Identity Crisis (Definition + Examples)

Have you ever had an identity crisis? 

If you don’t think you’ve experienced one yourself, you might have seen one take place in movies or TV. Maybe the star of your favorite TV show takes an episode to “rebel” and take on a whole new persona. But identity crises are not just for TV. They are a real phenomenon in psychology!

What Is An Identity Crisis?

An identity crisis takes place during psychosocial development. During the crisis, an adolescent often struggles with the expectations their parents, teachers, or community has upon them. The “crisis” is only resolved after the person feels more confident in who they are. 

How Long Does an Identity Crisis Last? 

While an identity crisis can be wrapped up nicely in an episode of TV or a two-hour movie, this isn’t always the case. An identity crisis can last for years.

Who Coined the Term “Identity Crisis?”

American-German psychologists Joan and Erik Erikson coined the term “identity crisis” and created Erikson’s Stages of Psychosocial Development. Erikson’s work has been an inspiration to many in the psychology field, leading others to look deeper into identity crises and the types of crises that they may experience. 

Why Does an Identity Crisis Occur? 

Before Erikson wrote his theory on Psychosocial Development, he studied Freud. Along with his ​Stages of Psychosexual Development, Freud was known for his theory on the ego, superego, and the id. 

Erikson redefined the role of the ego in his work. He believed that the ego did much more than mediate between a person’s inner and outside world. The ego, according to Erikson, was crucial to a person’s self-awareness and their perception of the world around them. A person’s ego helps to form the person’s identity as they explore and understand their place in the world.  

Identity Crisis in the Stages of Psychosocial Development 

So when does this all happen? Erikson believed that the identity crisis takes place during adolescence (ages 12-18.) A person going through an identity crisis is in the fifth stage of psychosocial development and has experienced four “crises” already. If they have completed those stages successfully, they trust in the world and have the confidence to take action and make decisions for themselves. If they haven’t completed these stages successfully…the identity crisis may hit a little harder. 

Example of Identity Crisis

Between the ages of 12-18, the adolescent begins to realize that they have a larger place in the world. They understand the importance of working hard and succeeding…but for what? A person’s role determines what their goals are and what they are willing to work for. If that role is not identified, it may be hard for an adolescent to make decisions about what they want to work for in adulthood and how they want to conduct themselves in middle and high school. 

So they enter a crisis: identity vs. role confusion. Erikson noticed that there were two identities that adolescents seemed to struggle with during this stage: the occupational identity and sexual identity. 

If a person completes this stage, they will feel confident in who they are and their place in the world. Until the stage is completed, however, the teenager may feel uncomfortable about who they are and act out in order to fill certain roles. 

Identity, Youth, and Crisis: Context For This Theory 

Erikson wrote about the identity crisis in the late 60s. He put all of his works concerning the identity crisis together in a book called Identity, Youth, and Crisis. If you are interested in learning more about Erikson’s approach to the identity crisis, I suggest looking here.

This is a book that you can pick up and read just one chapter. The book is simply a collection of his works throughout his career. While some discuss the ideas of ego psychology, others discussed people belonging to different groups and their identity crises. The 1960s was a pivotal moment in American history for women and minorities. The sexual revolution and the Civil Rights Movement were both taking place at this time. Society was starting to change its narrative on who a woman or African-American was in American society.

There has been a lot of change since the 1960s. The way that women, minorities, LGBT people, etc. form their identity has changed. But even though society puts different expectations on these groups of people, one thing remains the same. All adolescents must explore and commit to an identity if they want to complete this stage and move on in their psychosocial development. 

Two Stages in Erikson’s Identity Crisis 

Erikson believed that there were two parts to the identity crisis: identity formation and identity integration. 

Identity formation is the process in which someone becomes aware of their identity and begins to put a label on it. Maybe they question their sexuality. Maybe they look at their biological sex and that influences what kind of occupation they want to take on. During identity formation, a person may discover themselves. (Or so they think.) 

Identity integration attempts to confirm what the person has discovered. During identity integration, the adolescent incorporates what they have discovered into their daily life. Maybe they start to date people of the opposite or same sex. Or they abandon hobbies for activities that will support their future career. 

Hopefully, the identity formation and integration processes go smoothly. The adolescence discovers their identity, incorporates it into their life, and feels confident about their place in the world. Other times, they feel uncomfortable and have to re-explore their identity later. 

James Marcia and the Identity Status Theory

James Marcia looked at this idea and formed a theory of his own, inspired by Erikson. Marcia’s Identity Status Theory looked at the four stages of identity formation. These stages can be broken down into the adolescent’s exploration of their identity and how confident they feel in the identity. 

Identity Diffusion is where most people start. They have not explored their identity and are not confident in their identity. There is a lot of work to be done here. 

Maybe the adolescent chooses an identity without too much exploration. They enter the Identity Foreclosure stage. After integrating the identity into their life, they may discover that their identity isn’t so secure and that more exploration is necessary. 

Once the adolescent has explored their identity more, they may enter the Identity Moratorium stage. They aren’t committed or confident in their identity yet, but they have done some exploring and are open to other experiences. 

By the end of the identity crisis, the adolescent should be in the Identity Achievement stage. They know who they are. They know what they want to do with their life. They are committed and confident due to high levels of exploration and experiences that they can reflect on. According to Erikson, this stage completes the Identity vs. Role Confusion stage, and they are ready to move on to the next stage of development.

Theodore T.

Theodore is a professional psychology educator with over 10 years of experience creating educational content on the internet. PracticalPsychology started as a helpful collection of psychological articles to help other students, which has expanded to a Youtube channel with over 2,000,000 subscribers and an online website with 500+ posts.