Identity Crisis: The Role of Transitions
Are you going through a transition that’s making you question who you are? Maybe what your purpose is, or what your values are? If so, you may be going through what some call an identity crisis. Questioning your sense of self may be stressful, but it can actually be a good thing in the long term. Knowing yourself better and adapting to changes can help you grow as a person. Read on to discover more about identity, types of identity crisis as well as symptoms, causes, and ways to cope.
What is Identity?
In essence, identities emerge in response to the question: Who am I? The answer to this question encompasses political opinions, moral attitudes, and religious beliefs, all of which guide the choices you make on a daily basis. Identity includes the many relationships you cultivate, such as your identity as a child, friend, partner, and parent. Identity also involves external characteristics over which you have little or no control, such as your height, race, or socioeconomic class. This unique combination creates a steady sense of who you are over time, even as new facets are developed and incorporated into your identity. Reflecting on the difference between who you are and who you want to be can be a powerful catalyst for change and growth.
What is an Identity Crisis?
An identity crisis occurs when there is a threat or challenge to your identity or sense of self such that your mental health falters and you struggle to incorporate a new role or aspect of self.
The father of identity, Erik Erikson, proposed an enduring theory of human development. Erikson divided the lifecycle into eight stages, each of which contained an inherent developmental challenge or conflict. The resolution of each developmental conflict serves to form an individual’s personality. The conflict associated with identity occurs during adolescence.
Although identity formation is most acute during adolescence, the process doesn’t stop after the teen years. Taking on a new role, such as becoming a parent, can make self-definition a lifelong process. As a person grows older, the overall trend is toward identity achievement or self-actualization. But major life upheavals, such as divorce, retirement, or the death of a loved one, often lead people to explore and redefine their identities.
What age does identity crisis occur?
An identity crisis can occur during significant life transitions. For example, an identity crisis can occur in adolescence, in quarter-life, and in midlife. Most of the reported crises occur before age 40 or after age 50. Often, behavior described as a midlife crisis is triggered by events such as job loss, divorce, financial problems, or illness, which can occur at any time in adulthood.
The Quarter-Life Crisis
Turning points are significant changes in the trajectory of life or an experience or realization that causes someone to reinterpret the past. The most common turning points involve the work domain, usually a change in job or career. Entering the thirties may be more disruptive than turning 40. According to Robbins and Wilner (2001), this is consistent with the notion of a “quarter-life crisis,” occurring for those in their mid-twenties and early thirties as they struggle to find satisfaction in work and meaningful relationships.
The Midlife Crisis
In a paper published in 1965, Elliott Jaques, Canadian psychoanalyst and organizational consultant, coined the term “midlife crisis.” Jaques wrote that during this period of development, we come face-to-face with our limitations, our restricted possibilities, and our mortality.
Erik Erikson referred to a “life review” that helps people come to terms with their death. People reflect on, analyze, and evaluate their past to determine whether or not (more or less) they think they’ve lived a good life. It’s not uncommon for regrets related to four major themes to emerge:
- Mistakes and bad decisions
- Hard times
- Social relationships
- Missed educational opportunities
Thus, a successful life review results in an integrated view of one’s past life, including positive memories and achievements alongside the reconciliation and acceptance of failures and disappointments. Current research suggests that a life review can take place throughout the adult lifespan, in particular during times of change and transition.
Patricia Katz calls it “midlife malaise” when people feel restless, uninspired, stuck or stale, cruising on autopilot, or going through the motions. Midlife malaise occurs in the 50’s and 60’s. At this point, people start asking, “How do you want to be as you grow old?” rather than “What do you want to be when you grow up?”
Patricia has identified three different ways that people tend to respond to midlife malaise:
- Resignation: Wave the white flag and coast to the finish line.
- Detonation: Total lifestyle makeover by blowing up relationships and/or blowing up careers.
- Exploration: Akin to the process of self-discovery in adolescence, this process of exploration isn’t straightforward. Instead, the process is more like mucking around in the swamp or wandering around in the wilderness trying to find your way through.
Jett Psaris dubbed this difficult stretch a “midlife passage” that requires a “leap,” a process of letting go of who you have known yourself to be and opening to the full possibility of who you are becoming. Jett calls this a hidden blessing and a spiritual awakening.
