"Identity development" refers to the process of defining your own beliefs, lifestyle, and sense of self. Our modern notion of this concept is based largely on the work of psychologist Erik Erikson, who theorized that identity formation is the key developmental task of adolescence.
Identity can change and develop at any point during one's life; for many of us, our ideas of who we are and what we believe evolve constantly over the years.
Identity development can be exciting and fulfilling, but it can also be a source of stress or pain. It’s not easy to question who we are and what we believe, especially when our answers might go against social, cultural, or family norms.
When worry over identity becomes especially urgent or persistent, it can lead to mental health symptoms and interfere with day-to-day life.
Prevalence of challenges related to identity development
Virtually everyone faces challenges related to identity development, particularly in adolescence and young adulthood. That said, the shapes these challenges take can vary enormously, and it’s hard to know exactly how prevalent different forms of these challenges are.
Additionally, some studies show that concepts of identity may be becoming increasingly complex as technology makes all of our personal lives more public and transparent.
For example, the Pew Research Center found that a group of experts was split on the question of whether increased digital transparency leads to positive or negative impacts on personal identity.
Symptoms of challenges related to identity development
Symptoms associated with issues around identity development vary, but some common examples are as follows:
- Anxiety or worry: You may think frequently about your concerns around your identity and find it difficult to focus your attention elsewhere.
- Sadness or depression: Struggling with some aspect of your identity might lead to sadness or hopelessness, especially if you are uncertain of steps you can take to resolve your concerns.
- General stress: You may have trouble sleeping or experience physical symptoms including muscle tension, headaches, and digestive troubles.
- Social or interpersonal challenges: Feeling unsure of who you are and what you believe might lead to conflict with family, friends, or loved ones. You may also experience a general sense of not fitting in and wondering how to feel socially at ease.
- Struggles at school or work: Especially if your worries center around your professional or academic identity, you might see negative impacts on your performance at school or work.
Challenges related to identity development
Again, identity development involves a wide range of factors, but a few areas in which people commonly experience challenges include:
- Social identity: You may be unsure where you fit in socially, or feel that your friendships are unstable. Some people worry that their social circles may not be accepting of who they truly are.
- Professional identity: You may wonder if the professional path you have chosen is the one you really want, or feel as if your identity at work is misaligned with your identity at home. Especially for people who consider themselves creative or artistic, it’s also common to have difficulty balancing professional identity with creative identity.
- Family identity: You might feel as if your values and desires do not match those of your family and wonder how to reconcile the two.
- Cultural, ethnic, and racial identity, or religious identity: The norms and expectations of your cultural, racial, ethnic or religious background may not align with your personal beliefs, or you may be navigating multiple identities that conflict with each other at times. Societal pressures and discrimination against marginalized identities can also exacerbate these stresses.
- Gender or sexual identity: You may be facing questions about your gender identity or sexual orientation or feel unsure about these aspects of your identity. Social norms around gender and sexuality can add to these challenges, as can discrimination against sexual and gender minority groups.
What to do if you’re experiencing challenges related to identity development
If you’re experiencing the kinds of challenges described here, you might explore some of these options:
- Therapy: Find a therapist who can help you navigate challenges related to your identity and use proven strategies and techniques to reduce any mental health symptoms. (See more tips below on selecting a therapist.)
- Community groups: Particularly if you’re struggling with issues related to cultural, ethnic, racial, religious, gender, or sexual identity, you can likely find an online or in-person community of individuals who share your identity and can help you gain perspective on your challenges.
- Resources: Try searching the internet for “resource center,” your zip code, and a search term relating to your identity (such as “LGBT” or “Latinx”) to see what’s available in your area. If your concerns relate to your professional identity, professional associations may also be helpful; you can search a national database of trade associations here.
- Journaling: Keeping a written record of your thoughts and feelings around your identity challenges may help you clarify your experiences and approach these issues more calmly.
- Meditation or mindfulness practices: You can experiment with meditation or other mindfulness practices through classes or apps. Studies have shown that these practices can help reduce the symptoms of stress and anxiety that may challenges around identity.
What to look for in a therapist for identity development
Look for a therapist who has a specialty in treating challenges related to identity
Some common approaches include:
- Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
- Existential Psychotherapy
- Narrative Therapy
- Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT)
- Mindfulness Practices
- Interpersonal Psychotherapy
Know what questions you need to ask potential therapists
These questions may prove helpful when interviewing potential therapists:
- What therapy type (possibly one of the examples above) do you use when helping clients manage these issues?
- Does you have experience working with clients who have my particular symptoms?
Prioritize personal fit
While personality fit is a nuanced factor, it is critical to your success in therapy. Multiple studies have revealed the importance of this factor, often referred to as “therapeutic alliance.”
On your initial phone call with the therapist, ask yourself:
- Could I see myself forming a connection with this therapist?
- Does their approach suit my personality?
- Do I feel like I will be heard and respected by this therapist?
Additionally, consider these factors:
- Some therapists are more reflective and spend most of the session listening and drawing insights about your patterns and coping styles.
- Some therapists are more directive, establishing weekly agendas and assigning tasks to complete between sessions.
- Some utilize specific techniques or tools (exposure exercises, eye movements, tapping, breath work, guided imagery, art and music, etc.).
- Some use a combination of multiple approaches.
Consider cost, location, and scheduling
Therapy will only work if it works for you. Before making an appointment, ask yourself honestly:
- Can I afford these session fees? The cost of therapy depends on location, practitioner, and whether you’re using insurance.
- Can I commit to attending sessions regularly? Remember to account for travel time, and other demands in your schedule.
- Do the therapists’ available times work for me? Some therapists offer evening and weekend appointments if you have an otherwise limited schedule.
New to therapy? Learn about how to find a therapist here.