- Identity crisis is a psychosocial confusion that makes you question ‘Who you are?’
- It makes you question your purpose and values in life, along with your social standing with regard to others.
- The concept is a handiwork of Erik Erikson, a developmental psychologist who coined the term in his theory of psychosocial development.
- Identity crisis can occur at any point in a person’s life and at any age.
Have you ever questioned the purpose of your existence in this world? Do you feel confused about the social roles you’re expected to play? Are you aware of ‘Who am I?’
These questions and many more reflect the conflicts and confusion that you have about yourself. This is nothing but an identity crisis.
Whenever you are faced with challenges and conflicts in life, you may start to question your identity. You will start to question your true purpose in life.
This concept was first identified by Erik Erikson while developing his famous theory “stages of psychosocial development.”
This psychosocial state of confusion leads to feelings of anxiety and unrest in the person. It makes them question their character and social role.
If this confusion is not resolved, it may lead to a crisis state. The person will have problems answering questions about themselves. Their self-perception and ability to decision-making will get affected.
Let’s learn more of it in this article…..
Identity Crisis Infographics
Identity crisis – definition and meaning
Identity crisis is a state of dilemma and confusion. It makes you question your true sense of self and social standing. You are in a crisis state of not knowing everything about yourself. It restricts you from defining yourself clearly and exactly.
Many of us have often faced severely difficult situations in life. Under the influence of these situations, we find ourselves questioning who we are.
We question our purpose in life. This is what we can call an identity crisis.
An identity crisis is a psychological event in which individual questions his or her place and role in life.
The phenomenon of identity crisis also extends to one or more stages of the life of an individual, rather than being an isolated event.
If you are in a groove of an identity crisis, you may question everything about yourself. You’re confused about your values, purpose, and social role.
An identity crisis is a psychological state of confusion. You do not know your true ‘self’ and what is expected from you in the social structure. You have lost touch with your authentic self.
A stable identity looks concrete and definite. You know who you are. At the same time, your values, beliefs, and purpose in life are aligned with each other.
You have full trust in your ability to carry on with things in life.
Nothing can change you the way you are. But if you are suffering from an identity crisis, you become unsure of yourself.
There will be a disconnection from your sense of self. It’s like looking at the mirror and not realizing that it’s ‘you.’
Identity crisis leads to a shaky and fearful state. The person feels insecure, moody, and can change with the situation.
Self-confidence and self-trust may take a back seat and they may feel unworthy of themselves.
How did it all begin?
Developmental psychologist Erik Erikson first coined the term “identity crisis” as part of his famous theory of personality.
In his famous book “Childhood and Society” published in 1950, Erikson highlighted the importance of the social environment on the mental health and development of children.
Erikson was born to a Jewish mother and a Danish father. After his biological father abandoned the family, his mother remarried a Jewish man.
Thus, Erikson was raised on Jewish ideologies and learned to follow the Jewish religion.
But his physical appearance did not resemble that of a typical Jew. Due to his mixed identities, his peers often bullied him.
As a result of all this, Erikson was confused about his own identity. This gave rise to his interest in the idea of an identity crisis.
Erikson described eight stages of psychosocial development that every individual should pass through in life, starting from early infancy to old age.
Among these stages, adolescence is characterized by the conflict between identity and role confusion.
The successful resolution of this conflict leads to the development of the virtue of fidelity in an individual.
The individual becomes self-sufficient and worthy of themselves. However, if the conflict is not resolved, it may lead to identity crises.
More on this, about 95% of teens reported that they were in a confused state of mind. Most of them felt lesser and inferior to their same age group peers at some point during their growing up years.
How does identity develop?
Identity includes various goals and values that a person strongly believes in. Erikson defined identity as the awareness of consistency in one’s self over time.
The development of identity depends both on an individual as well as his or her surroundings and society.
The majority of the process of identity development occurs during adolescence.
During the adolescent phase, individuals are vulnerable. They may encounter several role models and identity options.
They thus become prone to using these role models to develop their own identities.
According to Erikson, this adolescent phase is a crucial turning point in which an individual must develop a sense of identity. Individual sticks to this identity for their entire life.
The development of a proper identity is crucial for an individual to lead a happier and healthier life.
When an adolescent does not commit to a particular identity that is when an identity crisis happens.
This may lead to various kinds of mental disorders like eating disorders, borderline personality disorder (BPD), etc., and other health issues.
