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Identity Crisis

By Ilyssa Hershey, Psy.D.

Licensed Clinical Psychologist

Have you ever felt confused about who you are or where your life is going? Have you ever questioned the meaning and value of your existence? If you answered yes to these questions, you may have been experiencing an identity crisis. Identity is the way one sees oneself. People often identify with the things they do and the objects they like. The greatest factors tend to be large social categories such as gender, sexual orientation, religious beliefs, and career choices, as well as roles within the context of family, for instance, being a mother, sister, father, brother, husband, or wife. Crises can come about when people begin to feel that they are losing any of these important anchors for defining a sense of self. Erik Erikson (1902–1994) was a developmental psychologist and psychoanalyst who coined the term “identity crisis.” His work in this area was sparked by his own personal struggles with identity at an early age. In Erikson’s writings, he describes times in his childhood when he felt confused and uncertain about his place in the world. Raised in a German Jewish home, he discovered early on that his father was in fact his stepfather and a Scandinavian. Erikson began to feel like he was an outsider of both groups. As explained later in his life, these experiences, which continued when he and his father disagreed on his line of work, defined the work he chose: “No doubt my best friends will insist that I needed to name this crisis and to see it in everybody else in order to really come to terms with it myself” (Life History and the Historical Moment, 1975). Identity crisis generally first appear in adolescence. As young people struggle to become more independent from their parents, they begin to learn who they are. A crisis can surface if adolescents are not able to successfully develop a positive identity. Experiencing shame, punishment, or guilt about their lives can lead to a negative identity, leaving them with a feeling that they have no idea who they are, where they belong, or where they want to go. Upon entering adulthood, identity crises can occur at any time. Midlife crises, which afflict people between the ages of 40 and 60, are the most prevalent. A midlife crisis is usually triggered by a specific major life event such as the death of a loved one, a divorce, the loss of a job, the success of someone you know, an illness, or debt. It can also arise with no apparent reason at all. Whatever the case, during this time, people may feel dissatisfied, confused, and disconnected from relationships. Major life events such as these usually cause the people affected to question who they are and where their lives are going. For example, if a person loses a significant other to death or divorce, he or she may struggle with living as a single person. And while it is only natural and normal to struggle with various parts of your identity at different times in your life, a major change in your relationships or job situation can make reinventing your identity very difficult and scary. How you experience this crisis, adjust to it, and begin to heal will depend on your level of self-esteem and the strength of your sense of self prior to the event. For some, time becomes the great healer. Taking one day at a time is enough for them to adjust to new schedules and new relationships. For others, making a schedule to keep busy, while finding new interests and avenues for work and self-expression, is needed so as not to feel alone and disconnected. For still others, the crisis may be too difficult to work through alone. They may begin to feel lost and hopeless, and symptoms of depression and anxiety could develop. Psychotherapy would be recommended at this time in order to help them find ways to cope with the struggles associated with their identity issues. A crisis by definition is a difficult situation that calls forth new thinking. And while this process is typically difficult and challenging for most people, it can have a positive outcome. The process of reinventing yourself can lead you to find aspects of yourself that you have forgotten over the years, positive and empowering pieces of yourself that are now able to come forth and shine. You may be surprised that with time you will find a wonderful new you with new goals and new opportunities that you never dreamed of.

copyright 2013 Ilyssa Hershey, Psy.D.


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