Identity achievement is a term you will often hear in the psychology world, but the definition and explanation of it can be complex to understand. Everyone has an identity of some sort, who you are, where you’re from, what career you have, etc. So how do you achieve an identity if it already exists?
Identity achievement is the psychological term to describe the stage of life where a person finds and accepts their true sense of self. It occurs in adulthood after one has been through a series of life experiences and passed the identity development stages of adolescence.
To reach identity achievement, you must understand the other three developmental stages that begin in childhood and are carried through to your adult life. Identity achievement is not always reached in early adulthood unless a person is highly self-aware. It is also not a stage that will remain constant in every person. We will get into more detail on the topic as we dive further into the article.
Understanding Identity Achievement
Identity achievement is more than a mere destination point. It is a journey that begins in childhood and is often carried through to early adult life – the main developmental stages run between ages ten and nineteen. Identity achievement will not be reached until a point in adulthood after you have been through several life experiences and changes.
These changes happen through various exploration categories such as higher education, travel, careers, relationships, sexuality, fashion, etc. The achievement stage is often triggered after some major life experience (good or bad), and a realization occurs that motivates you to explore different options until you reach the point of true self-acceptance.
Before we delve further into the ins and outs of the identity achievement stage, it is vital to understand the other three identity development stages that each person goes through. Without those, identity achievement will be near impossible to reach.
The identity development, also known as identity formation theory, was created by psychologist James Marcia. He suggested that every person in their adolescence and parts of adulthood go through a self-concept, character understanding, and personality development process. The process has four stages, namely:
- Identity Diffusion
- Identity Foreclosure
- Identity Moratorium
- Identity Achievement
In the following points, we will explain the first three stages in detail.
The diffusion stage happens during the early years of adolescence when having an identity is not significant or understood. A child usually goes by who their parents say they are, what they hear of themselves from peers, or how they feel through the perception of others.
The diffusion stage means you don’t have a strong opinion on anything and do not have, understand or trust your intuition. It is the learning phase of starting to experiment and explore different options. Identity diffusion is not being committed or working to form a sense of identity. It is the time of a child’s life where they “go with the flow” until they grow out of it.
The stage of identity foreclosure often occurs in the teenage years when a child thinks they know who they are but has not looked at or explored various options. At this point, teenagers will often claim they know and understand themselves and commit to an identity from what they see in their role models or factors presented to them; however, it is without looking into other availabilities.
An example is someone who grows up with particular religious or cultural beliefs and claims that as their identity. Another scenario is a child who grows up amongst family members in a specific career or parents with expectations to have certain higher education choices. The child agrees and accepts that that will be their reality. They may even feel strongly about it without considering another option.
The moratorium stage is the stage of adolescents (often in the late teenage year) to early adulthood where self-exploration happens, but there is no commitment to any identity. It is the closest step to finding your identity and the last part of the process in the development before identity achievement.
In this phase, a person will want to try different things like fashion forms and education subjects, explore various sexual partners, dip into sexuality preferences, try a new job, and deter from or dive further into religious and cultural norms.
Identity moratorium can sometimes look like an identity crisis and often feels like it to the teenager or young adult who needs to start making bigger life decisions like choosing a career. Identity moratorium is also the phase many people, even in their later adult life, go back to for some time even after reaching identity achievement. That is what the world labels a “midlife crisis.”
Adult identity confusion is not necessarily a crisis but a stepping stone to finding a deeper meaning of self-concept and understanding. It can occur for several reasons, which we will discuss later.
The Significance Of Identity Achievement (Stage 4)
Reaching identity achievement in its entirety is a significant milestone in life. It can and will only happen after a series of life changes, experiences, and developments. It takes a lot of exploration of social, personal, and cultural factors before finding your true sense of self and accepting yourself and what you want from your life.
Identity achievement is critical in your personality development and brings a sense of personal satisfaction and commitment. It is who you become through cognitive development and how you participate in social systems. Identity achievement is the point of life you will feel the most contentment, peace, and confidence.
Going Back To Identity Moratorium After Identity Achievement
As previously mentioned, some people return to the moratorium stage after reaching identity achievement. Many people go between the two phases multiple times as life moves on and changes occur. That is a form of personal development, self-empowerment, and self-exploration.
People who don’t understand or know about personal development label these phases as adult identity crises. In many forms, it can feel or look like one, but it is a significant process to reach the heights of one’s true self.
Dealing with these back and forth changes, especially after feeling like you have finally found your life calling, can be frustrating and make you feel despondent. If you are back into the moratorium phase after identity achievement, and the exploration stage is taking time, you can feel like you’re losing hope. Sometimes it can be highly empowering if you have a better taste of where you are heading.