The four stages of identity development in adolescence by Erik Erikson and James Marcia
According to Erikson, identity is formed when a person explores various social roles and tries to fit in any one of them. He identified four identity statuses.
Every person moves through these statuses to develop a stable self-identity for themselves.
In 1966, Canadian psychologist James Marcia elaborated on Erikson’s theory. Marcia proposed four stages of identity development in an adolescent individual.
- Identity diffusion or confusion: In this stage, an individual is actively going through an identity crisis. He or she does not commit to a particular identity.
- Foreclosure of identity: This occurs when an individual commits to a particular identity without exploring other alternate options.
- Identity moratorium: In this stage, adolescents actively explore all possible identity options, but do not make a commitment to any particular one.
- Identity achievement: This is the final stage. Individuals, after exploring different options, actively commit to one identity that appeals to them.
It is worth mentioning here that Marcia developed the Identity Status Interview which is a semi-structured interview to determine the identity of an individual.
There are some mental health conditions that are closely connected with an identity crisis. They are as follows:
- Midlife crisis
- Quarter-life crisis
- Professional identity crisis
- Gender identity crisis or gender dysphoria
- Adjustment problems in a relationship leading to crisis
Identity crisis – signs and symptoms
What happens when you catch a cold? You can have a runny nose. Or you may develop coughs. In some cases, even a fever may occur. These are nothing but symptoms.
Physiological or physical disorders often have such easily identifiable symptoms.
However, this is not true in the case of a mental disorder. Symptoms of mental disorders are much harder to identify.
Individuals suffering from identity crises may exhibit certain signs and symptoms. These are listed below.
- The individual may question their own character.
- They may be unsure of their sexual orientation.
- Experience gender dysphoria.
- They may question several of their own traits or habits. This consequently affects their perception of themselves.
- They may experience personal conflict regarding their purpose in life.
- They are more prone to anxiety.
- The individuals become bored with their work very quickly.
- Their attention span becomes reduced.
- They may change their spirituality, beliefs, and values just to agree with the opinions of others around them.
- There is conformity to others’ opinions and values just to fit in the social group.
- They may keep themselves isolated from friends and family.
- When these individuals are asked questions about themselves, they often find it difficult to answer these questions.
- They are unsure about their future and what they want to do in life.
- Lack of self-trust and low confidence level.
- They may shift opinions too often.
- You may not like others asking too much about you and your life.
- You can easily be molded, thus the chances of getting fixed in cognitive biases are more.
- Self-awareness is shaky and insecure.
Impact of identity crisis
It is important to keep in mind that an individual suffering from an identity crisis may not exhibit all of these symptoms.
In fact, they may not exhibit any of these symptoms and still be suffering from an identity crisis.
Also, note that it is completely normal to question who we are in our daily lives. This is because we as humans encounter changes every day.
If an individual has one or more of the above symptoms, this does not guarantee that they are experiencing an identity crisis.
However, if the occurrence of these symptoms affects a person’s normal functioning in their daily life, then the case may be a serious one.
Some of the negative impacts of an identity crisis are as follows:
- Loss of interest in daily activities
- Anxiety and mental uneasiness
- Frustration and anger issues
- Fear of not being adequate
- Role confusion
- Mental fatigue
- Irritable mood
- Strong tendency to blend with the opinions and judgments of others
- Feelings of being stuck.
- Lacks definite purpose in life
- Goal orientation is poorly made
- Distorted sense of self
- Feelings of melancholy
- Substance abuse and addiction
- Feelings of being a failure
Types of identity crisis
In 1973, German philosopher and sociologist Jurgen Habermas proposed that identity crisis is of two types.
Later on, American social psychologist, Roy. F. Baumeister and his colleagues did further research on Habermas’s work.
According to them, these two types of identity crises are identity deficit and identity conflict.
Identity deficit and identity conflict
An identity deficit is also known as a motivation crisis. In this, an individual has a lack of any strong commitments or beliefs. He struggles to establish personal values and goals in his life.
Habermas said that the causes of identity deficit or motivation crisis are internal in nature. This may develop from negative experiences in the childhood of an individual.
Identity conflict is also called legitimation crisis. In this case, an individual commits himself to several ideas or beliefs. However, many of these beliefs end up contradicting each other.
So, the individual has to make a choice. He has to betray at least one of these beliefs and choose certain ones over the others. This leads to a conflict.
Identity conflicts generally result from external factors in an individual’s life such as situational changes. Adolescents and adults suffering from traumatic events may often develop identity conflicts.
