Identity Diffusion: Unraveling the Mystery of Self-Concept

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Your identity is your sense of self and it is based on a unique combination of physical, mental, emotional, interpersonal, and social characteristics. While some people have a strong sense of identity, others' self-concept is not as clear—this confusion is known as identity diffusion.

This article explores the phenomenon of identity diffusion, its causes, and effects, as well as some treatment and coping strategies that may be helpful.

Understanding Identity Diffusion

Identity diffusion is a psychological phenomenon where a person doesn't have a strong sense of who they are and they’re not actively working on it, says Aimee Daramus, PsyD, a clinical psychologist and author of “Understanding Bipolar Disorder.”

As a result of identity diffusion, the person may feel like they don’t really know who they are. Sometimes they may feel as though they don’t exist, or that they have no control over who they are. They may not have clarity regarding important factors in their life, such as their life goals, beliefs, or values.

Furthermore, their sense of self (not just their surface-level behavior) may change depending on the situation and the people they’re with at the moment, Dr. Daramus explains. They may have trouble distinguishing where someone else’s identity ends and theirs begins.

This is because having identity diffusion can cause them to have difficulty stabilizing their sense of self or focusing in on their view of themselves, says Rebecca Kamody, PhD, a clinical psychologist at Yale Child Study Center.

By contrast, someone with a stable identity tends to experience a sense of continuity or the feeling that they are the same person today as they were two days ago or two years ago, despite some physical changes or life events, because their beliefs, values, goals, expectations, and memories remain consistent.

Aimee Daramus, PsyD

It’s very painful not to have a sense of who you are.

— Aimee Daramus, PsyD

Identity Diffusion as a Core Element of Borderline Personality Disorder

Identity diffusion is one of the core elements of borderline personality disorder.

People with borderline personality disorder often show identity diffusion because something in their past, such as a traumatic experience, prevented them from forming an identity of their own, Dr. Daramus explains. 

In addition to affecting how the person feels about themselves, borderline personality disorder can also make it hard for the person to regulate their emotions and maintain healthy relationships with others.

Identity Diffusion Often Emerges in Adolescence

Identity diffusion often starts to emerge in adolescence, particularly among people who have borderline personality disorder.

Adolescence as a developmental period is a time of identity formation, says Dr. Kamody. “As a result, there is a certain amount of identity confusion and diffusion that can be quite normative at this age.”

Adolescents often change opinions, music, clothes, and friends, because they’re actively sampling different identities to find out who they really are, Dr. Daramus explains.

While identity confusion and the lack of stability in sense of self can be normative in adolescents, it can become more pervasive and severe and persist into adulthood, where it becomes a fundamental theme in bipolar disorder, says Dr. Kamody.

Reasons Why You Don't Know Yourself

These are some of the potential causes of identity diffusion.

Childhood Trauma

Research shows that traumatic experiences in childhood, such as abuse or neglect, can lead to identity diffusion.

Acute or complex traumatic experiences can make one question who they are and lead to instability in their view of themselves, says Dr. Kamody.

If a child is constantly adjusting to others’ moods and behaviors just to keep themselves safe, they don’t have the luxury of developing a strong personality—they have to be who the situation requires them to be, Dr. Daramus explains.

Authoritarian Parenting

Authoritarian parenting, where parents are overly strict with their children, can also lead to identity diffusion.

Authoritarian parents can sometimes cause identity diffusion by telling their children who to be, instead of letting them explore and discover themselves, Dr. Daramus explains. “A ‘my way or the highway’ style of parenting can do some damage to identity formation.”

Mental Health Conditions

People with mental health conditions, particularly personality disorders, may experience various degrees of identity diffusion. In fact, identity diffusion is a core component of the diagnostic criteria for personality disorders.

How a Lack of Identity Affects Your Life

These are some of the potential effects of identity diffusion, according to the experts.

Behavioral Fluctuations

Someone with identity diffusion may display extreme fluctuations in behavior, depending on who they’re with.

Most people change their surface-level behaviors with different groups of people, says Dr. Daramus. “For example, you may behave a little differently with colleagues than with friends or family members.” Known as conformity, this is fairly common behavior.

However, someone experiencing identity diffusion may change their sense of who they are on a much deeper level depending on who they’re with, and they may imitate the styles and opinions of people around them in a much more extreme way, she adds. “They may feel like there’s a huge void in them, which is temporarily filled when they role-model others.”

Lack of Emotional Regulation

People experiencing identity diffusion may also have difficulty regulating their emotions.

“When one feels unstable in their sense of self, self-regulation of emotions can be quite challenging,” says Dr. Kamody.

Someone with identity diffusion may have very little control over very big emotions, says Dr. Daramus.

Abusive Relationships

Identity diffusion can also cause people to develop unhealthy and potentially abusive relationships.

People with identity diffusion often feel an intense dependence on external validation from others as markers of their self worth and sense of self, says Dr. Kamody.

As a result, they can be easily manipulated and vulnerable to abuse, says Dr. Daramus.

Depression and Suicide

Not having a stable sense of self can cause one to question their self-worth, which can contribute to mental health concerns such as depression and suicidality, says Dr. Kamody.

Research shows that identity diffusion is linked to an increased risk of self-harm.

Eating Disorders

Identity diffusion is also linked to poor body image and a drive to be thin, which can lead to eating disorders such as bulimia and anorexia nervosa.


People experiencing identity diffusion may also be drawn to extremism, radicalization, or terrorism, because these ideologies may provide a sense of purpose, direction, and certainty to a person who may not have their own.

How to Find Out Who You Are

The experts suggested some treatment options that can help with identity diffusion.

Dialectical Behavior Therapy

Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) can help treat identity diffusion, as it helps with emotion regulation, distress tolerance, mindfulness, and relationship skills, says Dr. Daramus.

Dialectical behavior therapy focuses on helping individuals manage the intense emotions that can occur as a result of identity diffusion, while also working to bolster their sense of self, teach them how to navigate interpersonal stressors, and help them build a life worth living, Dr. Kamody adds.

Identity-Building Activities

Treatment can also involve activities that can help people build their identity and sense of self.

For instance, the person could begin by learning how to express opinions, starting with easier challenges like a choice of music or food, for example, says Dr. Daramus. “If the person has a hard time with that, they can start with learning to identify their own likes and dislikes by noticing the emotions and physical sensations that each choice brings up.”

Then, they can progress to harder questions of identity that will help them examine their relationships and other life choices, she adds.

How to Deal With the Effects of Identity Diffusion

These are some self-help strategies that can help you cope with identity diffusion:

  • Find things you enjoy: Actively work on finding things that help you feel more connected to yourself and the world around you. Doing things you enjoy can help you find a sense of purpose.
  • Reflect on your values: Reflect on your values. Ask yourself what is important to you and what you believe in.
  • Keep a journal: Writing in a journal can help you express thoughts, feelings, and opinions. It can help you get to know yourself.
  • Talk to loved ones: Talk to loved ones about how you’re feeling. Their support can help you maintain consistency and stability in your sense of self.
10 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Sanjana Gupta
Sanjana is a health writer and editor. Her work spans various health-related topics, including mental health, fitness, nutrition, and wellness.