An identity crisis is a phase many people go through when they question or reassess who they are. A search for identity is common during the teenage years but people may also reassess their lives after a major life event, such as retirement.
Psychoanalyst and psychologist Erik Erikson developed the concept of the identity crisis to characterize the experimentation and identity development phase that people experience during their teen years.
The period of identity crisis happens during the fifth stage of Erikson’s stages of development. During the crisis, a person experiments with different roles and identities. At the end of this stage of development, a person either resolves the crisis and has a firm identity or has identity confusion. In Erikson’s theory, an identity crisis is a normal, predictable part of healthy development.
The concept has since become popular, and many people now use it to describe any phase in which a person questions themselves. For example, people may say that a midlife crisis is an identity crisis, that they are having an identity crisis if they cannot decide on a career, or may report an identity crisis after graduating college or another major life change. That is to say, the term now has two distinct meanings, and in popular usage, it has changed considerably from its original meaning.
Keep reading to learn more about identity crisis, the importance of identity, causes and symptoms, coping tips, and advice on when to consult a doctor.
According to Erik Erikson’s eight stages of development, an identity crisis happens as a part of normal development.
Each of Erikson’s eight stages features a conflict between two opposing values. During the fifth stage, in adolescence, a person must choose between identity and identity confusion. This stage features an identity crisis.
During an identity crisis, a person “tries on” different identities and ways of being. They may question their family’s values and cultural norms, and begin developing their own system of values and unique personality, separate from their family.
The term has evolved with time. In its popular use, people use it to refer to any time a person’s identity shifts or they question their identity. For example, cultural or occupational changes might spur a professional identity crisis.
Erikson argued that identity certainty helps a person reject incongruent self-evaluations. For example, a person with a strong sense of identity may be better equipped to ignore or reject bullying. Identity confusion or uncertainty may lead to mental health issues such as depression and anxiety.
Erikson believed it was important to be flexible and not to strive solely for a strong identity. Doing so can nurture fanaticism and inflexibility. Instead, a person must be open to shifts in identity.
In Erikson’s understanding, development centers around
In the popular conception of an identity crisis, an identity crisis can occur after a major life change or following a trauma. Some potential causes might include:
- graduating high school or college
- getting married
- starting a job
- losing a spouse or parent
- becoming a parent
- changes in one’s job duties or career path
In both Erikson’s understanding and the popular conception, identity crises share several features. Those include:
- exploring new identities and ways of being
- trying different ways of thinking
- being uncertain of one’s identity and values
- thinking about one’s role in the world and in relationships
Importantly, in the Eriksonian understanding of an identity crisis, these behaviors are a feature of adolescence, not other stages of development. Healthy identity development requires a teenager to resolve the crisis with a sense of identity. This does not require treatment.
In the popular conception of an identity crisis, an identity crisis may have additional features:
- major life change, such as graduating from college or experiencing the COVID-19 pandemic
- a shift in a person’s values or life path
- a developmental change outside of adolescence, such as getting married or entering midlife
- a shift in gender identity
As with Erikson’s understanding, this popular understanding resolves when a person understands and accepts their identity. However, unlike in the Eriksonian understanding, this is not a usual part of development. A person might need treatment for mental health support to work through it.
An identity crisis, in Erikson’s understanding, does not require treatment. Erikson did believe that certain behaviors and emotions may be signs of developmental issues and identity confusion. For example, depression, anxiety, and other widespread issues among young people may result from an unresolved identity crisis.
People experiencing identity issues may find support in therapy. During therapy, a person can clarify their values, discuss their history, reclaim or develop a new identity, and receive support for the anxiety and stress that sometimes accompany an identity crisis.
An identity crisis is not a mental health diagnosis and does not require medication. However, some people may develop mental health conditions during an identity crisis or find that their identity crisis intensifies a preexisting mental health condition. Medication, especially along with therapy, may help.
Some conditions that are similar to an identity crisis include:
- Midlife crisis: A crisis of identity in midlife.
- Quarterlife crisis: A crisis of identity that often happens in a person’s 20s, as they begin a career or graduate college.
- Professional identity crisis: A crisis occurring when a person is unsure of their career.
- Gender dysphoria: Feeling uncomfortable with the gender a person is assigned at birth, which may include the desire to live as another gender.
- Adjustment disorder: An intense stress reaction to a stress or trauma.
Some strategies for coping with an identity crisis include:
- Learning about different identities and ways of being. Reading new books, watching TV, attending different religious ceremonies, and other strategies to explore identity may help. This strategy can also make diverse identities feel more accepted.
- Interacting with many different people. Learn about their lives and ask about their experiences. This may help with cultivating a meaningful identity.
- Considering how cultural and family norms affect a person’s identity. Weigh which aspects a person would like to accept and reject.
- Seeking support from trusted loved ones or a therapist.
- Understanding that no one else can, or should, determine a person’s identity.
- Embracing the crisis as a chance to develop a meaningful sense of identity and purpose.
An identity crisis is not a mental health diagnosis or a medical problem. In the Eriksonian understanding, it is a natural stage of development. It does not need treatment if a person resolves the crisis and does not develop identity confusion.
A person might consider talking with a doctor or mental health professional if they:
- experience intense dissatisfaction with or confusion about their identity
- would like mental health support to navigate an identity crisis
- develop intense anxiety or depression
- have thoughts of self-harm
If you know someone at immediate risk of self-harm, suicide, or hurting another person:
- Ask the tough question: “Are you considering suicide?”
- Listen to the person without judgment.
- Call 911 or the local emergency number, or text TALK to 741741 to communicate with a trained crisis counselor.
- Stay with the person until professional help arrives.
- Try to remove any weapons, medications, or other potentially harmful objects.
If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide, a prevention hotline can help. The 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline is available 24 hours a day at 988. During a crisis, people who are hard of hearing can use their preferred relay service or dial 711 then 988.
An identity crisis is a typical stage of development that, in Erikson’s understanding, everyone must face. Outside of Erikson’s conception, identity crises remain common, and some people experience several during their lives.
An identity crisis is not necessarily a negative. It may encourage a person to question their values and place in the world, embrace new values, and understand their relationships with others. However, the process can feel stressful, and people who feel stuck may develop identity confusion. If this occurs, they should seek mental health advice.
Talking with supportive loved ones or a therapist may also help people navigate an identity crisis.