It is worth mentioning here that an identity crisis in adolescent females shows more conflict than male ones.
This also means that female adolescents are more prone to suffer from identity conflicts rather than identity deficits.
Identity crisis in adolescence
Erikson mentioned in his psychosocial theory that adolescents often suffer from an “identity vs role confusion” conflict.
Children and adolescents are often concerned about who they are and what they can be in life.
Those who are adopted and raised in a different family can be more prone to developing an identity crisis when they find out that they are adopted.
Sometimes, children raised in an orphanage are also similarly vulnerable.
As a child transitions into adulthood, he is concerned with what role he will play in the world. Initially, this results in some degree of role confusion.
In the adolescent stage, the individual is exposed to many contradicting thoughts and beliefs. These may include different religious and political beliefs.
In an ideal case, the individual chooses one that appeals to him the most. This conforms to the “identity achievement” stage as mentioned by Marcia.
Towards the end of adolescence, an individual has a strong desire to develop a sexual identity. This may occur as a result of self-discovery or self-exploration.
Some researchers believe that the development of identity crisis is directly related to stressful events in an adolescent’s life. However, not all adolescents face this issue.
Some individuals pass through this stage without developing an identity crisis. However, they may need external support to deal with the stressors they face.
In some cases, the effect of these stressors is not limited to identity crises only. They can manifest themselves in the form of other mental illnesses. These may require intervention by mental health professionals.
In extreme cases, the individuals may undertake suicide attempts.
Gender identity crisis in adolescents and children
Before moving on to talk about the ‘gender identity crisis’, we must know what gender identity is. Gender identity refers to a person’s awareness of their own gender.
In our society, most people either identify themselves as men or women. These are simply known as the “binary” identities.
But the society also comprises people who do not feel this way. They are different from others and are termed as “non-binary”.
For example, a person having male genitals may identify with the opposite gender. Similarly, a female having breasts and female genitals might not identify themselves as female.
In both these cases, the assigned gender does not match their gender identity.
So, a gender identity crisis develops when a person starts questioning the gender assigned to them by birth. This might lead to the development of gender identity disorder.
Gender identity disorder is also known as gender dysphoria.
Gender dysphoria may develop in children as young as two years old. And for some people, it might not develop until pubertal age.
It is a condition in which a person feels distressed when they sense a discrepancy between their assigned gender and their gender identity set by society.
Usually, people with gender dysphoria are termed transgender and gender nonconforming.
Gender nonconforming is an umbrella term that includes people who do not identify with their assigned genders or vacillates between the two genders – male and female.
Some of the other terms for these people are genderqueer, gender creative, gender independent, bigender, non-cisgender, nonbinary, third sex, and the like.
If you look around you, you may be able to spot a person with gender dysphoria.
Signs of gender identity crisis
People with gender dysphoria or gender identity crisis show the following signs:
- They may wear clothes or accessories which are normally worn by a different gender. For example, a man may wear high heels.
- They would want to be addressed with a pronoun that is different from their assigned gender. For example, a woman may want to be addressed as ‘He’ or ‘Him.’
- The person becomes socially withdrawn or isolated.
- They may be anxious or depressed.
- low self-esteem is commonly found.
- They might engage in risk-taking behaviors or tasks.
- They may develop a tendency to neglect themselves.
Gender identity crisis in children
Apart from these signs, there are a number of symptoms of gender dysphoria which are observed in children, adolescents, and adults.
Before we get into a discussion of these symptoms, we must first know a bit about the DSM-5.
The American Psychiatric Association maintains a manual for all mental health disorders. This is popularly familiar as the “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders”.
The currently used version is the fifth edition, published in 2013, and is commonly known as the DSM-5. The DSM-5 serves as a taxonomic and diagnostic tool for all mental health disorders.
The DSM-5 provides a list of symptoms related to gender dysphoria in children. If a child exhibits at least six of those symptoms, they may be suffering from gender dysphoria.
These symptoms are:
- A strong desire to wear clothes of the opposite gender
- A preference for friends having the opposite gender
- An interest in toys or games which are usually associated with the opposite gender
- Engagement in cross-gender roles during make-believe play
- Dislike for the genitals they are biologically assigned with
- Unhappy with their physical sex characteristics
- A strong preference to be of a gender that is different from their own
However, we should keep in mind that the above-mentioned symptoms are not just specific to gender dysphoria.
These behaviors might often be exhibited by children and are considered as a part of growing up.
A small number of children might feel distressed and for them, gender dysphoria might develop during puberty or adulthood.
