Have you ever heard the term “identity crisis?” Maybe you’ve observed a friend go through an identity crisis after getting fired from a job or dropping out of school. Looking back on your teenage years, you might feel as though you went through an identity crisis yourself. This term might seem dramatic, or have a negative connotation, but some psychologists believe that this is just a normal part of social development.
Let’s learn about the people who coined the term “identity crisis” and the stage of life when most people go through an identity crisis.
What is Identity vs. Confusion?
Identity cohesion vs. role confusion is the fifth of Erikson’s Eight Stages of Psychosocial Development. It occurs between the ages of 12-18, and is typically when a person’s first “identity crisis” occurs. It has most famously been studied by Joan and Erik Erikson as well as James Marcia.
Erikson and the Identity Crisis
Erik Erikson was a German-American psychologist who coined the term “identity crisis.” But long before he came up with that term, he experienced some confusion about his own identity. Erikson was born in Germany in 1902 and adopted by a Jewish step-father. His biological father was Nordic, and Erikson felt that his blonde hair and blue eyes made him an outsider. He was also teased for being Jewish. Erikson emigrated to the United States in the 1930s during the rise of Nazism.
It’s not hard to see why Erikson may have had an identity crisis between the ages of 12-18. His identity, appearance, and the culture he was in all placed different expectations on him. He was accepted by some groups and ostracized from others. And when he began studying Native American children in the 1930s and 40s, he saw his struggle reflected in other children.
What Happens During the Identity vs. Confusion Stage
This stage of psychosocial development follows the industry vs. inferiority stage. At this age, children have begun to compare themselves to other children. They know that there are consequences that come with good performance and bad performance. Between the ages of 12-18, adolescents begin to grasp that they will have to perform on a much larger scale than they are used to in school. Parents, teachers, and the society that they live in have placed expectations on the child that go beyond school. These expectations influence the teen’s overall identity.
Does the teenager think they can live up to these expectations? Do they want to? What do they even want to do? Who do they want to be?
These are big questions – no wonder an identity crisis may occur during this stage! As the adolescent continues to explore their identity, they may find that everything is cohesive and there are no struggles against society, a parent’s expectations, or their own questioning mind. If there is cohesion, the teen will complete the stage with the basic virtue of fidelity. (Fidelity is faithfulness to a relationship, but also faithfulness to an identity, set of values, or cause.)
What is Role Confusion?
But many teens find themselves struggling during this period. Their parents want them to be one thing, but they want to be another. Society expects them to be one thing, but the adolescent doesn’t think they can meet those expectations. When this struggle sets in, the teen may feel confused or even rebel. Holding onto any identity, even one that is negative, might seem like the best solution.
Impact of Previous Stages
If the previous stages were not completed, the teen may not have self-confidence or trust in society. They may feel ashamed of who they are or guilty about being who they are. This can put a lot of strain on the teenager during this time.
James Marcia and the Identity Crisis
Erikson is not the only psychologist to study what happens during an identity crisis, although he is one of the first. His work inspired James Marcia to develop four identity statuses based on a teen’s exploration of and commitment to their identity during this crisis. Their status has a big impact on whether or not the teenager completes the stage successfully.
- Low exploration and high commitment puts the teenager in the “identity foreclosure” box. Essentially, they have committed to an identity without much thought. While fidelity is present here, it’s not the most stable status to hold.
- Low exploration and low commitment puts the teenager in the “identity diffusion” box. They don’t know who they are, but they don’t care to find out. The teenager will likely fail to move forward with a strong sense of identity.
- High exploration and low commitment puts the teenager in the “moratorium” box. They have at least thought about what they want to do, but aren’t committed yet. The freedom to explore one’s identity puts them on the path to successfully completing the identity vs. role confusion stage.
- High exploration and high commitment is the ideal status: “identity achievement.” At this point, the teenager is confident in who they are because they have explored and committed themselves. This is a great place to be at any point in your life, but especially at age 18 before moving onto the next phase in your life.
How to Resolve Identity vs. Role Confusion
Sure, an identity crisis is experienced to some degree by everyone. But that doesn’t mean that you should put off feelings of depression, loneliness, or self-doubt that may be getting in the way. If these larger questions of identity and purpose are getting overwhelming, you might want to consider reaching out for help. A therapist may be able to talk you through your questions and assess whether your identity crisis is actually a symptom of depression or anxiety. Mental health can have a serious effect on the way that we view ourselves (and vice versa.)
Identity Crises Can Happen Past Adolescence
Don’t put off asking for help or admitting that you are confused just because an identity crisis is associated with adolescence. Psychologists have observed that people go through other types of identity crises throughout their life: a midlife crisis, quarter-life crisis, etc. Divorce, loss of a job, or loss of a close family member may also lead someone to question who they are and how they live their life.
In fact, every stage of Erikson’s Stages of Psychosocial Development is based on a crisis. During stage 4, that crisis is Identity vs. Role Confusion. But the next stages also contain a crisis. Click to learn more about Stage 6 of Psychosocial Development: Intimacy vs. Isolation.