What are identity crises?

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Identity crises are states of conflict during which a person may suffer from role disorientation and question his or her self-perception. Psychoanalytical theorist Erik H. Erikson coined the term “identity crisis,” which is an integral component of his identity development model. Identity crises are experienced throughout the life span and are viewed as often necessary processes in healthy psychosocial development.
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The foundation for theories involving identity crises and the importance of these crises in human development is Erik H. Erikson’s eight stages of identity development. The identity development theory, also called the psychosocial theory, creates a blueprint for how personality is expressed and how a person becomes integrated with others. The theory involves the role of social interaction between the self and others as each individual undergoes the process of socialization. In each stage of identity development, a person encounters a conflict or crisis that needs to be resolved to successfully navigate through the stage. During an identity crisis, a person experiences intensive self-reflection and exploration. Erikson describes a crisis as the process of resolving conflict regarding a person’s colliding desires for both individuality and communal belonging. The approach people take toward resolving a crisis will ultimately develop into a pattern, which Erikson considered the cornerstone of identity development.

Erikson proposed a sequential stage theory to explain identity development. He believed that prior stages of development (specifically identity) or construction influence later stages of development and that the ability to move through the stages is influenced by stages of physical maturation, such as puberty. However, completion of a stage was not necessary to move on to another stage, and development did not come to fruition at the end of adolescence. Erikson felt that identity development and the accompanying crises continued throughout a person’s life span.

The Stages

The first stage of psychosocial development and later identity development is trust versus mistrust. During this stage, which Erikson associated with infants up to one year old, babies learn to trust their caregivers and the support, both emotional and physical, that they provide. At this point in human development, people are at their most vulnerable; to survive, they must rely on others. Children begin to identify with their caregivers’ actions toward them, which creates a model for their own caregiving later in life. According to Erikson, the crisis arises as babies mature and their mothers begin to resume their prior roles, including that of wife. The mothers must begin to alter their responses to their babies’ needs while maintaining their trust. This conflict is evident in the process parents go through to help their babies sleep through the night. Parents may be told not to respond to every cry to help the baby self-regulate and maintain a sleep routine. Babies must learn that fewer responses are not an indication of abandonment. Successful completion of this stage is the formulation of a model of trust and security in future interactions.

The second stage, autonomy versus shame or doubt, covers children aged two to three. As children gain the physical ability to move on their own, they begin to want more control; however, they simultaneously doubt their capabilities and fear that their parents will retain too much control over them. These conflicting fears create doubt in children. This conflict can be seen in children who want to touch and explore their surroundings but hesitate to leave the side of their caregivers. If the conflict between a desire for self-control and parental control is not resolved, low self-esteem may develop.

Erikson suggested that in the third stage, initiative versus guilt (ages three to six), children begin to explore who they are and the ways they identify with their parents. Specifically, Erikson speculated that during this stage, children develop the foundation for understanding gender roles. For example, during this stage, children may find themselves favoring one parent over the other. Although the favoring may be a way for children to start to understand gender roles (such as what each parent does), children may also feel guilt for not evenly distributing their attention and affection.

In Erikson’s fourth stage, the industry versus inferiority stage of development (ages six to twelve), he considered the role of the environment. The stage begins when children enter elementary school, where learning is focused on concrete tasks such as classifying objects and recognition of patterns and orders. Children rely on concrete evidence, such as performance in an academic, artistic, or athletic domain, to define who they are. Erikson suggested that children begin to believe that what they produce is used to determine and evaluate them. However, during this time, children also become aware of the social inequalities (such as race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic background) that influence who they will be. The developing of this awareness coincides with the onset of puberty, which also contributes to children’s progression into the next stage of development.

Adolescence and Beyond

The fifth of Erikson’s stages, the identity versus role confusion (about thirteen to eighteen years of age), is one of the most studied. For Erikson, this period marks the transition from childhood to adulthood and is characterized by the adolescents’ continual need to explore the roles they may want to assume. This stage also marks a shift from relying solely on parents for identification cues; youths begin to identify more with their peer groups and any activities, religion, and social-political movements with which they may be involved. However, Erikson proposed that to ward off role confusion, adolescents may be overzealous in their identification with and endorsement of social group leaders, which can lead to total self-conformity. Therefore, the goal of identity development during adolescence is to integrate various identities into a unified whole. This need for integration and the fear of permanent identity diffusion are the result of puberty changes and growing social pressure from peers and the larger community. Integration is considered the successful outcome of identity crisis resolution in adolescence.

Stages six through eight were structured around Erikson’s belief that people emerge from adolescence into young adulthood with an intact identity. In these stages, therefore, the focus shifts from finding the self to becoming intimate with other people. Erikson refers to stage six as intimacy and solidarity versus isolation. During this stage, the conflict or crisis is about learning to coexist in a partnership. However, if individuals do not have intact identities, they will be unable to experience intimacy or commit for fear that they might lose themselves.

During middle adulthood, people enter into the seventh stage, characterized by generativity versus self-absorption or stagnation. Erikson assumed that people would be raising children and would therefore develop a need to impart knowledge to their offspring. People may suffer from self-absorption or lack of psychological growth if not given the opportunity to share their knowledge with others. The generative crisis is the foundation for research regarding the midlife crisis. This stage contains a bias toward having children, which reflects the time in which the theory was developed.

The eighth stage, during late adulthood, is called integrity versus despair. This period is when people reflect on their lives; if people are happy and at peace with their pathways through development, they will have integrity and will therefore not fear death.

