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. Erikson noted that developing a sense of identity is important during the teenage years, though the formation and growth of identity is not confined to adolescence.

Instead, identity shifts and changes throughout life as people confront new challenges and tackle different experiences. Thus, an identity crisis can occur at any age.

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 of an Identity Crisis

A person going through an identity crisis may be 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 regard to relationships, age, 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 and the above questions begin to interfere with your daily life. You might also notice that you feel more irritable, unmotivated, or empty.

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 a healthcare provider.

How Identity Develops

Erikson believed that identity was formed by experimenting with different behaviors and roles, as well as through social interactions. Researcher James Marcia expanded upon Erikson's theory by suggesting that the balance between identity and confusion lies in making a commitment to an identity.

Marcia developed an interview method to measure identity. It 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 is when a person has made a commitment without attempting identity exploration.
  • Achievement occurs when an individual has gone through an exploration of different identities and made a commitment to one.
  • 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 of an Identity Crisis

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 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 an identity crisis at various points in life, particularly at points of great change, including:

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.

Diagnosing Identity Issues

It is important to note that an identity crisis is not an actual psychological diagnosis. However, identity is a key criterion for diagnosing personality disorders, and it is possible to be diagnosed with an identity issue or disorder.

For example, dissociative identity disorder is when someone has two or more distinct identities or personalities. It is diagnosed if, in addition to these distinct identities, the person also has ongoing memory gaps and their symptoms cause distress in some areas of life.

An identity disturbance, which is a criterion for borderline personality disorder, occurs when there is "uncertainty about several issues relating to identity." This can include having uncertainty about one's self-image, gender identity, values, and long-term goals.

Treatment for an Identity Crisis

If an identity crisis is creating significant distress and interfering with your ability to function normally, a doctor or mental health professional can help. Talk to them about how you're feeling and the changes or stress you're experiencing in your life.

Depending on the severity of your identity issues and the effects they are creating, there are several treatment options.

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 issues with your view of yourself.

Group Therapy

Some studies have found group therapy to be helpful for treating identity crises, especially in adolescents. One such study reported positive results after engaging in group narrative therapy, which focuses on helping people find their voice through the stories they tell themselves.

Another noted similar findings after group-based reality therapy, which reinforces the power of making good choices.

Medication

If your symptoms are accompanied by anxiety or depression, your doctor may also suggest or prescribe medications (anti-anxiety or antidepressant medicines) to help with those conditions. 

Coping With an Identity Crisis

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

  • Acknowledge and accept your feelings. Seek to identify and understand the feelings you have about your identity, then acknowledge and accept them. Tell yourself that it is okay to feel the way you do, extending the same grace to yourself as you would a friend.
  • Explore 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.
  • Consider 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 that need can bring a greater sense of fulfillment to your life.
  • Get support. Having friends and family to lean on can help. Strong social support 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 all be great places to find the support that you need.

Press Play for Advice On Dealing With a Crisis

Hosted by Editor-in-Chief and therapist Amy Morin, LCSW, this episode of The Verywell Mind Podcast, featuring Academy Award-winning actor Matthew McConaughey, shares how to handle a crisis and get more involved in your own life. Click below to listen now.

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A Word From Verywell

There’s 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. 

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What is identity?

    Identity is another word for your "subjective self." It is who you are regardless of the changes you might go through in life—such as losing or gaining weight, or changing jobs—and is defined by your unique characteristics (physical, psychological, and interpersonal), your affiliations in this world, and your social roles.

  • How do you tell if you are having an identity crisis?

    If you are going through a challenging time (or a big change) and are questioning who you are—your values, passions, beliefs, or sexual identity—or how you fit into the world, you may be experiencing an identity crisis. Feeling empty, irritable, having decreased motivation, and social withdrawal are additional signs of an identity crisis.

  • How do you overcome an identity crisis?

    Working with a mental health professional who is caring and supportive can be a powerful tool for overcoming an identity crisis. If you have depression or anxiety in addition to identity concerns, a doctor or therapist might also recommend medication or other forms of treatment to help with these symptoms.

  • How can you help someone deal with an identity crisis?

    When someone you love is having any type of mental health crisis, listening supportively and without judgment can help. If they seem highly distressed or the identity crisis is negatively impacting their lives, suggest that they talk to a doctor or mental health counselor. Individual or group therapy may help and medications might also be suggested to help reduce co-occurring issues such as depression and anxiety.

16 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 Kendra Cherry
Kendra Cherry, MS, is an author and educational consultant focused on helping students learn about psychology.