How does the gender identity crisis occur in adolescents?
Similar to the case of children, the DSM-5 provides a list of symptoms for adults and adolescents as well.
If a teen or an adult shows at least two of these symptoms, they may be suffering from gender dysphoria.
These symptoms are as follows:
- A distinct difference between an individual’s desired gender and their primary sex characteristics
- A strong desire to get rid of one’s primary sex characteristics
- A desire to possess the primary and/or sex characteristics of a different gender
- A strong preference to belong to a different gender than the one assigned to the individual at birth
- An innate desire to be treated as a different gender
- A strong belief that one has the typical feelings and reactions of another gender
In order for a psychologist to diagnose an individual as having gender dysphoria, just exhibiting two of these symptoms is not a complete criterion.
The individual experiencing gender dysphoria must show these symptoms for at least 6 months.
Moreover, they would also need to be facing extreme distress in their personal and social lives as a result of these symptoms.
In the course of our discussion on gender dysphoria, we should keep one thing in mind.
Gender dysphoria itself is not a standalone mental disorder. It may lead to mental illnesses such as anxiety, depression, etc.
A variety of treatments for gender dysphoria are available. The main aim of these treatments is to enable people to live the way they want 一 as part of any gender of their choice, or as non-binary.
These treatments are different for children, adolescents, and adults; and vary from one individual to another. This depends on what kind of gender identity they want.
Coping and treatment
These treatments include:
- Puberty blocking: This is a kind of hormone treatment that suppresses the physical changes associated with puberty.
- Hormone therapy: This involves injecting a sex hormone (either estrogen or testosterone, as applicable) to develop the characteristics of the particular gender an individual identifies with.
- Surgery: Some people may choose to have a sex reassignment or gender affirmation surgery to alter their sex organs.
After transforming to their desired gender, an individual may need therapy to cope with the new changes.
Causes of identity crisis
As we have already seen, identity crisis usually occurs in adolescence. However, it can occur in other phases of life as well. These are mostly triggered by the influence of certain stressors.
One thing to keep in mind is that these stressors are not necessarily negative. Even if an incident is positive, it may be stressful for an individual.
Some examples of these stressors are:
- Important life events like getting a new job or losing a job
- Getting married
- Getting divorced, separated, or experiencing a break-up
- Losing a loved one
- Experiencing an accident or a traumatic event
- Developing some sort of serious physical ailment
- Moving to a new city
- Joining a new peer group
- Giving birth to a baby
- Sudden change in your values and opinions that you could not accept easily
Identity crisis examples
Identity crisis can exhibit itself in several forms. These are observed in people of different age groups. It ranges from children to adults, even including adolescents.
People from different genders – males, females, as well as transgender people or non-binary people – can suffer from an identity crisis.
If you look around you, you may be able to spot people suffering from identity crises. Let us take a look at some examples of identity crises.
Let us consider a very famous sportsperson. He is incredibly skilled at the game and is loved and celebrated by everyone.
What happens if this sportsperson has an unfortunate car accident that completely breaks his legs?
The first thought that comes to our mind is that he would never be able to play again. Yes, true. But apart from the physical impact, the accident will also affect him mentally.
He might think that since he will not play again, the very thing that defines him as a person is going away. People will not love and celebrate him anymore.
This would lead to the development of an identity crisis in that individual.
This was a hypothetical example, where a famous person develops an identity crisis after he loses the quality that makes him famous. However, the opposite can also be true in the real world.
Famous pop singer Billie Eilish said in an interview in 2020 that she suffered from an identity crisis after she became a celebrity.
Eilish’s songs became very popular within a short time of their release. As a result, she became the subject of attention of the media as well as fans. However, she later highlighted the negative side of this.
Eilish felt that she did not deserve this much success and fame. This led to her developing an identity crisis, as she felt she was pretending to be someone else.
Identity crises can have more grounded examples as well. Take an instance of a child suddenly finding out that he or she is adopted.
The child is obviously traumatized. He starts to question who he is, and where he came from. These insecure feelings and many unanswered questions in their tender minds can lead to an identity crisis.
We have also talked about gender dysphoria in a previous section. That is nothing but a specific case of an identity crisis.
Identity crisis in relationships
An identity crisis in a relationship may occur when you become so engrossed in satisfying your partner’s needs and wishes that you have lost your recognition, placing, and status in the relationship.
It is not easy to maintain your individuality while in a relationship. Many people struggle to maintain their self-worth and identity when they are related to special someone.
