What Is an Identity Crisis?

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What Is an Identity Crisis?

An identity crisis is a developmental event that involves a person questioning their sense of self or place in the world. The concept originates in the work of developmental psychologist Erik Erikson, who believed that the formation of identity was one of the most important conflicts that people face. According to Erikson, an identity crisis is a time of intensive analysis and exploration of different ways of looking at oneself.

While developing a sense of identity is an important part of the teenage years, Erikson did not believe that the formation and growth of identity were confined to adolescence only. Instead, identity is something that shifts and changes throughout life as people confront new challenges and tackle different experiences.

What Is Identity?

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.

Symptoms

It is important to note that an identity crisis is not an actual diagnosis. Rather, a person going through an identity crisis may find themselves preoccupied with certain questions:

  • What am I passionate about?
  • What are my spiritual beliefs?
  • What are my values?
  • What is my role in society or purpose in life?
  • Who am I? This question may be in general, or in regards to your relationships, age, and/or career.

While everyone questions their sense of self from time to time, you may be having an identity crisis if you are going through a big change or stressful time in life and the above questions begin to interfere with your daily life.

It is important to be aware that having negative feelings about yourself or your life can be an indicator of a vulnerability for depression. If you are also experiencing depression symptoms such as low mood, loss of interest, fatigue, and irritability, you should talk to your doctor or mental health professional.

How Identity Develops

Researcher James Marcia expanded upon Erikson's initial theory. According to Marcia and his colleagues, the balance between identity and confusion lies in making a commitment to an identity.

Marcia developed an interview method to measure identity that looks at three different areas of functioning: occupational role, beliefs and values, and sexuality. He also identified four different identity statuses that people move through as they develop their identity.

  • Foreclosure status is when a person has made a commitment without attempting identity exploration.
  • Identity achievement occurs when an individual has gone through an exploration of different identities and made a commitment to one.
  • Identity diffusion occurs when there is neither an identity crisis nor commitment. Those with a status of identity diffusion tend to feel out of place in the world and don't pursue a sense of identity.
  • Moratorium is the status of a person who is actively involved in exploring different identities but has not made a commitment.

Marcia argued that identity crises help people move from one status to another. However, people don't necessarily experience each of the statuses above.

Causes

In Erikson's stages of psychosocial development, the emergence of an identity crisis occurs during the teenage years in which people struggle with feelings of identity versus role confusion.

In today's rapidly changing world, identity crises may be more common today than in Erikson's day. Such crises often occur in response to a sudden change in a person's life. This may include personal life changes or broader societal events such as the COVID-19 pandemic.

People tend to experience them at various points throughout life, particularly at points of great change, including:

  • Beginning a new relationship
  • Ending a marriage or partnership
  • Experiencing a traumatic event
  • Having a child
  • Learning about a health condition
  • Losing a loved one
  • Losing or starting a job
  • Moving

Research also suggests that there are a number of factors that can influence whether a person experiences what is often referred to as a midlife crisis. Such factors include health issues, stress, and social support.

Having a mental health condition such as depression, bipolar disorder, and borderline personality disorder may also increase the likelihood of experiencing an identity crisis.

Treatment

If an identity crisis is creating significant distress and interfering with your ability to function normally, your doctor or therapist may recommend some different treatment options. These may include:

  • Psychotherapy: Therapy can be helpful for addressing some of the underlying issues that might be contributing to your identity crisis. One approach known as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) works to address the negative thoughts and behaviors that may cause problems with your view of yourself.
  • Medication: If your symptoms are accompanied by anxiety or depression, your doctor may also prescribe medications to help with those conditions. 

Coping

In many cases, there are things that you can do to help work through an identity crisis on your own. Some things that may be helpful as you confront questions about your identity include:

  • Exploring your beliefs and interests: When you are questioning your sense of self, it can be helpful to look inward and think about the things you are passionate about. What are you interested in? Are there things that you no longer like? Asking questions and exploring new hobbies and interests can be a helpful way to get to know yourself better.
  • Considering your goals: Spend some time thinking about your goals in life. What do you want to accomplish? What types of things bring you the most joy and happiness? An identity crisis might be a sign that some need is not currently being fulfilled, so finding ways to satisfy those needs can bring a greater sense of fulfillment to your life.
  • Getting support: Having friends and family to lean on can help. A strong social support network is an important part of mental well-being and can also be a way to gain the feedback and encouragement you need to feel comfortable with your identity. Friends, family members, social clubs, religious groups, team sports groups, and support groups can also be great places to find the support that you need.

A Word From Verywell

There’s a good reason to overcome an identity crisis. Researchers have found that those who have made a strong commitment to an identity tend to be happier and healthier than those who have not.

Exploring different aspects of yourself in the different areas of life, including your role at work, within the family, and in romantic relationships, can help strengthen your personal identity. Consider looking within to figure out the qualities and characteristics that define you and make you feel grounded and happy, as well as your values, interests, passions, and hobbies. 

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