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, Erik Erikson, and James Marcia.
Erikson and the Identity Crisis
Erik Erikson, the influential German-American psychologist, is most widely known for coining the term "identity crisis." However, his interest in identity and its formation can be traced back to his early life experiences, which were rife with questions of belonging and identity.
Born in Germany in 1902, Erikson's heritage was a blend of diverse backgrounds. While his biological father was Nordic, he was brought up by a Jewish stepfather. This combination presented a unique set of challenges for the young Erikson, particularly in his formative years. His distinctive Nordic features, such as blonde hair and blue eyes, made him stand out in his Jewish community and feel like an outsider. Conversely, despite his appearance, he was teased and faced prejudices for his Jewish upbringing, complicating his understanding of where he truly belonged.
Erikson's emigration to the United States in the 1930s, motivated by the ascent of Nazism and its associated threats to Jews, only added layers to his own identity struggles. Adapting to a new culture while reconciling with his roots presented challenges that deepened his introspection about identity formation.
These personal experiences profoundly influenced his later work. Erikson identified with the feelings of not fully belonging to one particular group and constantly trying to navigate between conflicting identities. When he began studying Native American children in the 1930s and 40s, he saw echoes of his own identity struggles. Observing these children grappling with the expectations and norms of their indigenous heritage and Western culture, he recognized similar identity formation, acceptance, and conflict patterns.
Thus, Erikson's theories on psychosocial development, particularly the stage of "Identity vs. Role Confusion," which takes place between ages 12-18, were significantly shaped by his personal journey of identity exploration. It emphasized the importance of resolving identity issues and establishing a clear sense of self amidst societal, cultural, and personal pressures.
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 they live in have placed expectations on children 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 and an identity, set of values, or cause.)
What is Role Confusion?
However, 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 adolescents don’t think they can meet those expectations. The teen may feel confused or even rebel when this struggle sets in. Holding onto any identity, even one that is negative, might seem like the best solution.
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 greatly impacts whether or not the teenager completes the stage successfully.
- Low exploration and high commitment put 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. Example: Sarah has grown up in a family of doctors. She's been told she will also become a doctor from a young age and never questioned this path. Throughout high school, she takes advanced science courses and tells everyone she’s pre-med, even though she’s never explored other career options or passions. She entered college as a pre-med student simply because it was an expectation set upon her.
- Low exploration and low commitment put the teenager in the “identity diffusion” box. They don’t know who they are but don’t care to find out. The teenager will likely fail to move forward with a strong sense of identity. Example: Jake has no clue about what he wants to do after high school and is not inclined to figure it out. He shrugs off when asked about college or future careers, saying he doesn't care. He floats from one hobby to another, never sticking to anything long enough to see if it truly interests him. His lack of direction and commitment makes it hard to make meaningful choices about his future.
- High exploration and low commitment put 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. Example: Mia is in her sophomore year of college and has already switched majors three times. She has joined multiple clubs, from theatre to robotics, trying to figure out where she fits. She spends her summers traveling or trying different internships, from publishing to environmental science. While Mia hasn’t settled on a definite path yet, she's actively exploring all her options.
- High exploration and 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. Example: After spending a gap year traveling and volunteering in different countries, Alex realized his passion lies in environmental conservation. He returned to enroll in environmental science and policy in college. During his studies, he participated in several related internships, researched extensively, and was active in environmental clubs on campus. By the time he graduated, he had a clear vision of his career path and the steps he needed to take to achieve his goals in the conservation sector.
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
Drawing upon Erikson's "Identity vs. Role Confusion" stage, a male teenager raised in a societal framework that predominantly values heterosexual relationships may experience an intensified identity crisis. While Erikson identified the teenage years as the primary period for exploring and establishing a coherent identity, this teenager's challenge to navigate his homosexual orientation amidst societal expectations exemplifies Marcia’s notion of “identity moratorium” - actively questioning and exploring but not yet committed to an identity.
If he feels he doesn't fit within his perceived communities, either heterosexual or homosexual, he may experience “identity diffusion,” characterized by an absence of commitment and lack of serious consideration about his identity. Resolving this conflict involves seeking an environment or community where he can safely explore and affirm his true self.
Changes in Relationships and Friend Groups
As adolescents journey through Erikson's fifth stage of development, they typically seek groups or communities that align with their emerging sense of self. For instance, a teenager's decision to exclusively mingle with the cheerleading squad can be interpreted as an exploration of "identity achievement" as per Marcia's expansions on Erikson - where they have explored and committed to a particular identity.
Conversely, a teen distancing themselves from friends involved in drug use showcases a conflict between societal expectations (from Erikson's perspective) and personal identity exploration, potentially leading to an “identity moratorium” phase where they're actively exploring what aligns with their true self.
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 post says that people 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, children, and family members. There are many ways to fulfill your identity, but having that identity gives you a little direction on where to go and what to do.
Impact of Previous Stages
Incorporating Erikson's cumulative nature of stages, if prior stages like "Trust vs. Mistrust" or "Initiative vs. Guilt" were unresolved, this could manifest as an intensified identity struggle during adolescence. A teen might lack foundational trust in their decisions or carry residual shame and guilt, further complicating their identity exploration. Erikson emphasized that the success of navigating the identity crisis is built upon the foundations laid in earlier stages, underscoring the interconnectedness of developmental challenges across the lifespan.
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. Consider taking the following steps if you or a loved one are experiencing tough times due to an identity crisis.
Reflect Without Judgment
The only person who can determine your identity is you. Parents, teachers, mentors, and others 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 with 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 recognized this phenomenon before he studied it. Anyone over 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? Do they listen without judgment when you talk to them about your feelings? 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.)
Parenting Styles and Identity Formation
Parents' styles and approaches play a pivotal role in adolescents' identity formation. Diana Baumrind's typology of parenting styles — authoritative, authoritarian, permissive, and neglectful — can profoundly influence a teen’s navigation through Erikson’s "Identity vs. Role Confusion" stage.
- Authoritative Parenting: This approach is marked by a balance of responsiveness and demandingness. Such parents offer support, encourage independence, and are willing to discuss boundaries. Adolescents with authoritative parents often have a more stable platform for identity exploration. They are more likely to experience Marcia’s “identity achievement” status, wherein they have explored and committed to a specific identity.
- Authoritarian Parenting: These parents are high in demandingness but low in responsiveness. They tend to enforce strict rules without much explanation or open dialogue. Adolescents under this style might lean towards “identity foreclosure,” accepting roles and values without active exploration due to the rigid structures imposed upon them.
- Permissive Parenting: These parents are responsive but not particularly demanding. They typically avoid setting strict boundaries and allow considerable self-regulation. While this might seem like it provides freedom for exploration, it can lead to “identity diffusion,” where the adolescent neither explores nor commits to any particular identity.
- Neglectful Parenting: With low responsiveness and demandingness, these parents are often disengaged from their child's life. Adolescents under this style may struggle profoundly with their identity, feeling lost or indifferent, and can be at a higher risk of “identity diffusion.”
In the context of Erikson's "Identity vs. Role Confusion" stage, the parenting style experienced can either aid or hinder the adolescent's quest for self-understanding. An open, supportive environment fosters exploration and commitment to an identity. In contrast, a restrictive or indifferent environment can lead to role confusion, premature commitment without exploration, or even apathy toward self-definition.
Understanding the profound impact of parenting styles on identity formation underscores the significance of nurturing and guided environments in which adolescents can safely explore, question, and affirm their sense of self. It's not just about an adolescent's internal struggles but also about the external factors — primarily parenting — that can shape this critical period of identity development.
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 lives: midlife, quarter-life, 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.