Identity Crisis

How Our Identity Forms out of Conflict

Identity crisis

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You have probably heard the term "identity crisis" before and you probably have a fairly good idea of what it means. But where did this idea originate? Why do people experience this kind of personal crisis? Is it something confined to the teenage years? If you are unsure of your role in life or you feel like you don't know the 'real you,' you may be experiencing an identity crisis.

What Is an Identity Crisis?

The concept originates in the work of developmental psychologist Erik Erikson, who believed that the formation of identity was one of the most important parts of a person's life.

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 just confined to adolescence. Instead, identity is something that shifts and grows throughout life as people confront new challenges and tackle different experiences.

Theorist Erikson coined the term identity crisis and believed that it was one of the most important conflicts people face in development. According to Erikson, an identity crisis is a time of intensive analysis and exploration of different ways of looking at oneself.

Erikson's own interest in identity began in childhood. Raised Jewish, Erikson appeared very Scandinavian and often felt that he was an outsider of both groups. His later studies of cultural life among the Yurok of northern California and the Sioux of South Dakota helped formalize Erikson's ideas about identity development and identity crisis.

Erikson described identity as "a subjective sense as well as an observable quality of personal sameness and continuity, paired with some belief in the sameness and continuity of some shared world image. As a quality of unself-conscious living, this can be gloriously obvious in a young person who has found himself as he has found his communality."

Identity Status Theory

Researcher James Marcia (1966, 1976, 1980) has 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 also developed an interview method to measure identity as well as four different identity statuses. This method looks at three different areas of functioning: occupational role, beliefs and values, and sexuality.

  • 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 or 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.


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 are more common today than in Erikson's day. These conflicts are certainly not confined to the teenage years.

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

Identity crises are also common among people with mental illness, including depression, codependence, bipolar disorder, and borderline personality disorder.


How can you tell if you’re having an identity crisis? While we all question who we are 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 following questions begin to interfere with your daily life.

  • 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.

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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