Identity vs. Role Confusion in Psychosocial Development

Psychosocial Development Stage 5

Verywell / Nusha Ashjaee

Identity versus role confusion is the fifth stage of ego in psychologist Erik Erikson's theory of psychosocial development. This stage occurs during adolescence between the ages of approximately 12 and 18. During this stage, adolescents explore their independence and develop a sense of self.

According to Erikson, people progress through a series of stages as they grow and change throughout life. During each stage, everyone faces a developmental conflict that must be resolved to successfully develop the primary virtue of that stage. Erikson was interested in how social interaction and relationships affect development and growth.

What to Know

  • Psychosocial conflict: Identity vs. role confusion
  • Major question: "Who am I?"
  • Basic virtue: Fidelity
  • Important event(s): Social relationships

What Are Identity and Role Confusion?

As they transition from childhood to adulthood, teens may begin to feel confused or insecure about themselves and how they fit into society. As they seek to establish a sense of self, teens may experiment with different roles, activities, and behaviors. According to Erikson, this is important to the process of forming a strong identity and developing a sense of direction in life.

One of the main elements of Erikson's psychosocial stage theory is the development of ego identity. It is the conscious sense of self that we develop through social interaction, which is constantly changing due to new experiences and information we acquire in our daily interactions with others. 

Identity

Erikson defines identity as a “fundamental organizing principal which develops constantly throughout the lifespan.”

Identity involves the experiences, relationships, beliefs, values, and memories that make up a person's subjective sense of self. This helps create a continuous self-image that remains fairly constant even as new aspects of the self are developed or strengthened over time. Identity provides:

  • Self-sameness: A sense of continuity within the self and in interaction with others
  • Uniqueness: A frame to differentiate between self and interaction with others
  • Psychosocial development: Mental and physical health for adolescents

During the identity vs. role confusion stage, the conflict is centered on developing a personal identity. Successfully completing this stage leads to a strong sense of self that will remain throughout life.

Role Confusion

Kids who are not allowed to explore and test out different identities might be left with what Erikson referred to as role confusion, which can result in the following:

  • Being unsure of who you are and where you fit
  • Drifting from one job or relationship to another
  • Feeling disappointed and confused about your place in life

Other Influences on Identity

Some more recent theories have focused on the importance of social identity and how those identities, and the intersection of those identities, influence the development of individual identity and roles.

One such theory is known as the "Big 8." It describes socially constructed identities that are defined by factors including social, physical, or mental characteristics. Some examples of social identities include gender identity, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, religion/spirituality, ability, socioeconomic status, and nationality.

Benefits of Identity

There are numerous benefits behind shaping and forming an identity.

  • Commitment: Resolving the crisis at this stage of development involves committing to a particular identity. This might involve committing to a career path, deciding what social groups to associate with, and even developing a sense of personal style.
  • Self-confidence: Those who are able to develop a strong sense of identity are better able to have self-confidence, or a sense of trust in their abilities, qualities, and judgements.
  • Sense of independence: Those who receive proper encouragement and reinforcement through personal exploration will emerge from this stage with a strong sense of self and a feeling of independence and control. Those who remain unsure of their beliefs and desires will remain insecure and confused about themselves and the future.
  • Fidelity: Those who are successful develop fidelity, a psychological virtue characterized by the ability to relate to others and form genuine relationships. This ability plays an important role in the upcoming stage known as intimacy versus isolation.

Factors Affecting Identity Formation

There are various factors that contribute to whether a person forms a strong identity. Friends, family, schoolmates, other social groups, societal trends, and pop culture all play a role in shaping and forming identity.

Different identities can also intersect to shape a person’s overall sense of self.

Stages of Identity Development

Influenced in part by Erikson's theory, psychologist James Marcia described four identity statuses. These statuses represent different points in the development of identity. In Marcia's theory, identity forms as a result of exploring different identity alternatives and then making commitments to different ideas and values. These four statuses are:  

  • Identity diffusion (role confusion): At this point, a person has not explored or made identity commitments. 
  • Identity foreclosure: This involves committing to an identity without exploring other options, often as a result of peer pressure, conformity, cultural expectations, or parental pressure.
  • Identity moratorium: This is a period of active exploration where an individual tries new things and seeks out alternatives.
  • Identity achievement: This status involves having explored different options and then making a commitment to an identity. This does not necessarily end with adolescence. It can ultimately be a long process that creates self-awareness and a strong sense of self.

Consequences of Role Confusion

Role confusion can have lasting consequences on a person's life, including:

  • Difficulties with commitment: A stable personal identity allows individuals to have better relationships with others.
  • Worse mental health and well-being: Research has linked a strong sense of identity to better emotional and psychological well-being in adolescents.
  • Weak sense of self: Role confusion has been found to lead to a weak sense of self.
  • Lack of confidence: A lack of self-identity can make it difficult for people to have confidence in themselves and their abilities.

How to Strengthen Identity

No matter where you are in your life, there are things you can do to help build a stronger sense of identity. For example, thinking about what your values are helps solidify your identity. Core values are those things that are really important and meaningful to you and that motivate you and guide your decisions.

It's important to spend time alone to get to know yourself better. Those quiet moments can help you focus on your priorities and improve your sense of self. Relatedly, learn to practice self-compassion, which can help you better understand and accept your flaws and limitations.

Become skilled at things you enjoy. Taking time to find and practice hobbies can help you get greater acquainted with yourself.

How to Decrease Role Confusion

If you're feeling confused about who you are and your role in life, there are steps you can take to decrease role confusion.

  • Build on your strengths. Identify the areas in your life in which you excel, and take time to develop and build on those strengths.
  • Try new things to discover what you like. Think about your passions and interests. Brainstorm some ideas around things that excite you.
  • Make commitments and set goals. While you can set goals in any part of your life, consider thinking about some common areas like health, career, finances, and education.
  • Participate in activities that are related to your interests. Whether church events or clubs for sports, take the initiative to become part of something that interests you.

If you or a loved one are struggling with identity issues that are creating distress or affecting your ability to cope with life,, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

5 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.
  1. Sand CD, Rahbek K, Willadsen TG, Jønsson AR. Prioritizing social identities: Patients' perspective on living with multimorbidityJ Comorb. 2021;11:26335565211009375. doi:10.1177/26335565211009375

  2. Arnold ME. Supporting adolescent exploration and commitment: Identity formation, thriving, and positive youth development. J Youth Dev. 2017;12(4):1-15. doi:10.5195/jyd.2017.522

  3. Marcia JE. Development and validation of ego-identity status. J Pers Soc Psychol. 1966;3(5):551-558. doi:10.1037/h0023281

  4. Ragelienė T. Links of adolescents identity development and relationship with peers: a systematic literature reviewJ Can Acad Child Adolesc Psychiatry. 2016;25(2):97-105.

  5. Block M. Identity versus role confusion. In: Goldstein S, Naglieri JA, eds. Encyclopedia of Child Behavior and Development. Springer US; 2011:785-786. doi:10.1007/978-0-387-79061-9_1447

Additional Reading
  • Erikson EH. Childhood and Society, 2nd ed. Norton; 1963.

  • Erikson EH. Identity: Youth and Crisis. Norton; 1968.

  • Erikson EH. The Life Cycle Completed. Norton; 1982.