Expansions on Identity Development

Using Erikson’s identity development theory as a frame, in 1966, Canadian developmental psychologist JamesMarcia developed anidentity status model based on the use of exploration and commitment in developing an identity. This model deconstructs identity acquisition into four critical statuses. Although the statuses appear hierarchical in organization, they should not be considered stages because no clear sequence exists. The four statuses are identity foreclosure, identity diffusion, identity moratorium, and identity achievement. During each status, people may encounter an identity crisis or confusion, which will prompt them to reconcile the conflict and possibly result in the transition to another status.

Foreclosed statuses are characterized by high levels of commitment and low levels of exploration or agency. In a foreclosed status, identity is ascribed or given to the person. Identity is made up of the ready-made goals and values of an authority figure or society that are accepted by the person. During this status, the people are highly susceptible to peer-group pressure. Erikson described people in this status when he talked about the need for adolescents to quickly conform to the characteristics of a group.

Diffusion refers to a status in which people have no complexity or purpose and high levels of apathy. Prior research suggests that prolonged diffusion past adolescence can result in maladaptive outcomes, such as drug abuse and sexual risk taking. It is during this status that people are incredibly vulnerable to persuasion and have the least amount of agency. This status is often considered a starting point for identity searching.

Marcia’s moratorium status is considered very brief yet functional; it is both intensely stressful and overwhelming. In this status, people are in full-blown identity crisis and cannot commit to any single identity. However, the noncommittal person in moratorium status can become a very open-minded individual. Researcher Harold Grotevant suggests that the moratorium status describes most identity development in adolescence, the period in which alternatives to a current identity and the values and beliefs that are attached are explored. Adolescents seek out alternatives in an effort to resolve the pressures they may be encountering. The moratorium status also marks a shift away from acceptance of ascribed (given) identities and identifications.

Identity achievement is thought to be the endpoint for adolescence and identity crisis or confusion. During this status, the core identity has emerged as a result of successful integrations; adolescents are able to commit to values and goals they have chosen. Researchers suggest identity achievement is the most beneficial status for self-esteem, which is another aspect of identity. Adolescents with higher reported self-esteem are more likely to have reported an identity achievement status.

Although Marcia’s typology is one of the most influential post-Erikson expansions, critics fear this narrowed focus negates the important role of context in identity development and the ensuing crisis. Critics such as E. P. Schachter suggest that there is underlying universality to Erikson’s identity development theory, in that the process to resolve a crisis will remain the same regardless of the sociocultural and sociohistorical frames. For example, achievement identity may be considered the ultimate status for functioning in one society, but foreclosure may be the desired identity status in another society. Renewed interest in the resolution of identity crises has spurred more in-depth examinations of developmental stages beyond adolescence.

Beyond the Adolescent Identity Crisis

Research by American psychologist Jeffery J. Arnett has uncovered a distinct period of exploration and understanding that separates adolescence from adulthood. Emerging adulthood has also been viewed as a prolonged period of high identity exploration and low identity commitment—in other words, a state of persistent moratorium. The normative expectations of this distinct period revolve around identity exploration and the resolution of conflict. However, emerging adulthood and the conflicts encountered are not universal concepts but rather the by-products of cultural construction in Western late-modern societies such as the United States. Arnett defines this period as a time for constant transition and change, and because one-third of emerging adults in the United States are attending college, development during this time often begins to take place during a time of semiautonomy. Semiautonomy implies that although the majority of college students do not live with their families, they still rely on some forms of family financial and social support. An example of semiautonomy is a student who rents an apartment and may have a part-time job but whose parents still pay for his or her medical insurance and health care.

Research on how people conceptualize this period has found that a majority of individuals aged eighteen to twenty-five do not identify themselves as adolescents but do not see themselves as full-fledged adults either. Closer examination as to why individuals have this subjective sense of emerging adulthood has revealed that the criteria that these individuals use to infer a transition to adulthood are financial independence and accepting responsibility for the self. The adherence to these criteria can be a source of conflict resulting in crisis. By enrolling in college, these students are granted the ability to exist in a paradoxical universe, where an emerging adult with a previously stable identity configuration is given permission to revert back into a state of exploration. During this period, personal expectations and social-role expectations collide, allowing a stronger integrated and achieved identity to emerge before adulthood. However, again the assumption is that the achieved identity status is the desired goal.

One of the most commonly cited types of crisis after adolescence and emerging adulthood is the midlife crisis, which usually occurs between the ages of forty and sixty. Experts believe that rapid role changes and expectations, such as facing new limitations because of physical deterioration or reflecting on one's disappointing professional status, bring on psychological distress. A person suffering from a midlife crisis may exhibit personality and behavioral changes, such as a low mood, self-absorption, or depression. The underlying assumption behind midlife crises is that aging is an intensely stressful event that spurs an overwhelming period of self-reflection and possible regret. It has also been suggested that middle age is a time during which people must contend with their own mortality, which echoes the original conflicts of identity posited by Erikson. However, as other major life events such as marriage, parenthood, and career establishment have been taking place later and later, the expectation of having a midlife crisis wanes.


Although an identity crisis is often thought of as typically occurring in either adolescence or middle adulthood, it is actually a normative process experienced throughout a person’s life. The belief in normative crises is a major contribution of Erikson’s original identity development theory. An identity crisis or process of conflict resolution is a necessary aspect of psychosocial development. It is not always stressful and cannot be assumed to lead to the person’s engaging in maladaptive behaviors. Future research should focus on how society and or culture may influence the onset and type of crisis experienced, the factors that assist people during their crises and how these factors may be a function of the culture and society to which the person belongs, and whether identity crises are universal.


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