If you’ve found yourself questioning your values, your path in life, or the answer to the question, “Who am I?” you may be struggling with an identity crisis. Identity crises are often able to be resolved through some combination of self-exploration, therapy, and help from a support system.
What Is an Identity Crisis?
An identity crisis is a personal, psychosocial conflict that often occurs during adolescence, though it may happen at any time. It involves confusion about one’s social role and sense of self.1
What Is Identity?
There is expansive research on identity that shows that identity development can be a difficult or tumultuous period in a person’s life. Erik Erikson, an important figure in identity research, theorized that we all go through stages of psychosocial development during our lives that challenge us to develop certain skills.2
Erikson proposes that if you do not achieve the ability to establish some sort of identity or role within society and yourself, this stage can bring on an identity crisis (also called “role confusion”). If you feel forced into an identity, you may begin to rebel, experience unhappiness, and even create a negative version of yourself.3
Concerns Similar to an Identity Crisis
An identity crisis can sometimes be a more general and vague term used to describe any number of challenging situations. In practice, you might be experiencing an identity crisis, or it might be:
- Midlife crisis
- Quarter life crisis
- Career change or dissatisfaction
- Gender dysphoria
- Adjustment disorder
- A mental health disorder like depression or bipolar disorder
Signs of an Identity Crisis
An identity crisis may cause feelings of frustration, being stuck, or lacking meaningful progression. Furthermore, an identity crisis can influence feelings of depression or anxiety, making people feel unsatisfied with themselves and their lives.5 This type of personal crisis may be more difficult to identify in one’s own self as the experience is more vague than the symptoms of other mental health illnesses.
Here are common signs of an identity crisis:4,5
- Questioning your character
- Questioning traits that influence your self-perception
- Questioning your purpose or passion in life
- Experiencing anxiety or unrest
- Altering your values or inclinations frequently to match your environment or relationship
- Difficulty answering questions about yourself
- Difficulty trusting your ability to make decisions
Is It Something More Serious?
An identity crisis can be a problematic and uncomfortable situation, but it is not usually dangerous. Something else can be fueling the identity crisis and result in a more serious situation – depression.
Depression is a general term for a group of depressive mood disorders that lead to low mood. It can also lead to self-harm, thoughts of death, and suicide.
Signs of depression may include:
- Mood changes and irritability
- Low energy and motivation
- Loss of interest in pleasurable activities
- Sleep, appetite, or weight changes
- Poor attention, concentration, and decision-making
- Thoughts about death and dying
- Feeling sped up or slowed downues.
How Identity Develops
Identity develops as a person progresses through different statuses. Depending on a person’s status, they could be exploring a new identity or holding strong to their current state.
The four types of identity status include:8
- Foreclosure: A person in foreclosure is strongly committed to their points of view, but they have lacked exploration. Often, they stick to the perspective others laid out for them.
- Achievement: Alternatively, people in the achievement status did have an exploratory session before deciding on their identity. They make commitments based on their personal beliefs and values.
- Diffusion: In diffusion, people are lacking commitment in their lives. Worse, they are not working towards a state of commitment.
- Moratorium: These people are the seekers. They are trying to find their identity and are experimenting with options before committing fully.
Causes of an Identity Crisis
Many causes of identity crises are fairly common and include big life changes, stress, or general advancement through the different stages of life.
Common causes of an identity crisis include:4
- Occurrence of a traumatic event, like a motor vehicle accident or witnessing something violent
- Loss of someone you love, regardless of the manner
- Major life transitions, like moving, changing schools, or switching careers
- Significant health changes, like being diagnosed with cancer or diabetes
- Relationship changes (romantic, friendly, or familial)
All of these causes can affect how you function on a basic level. They may even be a shock, impacting your perspective of yourself, as well as your thoughts on your occupation, relationships, values, and interests.