It is a complex situation to gauge, and to look at it positively can sometimes be exhausting. Understanding why it happens is helpful to allow yourself to embrace it. Below is a list of reasons why some people usher between the two stages:
Significant Life Changes
Significant life changes can cause a person to question their identity and where they are in life. It can bring on interest for new experiences or cause you to want to forget everything you have known until that point. These life changes could include having a baby, moving to a new city, or migrating to another country. It could also be a death of a loved one, a new friendship, or a relationship breakup.
These changes (intentional and unexpected) can create obstacles that will take you back to the moratorium phase to figure out how you want to make changes in your life. It could also open new doors to explore different options that can lead you back to self-confidence, acceptance, and understanding, resulting in identity achievement in a different light than before.
A new experience is similar to life changes but more specified. A unique experience could be a hobby you tried for the first time, an alternative travel route, a new cultural or religious experience, etc. It often occurs when you get out of your comfort zone and face things differently than you did before. It could be planned or happen by surprise.
A new experience can create a change or hunger within you to do more, try more, or change what exists. Someone in the identity achievement stage with a stable job they are happy to have could embark on a vacation abroad and trigger their wanderlust. They might decide to change careers with hopes of gaining more time-freedom to travel or make a profession out of traveling.
The phase of deciding whether to make that change or trying different methods to make it work is the moratorium stage. Once the person finds the way that works for their chosen lifestyle and settles on making it work while feeling satisfied with their decision, it returns to identity achievement with a higher sense of fulfillment.
Education And Career Developments
Education, more so higher education structures, and career navigations can create a switch from identity achievement to moratorium pretty quickly. Younger and older adults often find themselves in this position. You might happily choose a career that you get enjoyment from and later decide you want something different out of life.
Take a teacher, for example; after five, ten, sometimes even thirty years of teaching, you realize you want to do more, so you lean back into the moratorium stage and further your qualifications to become a professor. In another scenario, a doctor might find themselves interested in farming, so they go through a moratorium and explore it further until they might reach a point of a homesteading business.
Mental Health And Trauma
Sometimes the most prominent reason someone turns their entire life upside down or makes significant changes even after they reach identity achievement is due to mental health disorders or a traumatic experience. There are two factors to this; one is changing from achievement to moratorium because of the mental and emotional state, and the other is because of a traumatic experience that can cause PTSD.
The emotional state of a person suffering from mental health disorders like anxiety or depression can bring on life changes, especially if they make personal realizations where their conditions impair their decisions. A person could be happily settled in a season of life until their anxiety gets triggered and they notice an urge to want something different.
A traumatic experience like abuse, a death, an accident, a natural disaster, etc., causes PTSD. A person becomes aware that something in their life needs to change to feel better and settled again.
In both cases, you will find people who strive to get back to identity achievement take active action to find their “happy place” again. They might attend therapy, find a new hobby, travel for a while, or use other self-development techniques. That process is the moratorium stage, and eventually, people get to a point where they feel contentment away from the mental confusion, i.e., identity achievement.
Relationship diversity is when someone realizes they want more from a relationship or feel they need something entirely different. Someone might be in a thirty-year-long happy marriage, and that is their identity achievement until they want to explore a different sexual preference or maybe realize the relationship they are currently in is not working or thriving anymore.
A person in that instance may seek a separation or divorce, find ways to make it work or explore different sexuality or relationship dynamics altogether. The exploration stage will be the switch to the identity moratorium phase. Once the person reaches a point where they have figured things out and feel satisfied and fulfilled with their situation, they will go back into identity achievement.
The Principles of Identity Achievement
To reach identity achievement, you must go through the three principles of identity development. These three principles are social, personal, and cultural identities. Each one is equally important to form your sense of self. Does that mean you will not reach identity achievement if you don’t progress with all three? It is complex, but you can.
The elements of identity achievement mean you are proud of what you have gained, content with what you have, feel deep satisfaction for where you are and have confidence that your life is moving in the right direction, bringing you immense joy.
You can feel a true sense of self in one aspect of your life, for example, in your career, without having every other factor figured out. That aspect can define your identity while you work on reaching that point with everything else. You will often find that when you get to a place of self-concept in one area of your life, you can work things out in other regions more efficiently to reach identity achievement in its entirety.
Identity achievement is a life stage of truly understanding who you are, what you want in life, and what brings you genuine joy. It is the point at which you are your best self and feel satisfied with your life.