Identity development, often called identity construction or identity formation, refers to the process of defining your own beliefs, lifestyle, and sense of self. A primary psychosocial task of developmental psychology, 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; and James Marcia, who recognized the four identity statuses.
Identity versus role confusion, theorized by Erikson, that questions of one’s identity will occur throughout their lifespan in eight stages whereby one must resolve their issues before moving on to the next stage. The most important stage takes place in adolescent identity development when young adults engage in active exploration of their personality traits, gender differences, racial identity, and find identity achievement by considering and accepting values and goals that define their individual identity. At this point in the identity exploration process, the emerging adults can move into the next stage of Intimacy versus Isolation developing friendships and intimate relationships in late adolescence to continue defining their identity.
In Marcia’s Theory of Identity Status, identity formation is classified into one of four identity categories or ego identity status:
- Identity Diffusion – This status can be likened to Erikson’s role confusion, there is no resolution to adolescent identity.
- Identity Foreclosure – This happens when young adults choose an identity without exploring identity options.
- Identity Moratorium – College students or military recruits often use the moratorium identity status to postpone identity achievement status and explore different peer relationships, social contexts, cultural factors to continue per their personality development.
- Identity Achievement – Identity achieved status occurs when the adolescent’s identity formation process has been resolved. At this point an individual’s identity is confirmed by the values they choose to accept and nurture.
The process of identity formation 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 are an ongoing process, evolving constantly over our lifespan. For instance, one’s political identity may change from youth to middle age depending on socioeconomic factors or one’s chosen peer groups, or having a positive self-concept may support your racial identity over time.
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 identity development challenges
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 issues are.
Additionally, some studies show that concepts of identity may be becoming increasingly complex as technology makes all 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.
Specific obstacles and conditions can impact identity processes. Gender and sexual identities can be shaped by sexual abuse or trauma in childhood, but a positive relationship with extended family from a diverse ethnic background can shape one’s bicultural identity.
Identity development Symptoms
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. Self-esteem issues may arise when dealing with identity confusion.
- General stress: You may have trouble sleeping or experience physical symptoms including muscle tension, headaches, and digestive troubles. Over time these factors may lead to higher health risks.
- Social or interpersonal challenges: Feeling unsure of who you are and what you believe might lead to difficult social interactions, 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 processes involve a wide range of factors, but a few areas in which people commonly experience challenges with their identity exploration include:
- Social identity: Social identity formation is based on who you are in terms of the groups to which you belong. These groups are usually defined by characteristics that the members share, whether physical, mental, social, or otherwise. Social identity theory posits that belonging to a group you identify with will drive self-esteem. Challenges arise because you may be unsure where you fit in 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: Trying to align your responsibilities and values with your career development, job role, and ethical standards may have you wondering 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: Family identity is usually shaped by family structure, generational hierarchy, and character. Where you fit into the collective identity of the family may make you confused when you 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: Cultural identity is deeply rooted in the common thread of ethnic identity — belonging to the same ethnic group and having a shared ethnic heritage. Ethnic identity development may include issues of race identity development, religious beliefs, religious practices, as well as family identity. When the norms and expectations of your background don't seem to align with your personal values, or you're navigating multiple identities that conflict with each other at times — it can exacerbate stress, along with pressures relating to social context, and discrimination against marginalized identities.
- 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, family, and cultural contexts around gender binary and sexuality can add to these challenges, as can discrimination against sexual and gender minority groups.
What to do if you are experiencing identity development challenges
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 formation process 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 personality characteristics 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 status (such as “LGBTQ” 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 individual identity status 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 form around an identity crisis.
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.