Identity Crisis in Adolescence
While people in all stages of life can experience an identity crisis, adolescents tend to be most prone. A study conducted in 2015 found that 37% of teens were struggling with their identity, and 95% of teens reported that they had felt inferior at some point in their lives.6
Adolescents also tend to be less familiar with techniques used to cope with traumatic events, losses, and changes in relationships, which increases their risk for stress and anxiety. While the development of self-worth is incredibly important for adolescents as they begin on the journey to self discovery, people at any stage in life are at risk of experiencing an identity crisis.
Is an Identity Crisis a Good Thing?
A crisis may sound like an obviously negative situation, but it may not be completely negative. Identity crises give people the opportunity to explore alternative ways of thinking, feeling, and living. Identity crises can serve as a warning system to indicate that there’s a problem. By recognizing the problem, the person is able to address and resolve the issue. Hopefully, the end result is a happier, healthier individual who is more firm on their identity and their values.
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10 Tips for Coping With an Identity Crisis
While an identity crisis can be difficult to handle, it is a common experience, and there are ways to cope like practicing objectivity, challenging negative thoughts, and taking time to express your values, desires, and needs. Coping with an identity crisis requires you to look inward and do some exploration of yourself without internal or external judgment.
Here are ten ideas for how to deal with an identity crisis:7
- Practice objectivity: Allow yourself time to reflect before reacting
- Challenge negative and irrational thoughts: Change the way you perceive difficult situations and events and any negative self-talk, and allow time to identify what is making you uncomfortable
- Express yourself: Practice communicating the values that are important to you
- Engage in guided meditations or journaling: Actively reflect and process to reduce any potential anxiety and increase self-awareness
- Engage in self-care: Work toward increased self-acceptance and self-awareness
- Identify unique traits in yourself: Increase self-awareness and knowledge of how you want to spend your time moving forward
- Learn to set boundaries: When trying to figure out who you are and what you want out of life, setting boundaries with people and commitments can help you get clearer on your path forward
- Avoid negative coping: Crises may be uncomfortable, and many people use negative coping skills to escape or avoid discomfort. Be sure to avoid drugs, alcohol, and promiscuous sex and focus on your identity.
- Lean into the crisis: Staying on the idea, build comfort in exposing yourself to the crisis. It may have a scary name, but you can limit the discomfort by dealing with it directly, with honesty and openness.
- Keep future-oriented: Thinking about the future puts you in a better position. The process may be difficult now, but it allows you to become a better, happy person in the future.
When to Talk to a Professional
If your identity crisis is lasting for an extended period, getting worse, or making you think about harming yourself or someone else, get in touch with professional mental health care as soon as possible. Even if your identity crisis has not caused problems yet, a professional can help you determine what next steps would help you move forward in a positive way while increasing your comfort and safety.
Treatment for an Identity Crisis
Talk therapy is the best way to seek help when experiencing an identity crisis. Therapy gives you the space to ask and process questions you may be struggling with, identify your strengths and values, do self-esteem work, and process what may have happened that led to the identity crisis itself.
There are quite a few options when it comes to overcoming an identity crisis through therapy. In general, talk therapy can help, but there are also more specific, evidence-based therapies that tend to be common forms of treatment. These include cognitive behavioral therapy, person centered therapy, and acceptance and commitment therapy. It may also be helpful to try group therapy to hear about others’ experiences as well.
Different therapies range in their treatment time, but many will span between 8 to 12 sessions. That said, therapists can and often do suggest more sessions based on your unique needs, presentation of mental illness, and reason for treatment.
How to Get Help for an Identity Crisis
Whether or not you know what type of therapy you’d like to pursue to treat your identity crisis, an online therapist directory is the perfect place to start your search. A directory of therapists will show you reviews, relevant information, and cost details. It also allows you to filter for areas of interest, like CBT, ACT, or Person Centered Therapy.
After doing your research through an online directory, you’ll be better equipped to make the best choice for yourself. Choosing a therapist is a positive first step toward getting the help you need.
Final Thoughts on Identity Crisis
Studies have shown that those who commit to understanding their identity and exploring the facets of themselves are happier and healthier than those who do not. Just remember, while this is a highly personal journey, you don’t have to go it alone.