This happens because you tend to put more importance on the needs, wishes, and desires of your partner.
Your own likes and dislikes may feel lesser and over time you’ll forget to take care of yourself.
Identity crises in relationships begin to appear when you have lost your individuality somewhere along the journey of life.
You may start to feel that you and your partner have become one and all. There is no difference, and as if your identity got merged with your partner.
In the long run, this crisis is harmful because it breaks the relationship boundary between the two of you.
Maybe, you want your partner to feel happy and satisfied in the relationship, even if it means spoiling your own worth.
In this process, you’re losing your own identity. You may start taking up your partner’s hobbies or start liking the food items they like, etc.
In one way, you are always busy pleasing them in as many ways as possible.
It means your own preferences are fully aligned with what your partner wants. This relationship is not as sweet as it appears.
It involves a lot of resentment and hidden agonies that no other person can see.
How to deal with an identity crisis?
So far we have seen that identity crisis might be causing severe distress in some individuals. Hence, treatment is needed in such cases.
Also, an individual with an identity crisis can actively focus on this issue and be aware of the ways by which he or she can deal with it effectively.
There are a variety of treatment options available. The appropriate option should be employed in accordance with the severity of the problem.
These options are as follows:
This is one useful approach to deal with the underlying issues that lead to an identity crisis.
The most important form of psychotherapy that deserves mention is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy or CBT.
It mainly focuses on the negative thoughts and behaviors that are the key problems of this issue.
Group narrative therapy and group-based reality therapy are helpful for dealing with identity crises.
In group narrative therapy, people usually narrate their own stories. In the case of group-based reality therapy, good choices made by individuals are reinforced.
Often identity crisis is accompanied by anxiety and depression. In such cases, medications need to be taken by the individual to relieve themselves from these additional issues.
Some of the other things that you might look at while dealing with identity crisis are:
Looking within and exploring your beliefs and interests
Take some time out from your busy schedule. Think about what you like and what you dislike. It will help you to know yourself better.
You will be able to work on your deep-seated emotions and overcome the struggles that those emotions bring.
Acknowledging and accepting your feelings
You must acknowledge the feelings that you have about your identity and try to accept them. Remember that there is nothing wrong with the way you feel about yourself.
You can always rely on your family members and friends for social support. This might help you to feel at ease with your identity.
Focusing on your goals
Think about your life goals. Sometimes an identity crisis may result if a goal is not fulfilled. Try to fulfill these goals to achieve a sense of satisfaction.
When to seek professional advice?
Sometimes, even after following a self-help regime, your identity crisis may not feel good. In such a situation, you should seek professional help.
Remember that an identity crisis is not a mental health problem. As Erikson noted, it is a normal development crisis that we all go through.
Whenever there is a fixation in one stage and you cannot resolve the conflicts of that stage successfully, you may get into the groove of a psychological crisis.
Identity crisis doesn’t need any treatment in normal circumstances. But, if the person faces a lot of issues in real-life situations, they should consider medical advice.
Some of these negative life experiences could be:
- Intense frustration is related to role confusion.
- May need mental health support to understand the reasons for an identity crisis.
- Anxiousness and symptoms of depression.
- Social isolation
- Thoughts of self-harm that needs immediate therapy
The video link shared below shows the concept of identity crisis in detail. Do check out.
Summing Up from ‘ThePleasantMind’
Identity development is a personal journey of self-growth. When done successfully, there is no crisis.
But if the issues of a particular development stage are not resolved, the person feels confined in the groove of uncertainty and confusion.
The best part is the crises stages are helpful in developing your authentic self. It allows you to know your deficits and work on the strengths areas.
The constant questioning about your sense of self, the values, beliefs, and purpose in life can actually help you wade through life’s struggles.
It makes you stronger and more confident. You know that you’ll be able to handle all complexities easily and emerge as a winner.
Just remember that identity crisis is worthy and a natural part of growing older. It makes you realize your true potential and worth in your own eyes.
A Psychologist with a master's degree in Psychology, a former school psychologist, and a teacher by profession Chandrani loves to live life simply and happily. She is an avid reader and a keen observer. Writing has always been a passion for her, since her school days. It helps to de-stress and keeps her mentally agile. Pursuing a career in writing was a chance occurrence when she started to pen down her thoughts and experiences for a few childcare and parenting websites. Her lovable niche includes mental health, parenting, childcare, and self-improvement. She is here to share her thoughts and experiences and enrich the lives of few if not many.