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 stepfather. 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 culture he was in all placed different expectations on him. He was accepted by some groups and ostracized by 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.
Examples of Role Confusion
What does it look like when an adolescent is going through a crisis of identity vs. role confusion?
Exploring Gender Identity or Sexual Orientation
A male teenager has always been raised based on the “status quo” of society. His parents joke about him flirting with girl friends, warn him not to be too much of a “player,” and give him advice for dating women. He is a good-looking teenager, and everyone expects him to be the prom king and date the most attractive girls in school. As he starts to explore his feelings, he realizes that he is not attracted to women. He wants a husband one day and to share the title of prom king with another guy.
This can be confusing enough for a child who has been brought up to be in heterosexual relationships. If the teenager feels as though he doesn’t fit in with the other gay kids at school or doesn’t see himself represented in media about same-sex relationships, he might feel even more confused. Resolving this conflict will require him to embrace his identity.
Changes in Relationships and Friend Groups
We all had a friend who changed friend groups or left their friends entirely during their teenage years. Maybe they joined the cheerleading squad and only hung out with the cheerleaders. Or all of their friends started smoking pot and that friend wasn’t interested in hanging out with them anymore. These changes may be a response to an adolescent honing their identity and surrounding themselves with like-minded people. Hanging out with a bunch of cheerleaders easily affirms your identity as a “cheerleader.” Spending your time with a bunch of people who smoke pot, when you prefer to be sober, makes it harder to be the person you want to be.
Feeling Stuck or Not Knowing Where to Go
A Reddit user on the NewZealand subreddit shared a post saying, “Hi, currently going through an identity crisis and I feel like I don’t have much hobbies?” The poster goes on to say that are searching for a purpose in life. A person going through an identity crisis or role confusion may not know what to do with their day. A writer writes. A gardener goes out in the garden. The head of a family finds ways to provide for their partner and children and family members. There are many ways to fulfill your identity, but having that identity gives you a little bit of direction on where to go and what to do.
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 on to 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 you or a loved one are experiencing tough times as a result of an identity crisis, consider taking the following steps.
Reflect Without Judgment
The only person who can determine your identity is you. Parents, teachers, mentors, and other people may try to determine who you are, but you have the final say. If you are experiencing outside pressure, take some time to reflect inward. Grab a journal. Put on some nice music. Shut the door and just write about your feelings. The following prompts may help you get started:
- What brings you joy?
- If you could live the life of any person on this plane, who would it be?
- Who are the most important people in your life?
- You wake up and have all the money and time to go about your day. How do you spend it?
Journal without putting expectations on yourself or thinking that something is “too outlandish” or “silly.”
Take Inventory of Who You Surround Yourself With
Erikson may have formally written about identity vs. role confusion, but people have recognized this phenomenon before he studied it. Anyone over the age of 12-18 can probably remember going through confusing times in their teenage years. Other teenagers are going through hard times, too. If you’re having an identity crisis, you’re not alone. And the people around you should recognize that you are exploring who you are and your place in this world.
Take a moment to reflect on the people in your life. Would they judge you if you explored new hobbies? Do they affirm your identity? When you talk to them about your feelings, do they listen without judgment? The answer to these questions isn’t always yes. If you find that the people around you are not supportive of who you are, seek out people that are.
Talk to a Therapist
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.