.

We’re all guilty of this – this is not a problem unique to the Left or the Right, or the LGBTQIA+ community, or those who aren’t, to POC or white people. We all tend to identify with sameness and are scared by difference.

And as explained before, it is easier to do this, to live in a way that blocks out viewpoints that challenge our own, certain, constructions of the world.

Yet if everything around us is telling us that the world is made of two sides, of opposites, that we must choose one side or another, then naturally, we will choose a side, or just disengage because we don’t feel we can be unsure, and not choose. And if we then choose not to engage as frequently with people in the ‘Othered’ group, how can we really understand people, beyond the stereotypes we already think they portray? How can we have a true understanding of other people in the world?

We all have biases, created out of the stereotypes we’re exposed to every day. (Check out the Harvard Implicit Bias test to see what biases you have!) [8]

These are not consciously created – we don’t decide to think certain things about people – but when we are consistently exposed to similar stereotypes, without much exposure to different people, or members of the ‘Othered’ group, it’s much easier to base our understandings of people on these stereotypes.

But as said before, Sennett suggests that taking apart our fixed understandings of the world is liberating for us – it gives us our freedom back, as individuals. It means that the life we live is fuller, because it’s not just confined within what we’ve always known and can control. It brings novelty back into our lives – the novelty of new experiences, new people, and new worldviews. It makes life more interesting.

Yet how, or rather, why would we want to do we open ourselves up to the potential of uncertainty again, and the pain that that could cause?


The first part is about an adolescent identity crisis – “the conscious attempt of the growing human being, for the first time, to formulate rules or patterns of the relations between a self-image and an
image of the world outside the self.”

Identity crises are confusing, and not something we enjoy at the time but Erik Erikson, the developmental psychologist who came up with the idea of identity crises, suggests that they happen throughout our lives, and are a good thing.

James Marcia, who developed on Erikson’s ideas, created the idea of ‘identity statuses’ – 4 ways to resolve identity crises. [9]

There are 2 axes: commitment and exploration/crisis. Combining points on the graph, we reach 4 identity statuses that describe different responses to identity crises.

Commitment refers to how strongly one feels about their identity and having a firm sense of self.

Exploration refers to how much someone is questioning themselves and attempting to reach a decision.

High commitment and low exploration create a “foreclosed” identity status. This is when someone has a firm sense of self, but they never went through a serious process of questioning their commitments – they’ve stopped themselves from thinking about alternatives to the identity they’ve been given, likely going along with the identity that has been placed upon them, whether that’s societal or parental.

Low exploration and low commitment create an “identity diffused” individual – someone who is neither questioning their identity, nor is committed to one. “Identity diffused” people tend to not consider who they are or who they want to be, and instead live to maximise pleasure and avoid pain.
As fun as this sounds, identity diffusers tend to lack self-esteem, be less autonomous and feel isolated from the world. [10]

High exploration and low commitment create an individual in “moratorium”. This means that someone is thinking hard about who they are or want to be, and are exploring their identity, but aren’t ready to commit completely. This is the stage where individuals are in the crisis and are attempting to resolve it – being uncertain about most things but are exploring options. Although it is a confusing place to be, leading to higher rates of anxiety than other statuses [9], Marcia noted that this stage is very necessary and is related to healthy self-esteem, and being more secure in ourselves. [11]

Identity achievement happens when we’ve both explored our own identity by ourselves, and have also committed to the identity – we’ve considered as many options as we can, and are firm enough in our conclusions about those options that we can say that whatever path we choose, we have consciously chosen – it is our own decision, not influenced by others.

The general sense is that identity achievement makes us the most happy – the identity we have committed to is something we know we’ve chosen, and we’ve entertained other possibilities enough, and made a conscious choice against them, that they don’t pose a threat to our sense of self. Identity achieved individuals tend to be “strong, self-directed, and highly adaptive”. [9]

In contrast, people with a foreclosed or identity diffused status tend to have lower self-esteem, lower moral reasoning, be less autonomous and more affected by others’ perceptions. [9]

Returning to Richard Sennett’s ideas – if we learn to block off experience, and purify what we allow into our lives, we can’t reach identity achievement. We can’t be happy with the path we’ve chosen, because we will just live in a state of denial about other experiences of life and be ‘foreclosed’.

It is only through going through the moratorium stage, of uncertainty, exploration and questioning, that we can reach true identity achievement – an identity that makes sense to us but is also secure enough to question and perhaps integrate new experiences too.

Identity crises occur throughout life, and are an ongoing process to understand ourselves, and the world around us. It’s a process of questioning and recalibrating our beliefs to new experiences. The point of the identity statuses is that we can move through them and be at different statuses at different points in our lives.

So, ultimately, this isn’t just about politics and socio-political issues – it’s also about being more aware of ourselves and what can make us happier. And according to Sennett, the ability to “live in a state of unsettlement… make something positive out of uprooting” and gain “the courage to be self- doubting and confused” might do just that.


[1] The Uses of Disorder, Richard Sennett

[2] Mead, G. H. Mind, Self, and Society. University of Chicago. America. 1934

[3] Brons, L. Othering, an analysis. Transcience. 2015. 6(1)

[4] Baumeister, R. F., & Leary, M. R. (1995). The need to belong: Desire for interpersonal attachments as a fundamental human motivation. Psychological Bulletin, 117(3), 497–529. https://doi.org/10.1037/0033-2909.117.3.497

[5] Gössling S. Community, Friends, Family. The Psychology of the Car. 2017;:171-184.

[6] Heinrich L, Gullone E. The clinical significance of loneliness: A literature review. Clinical Psychology Review. 2006;26(6):695-718.

[7] Jensen S. Othering, identity formation and agency. Qualitative Studies. 2011;2(2):63-78.

[8] https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/takeatest.html (Take the test, it’s fun!)

[9]https://www.researchgate.net/publication/233896997_Identity_in_adolescence or more accessible article: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/fulfillment-any-age/201203/are-you-having-identity-crisis

[10] https://www.thoughtco.com/identity-diffusion-definition-examples-4177580

[11] https://strategiesforparents.com/identity-moratorium-a-key-status-in-human-development/


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