No matter your age, negotiating difficult transitions can seem scary. Moreover, grieving losses and grappling with regrets can seem formidable. However, you don’t have to go it alone. Others have passed that way before and charted a path you can follow!
Symptoms of an identity Crisis
As suggested on healthline, having an identity crisis isn’t a diagnosable condition, so there aren’t typical “symptoms.” Instead, some signs you may be experiencing an identity crisis include:
- Questioning things such as your values, spirituality, beliefs, interests, or career path that have a major impact on how you see yourself.
- Experiencing personal conflict due to questioning who you are or your role in society.
- Experiencing big changes that have affected your sense of self, such as a divorce.
- Searching for more meaning, purpose, or passion in your life.
It’s completely normal to question who you are, especially since we change throughout our lives. However, when it begins to affect your daily thinking or functioning, you may be having a crisis of identity.
What causes an identity crisis?
Although people think an identity crisis happens at certain ages like in the teens or midlife, an identity crisis can happen to anyone, of any age, at any point in one’s life.
Identity crises, or other mental health issues, can arise due to major life stressors. These stressors don’t have to be inherently bad, but they can still cause a lot of stress, which makes you question who you are and what you value. Stressors can include:
- getting married
- getting divorced or separated
- experiencing a traumatic event
- losing a loved one
- losing or getting a job
- new health issues
These and other stressors can certainly have an impact on your daily life and how you see yourself.
How to Address an Identity Crisis?
Here are some things you can do to address an identity crisis:
- Recognize expectations as sources of judgment: Other people’s expectations as well as your own can have a big effect on how you’re feeling. Perhaps, society’s standards don’t fit you anymore. Maybe, it’s time to revise old standards or create new standards. Or, to break with tradition altogether. It may take time for the people in your life to understand the changes, but you’ll be happier in the long term if you’re true to yourself.
- Look inward and explore: Take some time out to really look within yourself and ask yourself some questions about what you like and don’t like anymore. Download: Values Reflection Worksheet
- Find support: Having good social support can help influence how well you cope with big changes, stressors, or questions of identity. Seek support from your friends, partners, and family members; your community or church; a new group, club, or meetup that shares your interests; or a support group, especially when dealing with a new health issue.
- Search for joy and other ways to cope: You may find fulfillment in volunteering, taking up a new hobby, connecting with others, or any number of other things outside of your employment. Or, you may find that a new job will be a more appropriate match for who you are.
- Seek professional help: Never feel afraid to ask for help. Life, especially big changes, can feel overwhelming.
In summary, whether a person goes willingly—or is pushed out—some change in midlife is inevitable. Despite the necessity of such change, midlife remains a difficult period, one for which people are, on the whole, ill prepared. No matter what age or stage of life you happen to be on, there’s always more you could do, try, and be. If an identity challenge comes your way, don’t resist it. Don’t ignore it. Instead, welcome it into your life and allow it be a catalyst that helps you embark on the next leg of your wellness journey.
If you’re in the throes of a difficult transition, a spiritual awakening, or an identity crisis, book a FREE 20-minute consultation. I’ll work with you to clarify your vision and plan for a successful outcome. Along the way, I’ll be there to encourage your efforts, to celebrate your progress, and to troubleshoot your breakdowns. Read testimonials from satisfied clients.
Be well and enjoy!
Disclaimer: The information provided through this Website is for educational and informational purposes only and solely as a self-help tool for your own use. If stress is causing significant or persistent unhappiness, please consult with a suitable health care professional.
- Lauchman, M. E. (2004). Development in midlife. Annual Review of Psychology, 55, 305-331. doi: 10.1146/annurev.psych.55.090902.141521
- Robbins, A. & Wilner, A. (2001). Quarterlife Crisis: The Unique Challenges of Life in Your Twenties. New York, NY: Putnam.
- Westerhof, G. J., & Bohlmeijer, E. T. (2014). Celebrating fifty years of research and applications in reminiscence and life review: State of the art and new directions. Journal of Aging Studies, 29, 107– 114. doi: 10.1016/j.aging.2014.02.003