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3 Ways to Navigate the "Musician Identity Crisis"

You know you’ve heard it before–it’s about the journey, not the destination. And yes, it may be super cheesy, but I’m here to tell you it’s true.

As I hit my mid-thirties stride (*gasp!!*...but, also–being here is kind of awesome), I often think back to who I was at age 18, 22, 27, and even 30 and imagine what I would say to the mes from then knowing what my life looks like now. While many nuggets of wisdom seem to fit the bill, I always come back to a few things that I know I both wanted and needed to know but was a little too choked up with anxiety to let myself acknowledge.

Number one: You’re going to be okay!

And number two: You don’t know where you’re gonna end up, but trust me, you’ll never believe it until you get there.

That voice in our heads dictating our self-perception, our moods and reactions to the world we live in, and the experiences we have–it can only hold so much power. And yet, we often forget to go with the flow, enjoy the ride, be in the moment, and let go of the worry.

So, here’s a little bit of what I’ve learned on my own journey that is still winding and weaving its way around to who knows where. Hey, my journey is still unfolding! Here are some takeaways from my last decade of self-discovery.

1. Figure out who you are, really.

This brings me back to a question someone asked me one time when I was playing in a masterclass.

Who are you?

Emotions were already running a little high when it struck me that I had no idea how to answer. Whatever it was this person wanted me to address in my flute playing (and I can’t even remember whether it was hand position, articulation, or how to make an even septuplet happen over one beat), the problem, it seemed, stemmed from within. Something was wrong with my flute playing, which translated to something is wrong with me–as a musician and as a human being.

Suddenly, my success in this moment and in all future musical moments hinged on my answer (or lack thereof) to this critical question. Who are you?

I remember feeling so empty and debased. How could I not know the answer to what felt like such a simple question.

Now, many years later, I can see how closely my identity and sense of self (and therefore, self-worth) were tied into me the flute player. I often forgot that I am human, I will make mistakes, and I will fail sometimes. I will never be perfect. It wasn’t until many years later when I didn’t have a musical identity to fall back on (ahem pandemic, anyone?) that I realized my self perception of identity needed a serious overhaul. Shifting my mindset to looking at flute playing as something I do rather than defining who I am was a game changer.

What chord does that question strike with you? How would you articulate or explain the essence of who you are? Our identities and senses of self are always evolving. I’m here to remind you that it’s okay to not know who you are at this very moment, and it’s never too late to start asking yourself who you want to be(come).

2. Trust yourself.

I’ve spent a lot of time doubting myself, giving into negative self-talk, and shoving aside my inner voice in favor of others’ opinions. I was always ready to people-please and self-deprecate in the learning process. I’ve been scolded many times over the years for apologizing too much and succumbing to Perfectionism (yes, for me it’s with a capital P). It sometimes felt like I was frozen, unable to make decisions because there were so many competing voices tugging me in different directions, and I, compulsively, wanted to be “right.”

The struggle to gain a sense of trust in myself and my own voice was not an automatic lightswitch kinda moment–it was a conscious process of small decisions that eventually allowed me to let go. I realized that in my search for control over my life, I actually needed to stop and listen rather than forcing things to work out. It might seem weirdly counterintuitive, but easing into the discomfort or sitting with a situation rather than rushing to a conclusion made the biggest difference for me.

It wasn’t until I was out of my dozen years of school that I really had to ground myself and start trusting my own voice. If I could talk to my past selves from ten or more years ago, I would emphasize the importance of following my intuition, because frankly, it is often right! When I need to make a decision about the direction my life is taking or even a simple day-to-day choice, I already know deep down what will best serve me and align with my values.

Trusting yourself isn’t just self-directed. When you really dig deep you start to see how your relationships with others are a reflection of your relationship with yourself. When you surround yourself with mean-spirited individuals, you will often exhibit those behaviors and even treat yourself this way. If you surround yourself with caring, sincere people you will be more secure and confident in yourself, too. I can think of several close friends who fit the latter category and who often reflect my best self back to me, even when I’m having a rough go of it. Find those people who love you unconditionally–they’re the ones worth keeping around and will give you the space to listen to your own inner voice.

3. Anything can be reframed.

What happens when you expect yourself to be Perfect? Inevitably, you fail. In striving for Perfection (again, capital P…lol), I failed a lot. Like, a whole lot. Like, cried-in-a-masterclass-because-someone-asked-me-who I-was-and-I-didn’t-know-how to-answer lot. I used to get eaten up by my failures. As Katherine would say, I threw myself in the trash can on a daily basis.

Sometimes I wonder if I just liked feeling crappy about myself. My solution for the longest time was to continue putting myself in situations where I knew I was in over my head–everything from that crazy ridiculous recital program that was too demanding or taking on a few degree programs at the same time (do not recommend!). So, my failures abounded. And I had to learn to live with them or move on from them.

I keep harping on failure because it can feel like the most devastating thing to our human psyche. In the throws of our emotional responses to failure, we easily tiptoe into catastrophizing. In short, if I fail = I will die. Guess what? I’m HUMAN and failure is going to happen sometimes! (I am putting this line here for myself and anyone else struggling with capital P Perfectionism). It took me quite a while to face my failures–let alone accept them. And again, it was not one sweeping life change that helped. It was by reframing one small thing at a time.

Reframing my mindset started to influence my actions, which also influenced my perception of failure. “I am a failure” became, “I made a mistake.” “I failed and have to start over again” became, “the new opportunities in front of me are endless.” “I didn’t prepare to my fullest potential,” became “

When you encounter a real or perceived failure in your life take a step back and observe the situation with neutrality. If it’s emotional (trust me, I totally get it!!), let yourself experience it. Don’t suppress it or deny yourself the chance to move through those emotions so you can get to the place where you can observe the situation from multiple, different perspectives. It’s not all about analysis but about separating you, the person, from it, the situation, which is not all-defining. In essence, you are not your failures.

If you’re still asking yourself who am I? at this point, be sure to take “a failure” off the list of possible answers. We may be the culmination of our lived experiences, but that does not mean we are those experiences. They’re just part of our amazing, individual journeys.

So, take stock of who you are, trust yourself, and pause to reframe any negative self-perceptions you may have. It’s never going to be perfect, and that’s okay. What matters more is that you continue learning and growing in the process. Though sometimes scary, we’re made to evolve, and the opportunity to try a different approach never expires.

So, I’ll leave you with one question: who do you want to become?

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