The term identity crisis was coined by psychologist Erik Erikson back in the 1930s. It refers to an inability to achieve an identity or to struggle with finding an identity. Many people experiencing an identity crisis feel like they don't know who they are, what they want, or what makes unique. Identity crises can be uncomfortable to go through, but they are not abnormal, and as long as one does not become "stuck" in these sensations, they will pass.

Historical Significance of the Identity Crisis

Erik Erikson discussed the identity crisis in his theory of psychosocial developmental stages in children and adolescents. He believed adolescents go through an "identity cohesion versus role confusion stage." If they are not successful during this developmental stage, an identity crisis may follow. Erikson also said adolescents who fail to separate and become individuals, due to parental pressures or challenges at home, are more likely to experience identity crises.

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Stages Of Identity Formation

A researcher named James Marcia took Erikson's theory to another level by creating four statuses of identity formation. Understanding these statuses can help clarify what constitutes an identity crisis:

  • Identity achievement is characterized by active exploration and a resulting commitment to an identity that feels comfortable.
  • Identity moratorium refers to the active exploration of identity before committing to one.
  • Identity foreclosure refers to someone who has not investigated their identity but has committed to one chosen for them.
  • Identity diffusion refers to someone who is apathetically opposed to exploring and committing to any identity.

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Symptoms of an Identity Crisis

The symptoms of an identity crisis vary significantly from person to person. An identity crisis is not a disorder but can become problematic if unaddressed. Most people feel confused at one time or another, but in those experiencing an identity crisis, this feeling becomes more pronounced and overwhelming. In a quest to find oneself, a person may become so confused that they withdraw and avoid important aspects of their life. Some experience depression or anxiety. People in identity crises will question their values, roles, and relationships without knowing what decisions to make.

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Causes of Identity Crises

Several factors contribute to identity crises. According to Erikson, an identity crisis may happen when adolescents cannot differentiate or individuate themselves from their parents. Parental pressure or a traumatic event can make it difficult for young people to mature and explore themselves. This difficulty can continue into adulthood, making it harder to find clarity. Significant changes in adulthood can spark new or existing challenges with one's identity -- issues such as divorce, illness, career changes, trauma, and losing a loved one.

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Complications Of An Identity Crisis

The complications of an identity crisis arise when factors prolong the crisis and begin to affect health and stability. Challenges increase when it causes the person to avoid his or her life, and if the individual does not have, or feels they do not have, enough support or resilience. A complicated or extended identity crisis can lead to major depression or other mental health challenges.

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Current Factors in Identity Formation

In the past, experts considered the identity crisis an adolescent phase. However, recent studies show more adults are experiencing them. This suggests identity is not concrete and can change several times throughout one's life. A person may achieve a healthy identity in their teen years only to find themselves in crisis as an adult. Additionally, identity formation differs in other countries, suggesting cultural norms play a part in the creation and flexibility of one's identity.

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Treatment for an Identity Crisis

An identity crisis is not necessarily a disorder, so there is no specific, medical treatment. However, if complications include depression or mental health issues, it's best to seek the advice of a doctor. An identity crisis can be a normal process; if you experience one, it's helpful to have compassion, find support, and encourage yourself to keep exploring.

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Prevention of an Identity Crisis

An identity crisis is challenging but is not an abnormal part of growth -- it is often a regular part of both teenage and adult development. Sometimes, attempting to prevent an identity crisis can make it worse. However, some protective factors can prevent the issue in some people, or at least reduce the more challenging effects. People can strive to enhance resilience, make self-care a priority, and encourage self-exploration.

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Finding Support

Finding support may be one of the most helpful things anyone who is experiencing an identity crisis can do. This support can be in the form of professional counseling or regular supportive chats with a good friend. Many groups and activities support youth and adults who are undergoing changes or questioning their identity. Lastly, many resources are available through the library or online.

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A Deeper Exploration of Identity

The current cultural and political climate has many people questioning who they are and what they need. Several scholars feel we may be going through a widespread societal identity crisis. This could explain why there is a rise in people experiencing this phenomenon. Despite the potential downsides, this could be the beginning of a new and beneficial shift towards greater personal and global awareness.

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