An identity crisis is a period of confusion and doubt surrounding one’s sense of self. It often occurs during times of transition or when someone is forced to confront aspects of their life that conflict with the roles they have taken on. It can impact personal/private life and professional/workplace roles, leading to difficult decisions about identities one wishes to embrace.
Identity crises are widespread, with adolescents being the most vulnerable age group. A 2015 study revealed that 37% of teenagers experienced difficulty discovering their identity, and 95% felt inferior. Beyond this, according to the American Psychological Association dictionary entry linked above, adults can also experience identity crises such as a midlife crisis, particularly when presented with new or conflicting life changes.
It’s essential to be mindful of the psychological effects of an identity crisis, particularly when it comes to public health. For example, identity crises can lead to feelings of alienation and depression, which can cause physical and emotional distress over time. Therefore it’s crucial to understand the causes, identify signs and symptoms and be aware of potential treatments.
Identity crisis symptoms
While every person will experience identity crises differently, there are some key symptoms to look out for:
- Depersonalization: feeling disconnected from one’s thoughts, feelings and/or body.
- Anxiety: elevated levels of anxiety that can lead to higher levels of stress, fear and even panic attacks in extreme cases
- Confusion: difficulty making decisions or engaging in problem-solving due to lack of clarity surrounding one’s identity
- Lack of direction: a sense of being “lost” and lacking purpose or ambition in life
- Questioning core values: doubting previously held beliefs about what is important and rethinking one’s sense of self, often questioning fundamental aspects of self such as beliefs, values, goals and lifestyle
If any of the above symptoms are present, it’s worthwhile to reach out for help and support to explore options that can help one regain clarity and make informed decisions about one’s identity. In addition, allowing oneself to take the time needed to think through various perspectives without pressure or judgment can lead to a healthier relationship with self and an improved sense of well-being.
Identity crisis causes
Everyone goes through significant life changes, wanted or unwanted, which can trigger an identity crisis. Common causes include:
- A major life change: This could be anything from a career transition or job loss to family changes like parenting, marriage or undergoing physical transformation due to illness or disability.
- Cultural conflict: The tension between personal culture and the workplace or school environment can be a source of an identity crisis.
- Trauma: Experiencing traumatic events can lead to an identity crisis due to difficulty processing and accepting one’s experience.
- Loss: Losing someone close, either through death, separation or conflict, can lead to confusion, burnout and despair about one’s identity.
As people experience life changes, it’s important to remember that identity crises are a normal part of life. It can be challenging, but exploring one’s beliefs and values can help build resilience and more clearly define who one is.
Questions you can ask if you feel you might be experiencing an identity crisis
If you’re unsure whether you, a friend or a family member are experiencing an identity crisis, consider the following questions when you’re looking for signs of this psychological process:
- Do you feel confused about who you are and what matters to you?
- Are your values, beliefs or lifestyle in conflict with others around you?
- Have recent life changes caused confusion about what direction your life should take?
- Are you feeling overwhelmed, restless or discontent with life?
- Do you often tailor your behavior to fit the atmosphere, circumstance or relationship?
- Do you struggle to answer questions about yourself or question your decisions?
Only a mental health professional can help assess your symptoms and provide an accurate diagnosis. They can also offer guidance on how to work through the identity crisis, helping you find balance, purpose and clarity in life.
If you’re seeking a professional assessment for an identity crisis, there are several options available. First, you may want to speak with a trusted family doctor who can provide a referral for further assessment. There are also several online resources that offer mental health assessments, such as Psychology Today and GoodTherapy.org.
Alternatively, you may seek out individual therapy or join a support group to work through your identity crisis in a safe environment with the guidance of a trained professional.
Identity crisis treatments
Treatment for every individual is unique and depends on the specific circumstances of their identity crisis. However, there are some common treatments that mental health professionals typically recommend for managing an identity crisis, such as:
- Support networks: Connecting with family, friends or other trusted individuals can provide invaluable support during times of difficulty and uncertainty.
- Meditation/relaxation: Mindfulness meditation and progressive muscle relaxation can reduce stress and increase awareness.
- Journaling/writing: Writing or keeping a journal can be a helpful way to express thoughts, feelings, fears and dreams without judgment.
- Self-exploration: Exploring hobbies, interests, values, beliefs and goals can help uncover hidden parts of one’s identity which may have been overlooked previously.
However, beyond these, professional counseling is often recommended in such circumstances. Counseling can provide the guidance and support needed to help individuals make sense of their thoughts and feelings, encouraging them to explore different aspects of themselves through creative expression or goal setting. This can ultimately lead to a greater understanding of oneself and more clarity in life.
A few examples of therapy you may try are:
- Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
- Acceptance and Commitment Therapy
- Psychoanalytic Therapy
- Existential Therapy
- Art Therapy
- Talk therapy - Psychodynamic approaches using self-reflection and assessment to some of the deeper roots of issues activated can be facilitated by a trained professional.
Depending on your individual needs and circumstances, a mental health professional can guide you in deciding which type of therapy is best for you.
Why is identity important?
A strong sense of identity is essential to develop a healthy, meaningful life. It can provide grounding to cope with turbulent times or uncertainty and provide clarity when making decisions. Identity is not fixed; it changes over time. Allowing oneself to explore new aspects of themselves and be open to change is important for personal growth.
Having a solid sense of identity and self-esteem can:
- Promote self-confidence, understanding and empathy as an individual navigates through life.
- Provide the courage to take risks or pursue opportunities outside one’s comfort zone.
- Encourage creativity as a person can express themselves in more authentic ways.
- Help foster meaningful relationships and connections with others.
To foster growth, consider building a personal brand that reflects your values, beliefs and passions. This can give you a greater sense of purpose and direction. Or, expand on your professional development by enrolling in career-focused courses or workshops. It is important to remember that identity is a journey, and taking time is okay. Strive to explore who you are authentically and accept where you are in the process.
Tips and resources for coping with an identity crisis
If you’re currently going through an identity crisis, here are some tips and resources that may help:
- Take time to set goals or intentions for yourself and practice affirmations.
- Explore resources such as books, blogs or podcasts that explore identity and self-discovery.
- Take a break from social media to reduce outside influence and comparison.
- Focus on self-care activities such as yoga, reading or listening to music.
- Connect with others who have similar experiences or interests as you.
- Take part in self-help seminars or workshops.
- Create a list of personal values and aspirations.
Ultimately, remember that your journey of self-discovery is a lifetime endeavor. You will face many highs and lows along the way, but with patience and an open mind to new experiences, you can find peace in who you are.