There are a few definitions for identity crisis, but the concept typically refers to questioning your place in the world and who you are as a person.
Maybe you feel you’re no longer connected to a purpose. Perhaps you’re not clear about the role you’ve served in the world and what your next steps should be.
If this is the case, and you’re experiencing some distress from this self-exploratory process, you might be going through an identity crisis.
What is a crisis?
In psychology, a crisis typically refers to intense mental distress caused by the perception that a change is imminent and that you don’t have the resources to handle the change.
Though a crisis often has a negative connotation, it can be an opportunity for growth and positive change.
An identity crisis is when you persistently question who you are, including your:
- life purpose
- core beliefs
- thoughts that create your perception of self
The concept of identity crisis originates from the works of psychologist Erik Erikson.
Erikson believed most people undergo multiple crises while personality develops. He thought that developing a sense of identity was the most significant psychological process anyone experienced.
According to Erikson, a crisis is a “make-it-or-break-it” moment when you’re faced with an important predicament regarding your personal growth and sense of self.
What is an identity crisis about?
David Flowers, a licensed professional counselor and adjunct professor in Davison, Michigan, explains that during an identity crisis, you may become bored or disillusioned with things that used to mean a great deal to you, such as:
- roles at home or at work
- personal or professional goals
- role models
An identity crisis is about questioning some or all of these aspects.
A little context: Erikson’s stages of psychosocial development
Erikson, like others before him, believed personality and identity developed in stages and changed throughout life.
According to Erikson, each stage presents unique challenges or conflicts.
If you successfully overcome that challenge, you’ll develop a specific trait. If you fail to overcome the challenge, you won’t develop said trait or will develop a contrasting one.
For example, as an infant, you learn about trust. If you overcome the challenge, you might develop trust in others and relationships. If you don’t succeed, you might grow up not feeling safe in your connection with others.
Erikson’s stages of personality development, with the corresponding traits, include:
- stage 1: Trust vs. mistrust (infancy)
- stage 2: Autonomy vs. shame and doubt (ages 2-3)
- stage 3: Initiative vs. guilt (ages 3-5)
- stage 4: Competency vs. inferiority (ages 6-11)
- stage 5: Identity vs. role confusion (ages 12-18)
- stage 6: Intimacy vs. isolation (ages 19-40)
- stage 7: Concern for others vs. stagnation (ages 40-65)
- stage 8: Ego integrity vs. despair (ages 65+)
Although stage 5 would focus on finding your role in the world, all stages contribute to different aspects of your identity. In that sense, you’re developing and questioning your identity throughout your life.
When you’re exploring what it means to be you, the emotions and thoughts that come along can be extremely personal and unique.
There’s no one-size-fits-all list of signs of an identity crisis. There’s also no rule in terms of age.
An adolescent will likely go through an identity crisis to establish who they are or want to be as a person. But it’s also possible that you have a similar experience at any other point in life, particularly if experiencing significant life changes.
According to Flowers, some common signs you might be experiencing an identity crisis include:
- feeling bored or restless with things that have felt satisfying before
- frequently asking yourself what’s the “point” of things you’re doing or roles you’re playing
- thinking more often about dying, or how quickly time is running out (especially during a particular type of identity crisis called a “midlife crisis”)
- asking yourself who you are, where you fit, or where you belong
- wondering often whether you’ve made the right choices until now and are living up to your potential, when you’ve always felt confident before
Is an identity crisis the same as a midlife crisis?
A midlife crisis is a type of identity crisis, but not all identity crises happen around midlife.
Erikson believed identity was constantly evolving based on your life experiences.
A midlife crisis could develop during Erikson’s seventh stage.
At this stage, between the ages of 40 and 65, you may find yourself wondering if what you’ve done in life has been productive and memorable.
The realization that you’re growing older and that time to do the things you want might be getting shorter can create a sense of urgency that makes you question your life’s path.
If going through a midlife crisis, you might have questions like:
- Have I done everything I needed to do?
- What is my legacy?
- Should I be enjoying life more?
- Should I try new things?
- Is it too late to…?
As Erikson noted, though it sounds difficult, a developmental crisis is a chance for immense personal growth.
“It can be an opportunity to take stock of your life and either end up with renewed confidence that you are on the right path or make some course corrections that will make you happier,” says Flowers.
He adds that this might mean seeking therapy, taking up a new hobby, or shedding roles that no longer fit you.
An identity crisis can be a chance to make positive improvements in your life.
It’s natural to feel flustered by the word “crisis.” It often implies serious urgency, one that shouldn’t be ignored.
But development crises can serve as growth platforms, and there are ways to cope during this self-evaluation process.
Consider the potential for growth
In psychology, crises can be opportunities for personal growth.
Reminding yourself of this may help you look at the potential positive outcomes that arise from questioning who you are and what you want out of life.
Try to remind yourself this is a natural occurrence
Flowers advises that you view an identity crisis as a natural event and one that will likely occur more than once in your lifetime.
Along with accepting your current feelings, Flowers suggests not to be self-critical. It’s OK to question roles and values you once held close.
Talking with others might help
“Ask friends if they have had this experience, how they handled it, and how it worked out for them,” suggests Flowers.
Talking with others about their experiences can help relieve some of the anxiety of contemplating major life overhauls.
Consider reaching out to a mental health professional
Flowers says some people might feel they’re developing symptoms of depression when faced with an identity crisis. But they’re not the same thing.
It’s possible to experience existential depression or clinical depression if you’re having a hard time during an identity crisis.
If you’re feeling hopeless and your thoughts are primarily of despair, speaking with a mental health professional can help determine whether what you’re experiencing is more than an identity crisis.
An identity crisis is when you aren’t sure if who you are aligns with who you thought you were.
While it can be a time of challenging thoughts and emotions, an identity crisis can also be a time of positive personal growth and change.
If you’re concerned about your life’s path and the role you have to play, you’re not alone. Many people have wondered the same things, some at multiple stages of their lives.
If you feel overwhelmed by identity crisis challenges or if negative thoughts are impacting your daily life, speaking with a mental health professional can help.