What is an Identity Crisis?

18 October 2023 at 09:39 · 7 min read

A person with two different coloured lights shining on her face.

For many of us, the first image that comes to mind of an “identity crisis“ is a stressed-out person pondering their life choices. 

It feels like they’re in a place emotionally where they are completely dissatisfied with their life and without a clue about how they can fix it. In short, they’re unsure of who they are, where they are and how they got there. 

Although a crisis is, by definition, a state of tension and disturbed psychophysical balance. What occurs during an identity crisis is that previously learned behavioural patterns become no longer useful and we are forced to look for new ones in order to successfully deal with the situation at hand. 

But there are still some positive sides to consider: Precisely because it forces us to step outside of our comfort zone, explore, learn, change and become more adaptable, a crisis also always represents an opportunity for personal growth.

Stages to Identity

The term “identity crisis“ was first used by psychologist Erik Erikson and is meant to describe one of the potential two outcomes of a developmental conflict that occurs in adolescence. 

According to Erikson, people progress through a series of stages throughout their lives. 

  • Stage 1: Trust vs. Mistrust: Age 0-1.5
  • Stage 2: Autonomy vs. Shame and Doubt: Age 1.5-3
  • Stage 3: Initiative vs. Guilt: Age 3-5
  • Stage 4: Industry vs. Inferiority: Age 5-12
  • Stage 5: Identity vs. Confusion: Age 12-18
  • Stage 6: Intimacy vs. Isolation: Age 18-40
  • Stage 7: Generativity vs. Stagnation: Age 40-65
  • Stage 8: Integrity vs. Despair: Age 65+


In each stage, a new developmental conflict arises that must be resolved to successfully progress to the next. Identity crisis, therefore, represents a negative outcome of this developmental conflict, as it results in a person's inability to form a strong sense of self and difficulties in adapting to adult life.

However, even if an identity crisis occurs due to inadequately solved challenges of that stage, something can still be done. Although ‘identity’ implies stability in self-image and sense of self, it does not mean that people never change. We are, after all, different from one day to another. 

Experiences and events can affect us, but in order to successfully cope with these changes and adapt to them, it is crucial to have a stable identity. 

Preventing an identity crisis

Essentially, the main task of adolescence is to create one's own identity, which represents a difficult and long journey. It entails a constant re-examination of one's own beliefs, attitudes and worldviews, and the effort to reconcile them. But this process is a normal and inevitable part of growing up. If completed successfully, it results in the person creating their own identity and feeling safe and ready to face the life of an adult and all the tasks that come with the next age. 

A crisis might occur when, due to being overwhelmed by various influences, a person fails to form an ‘authentic self,’ and in addition, perceives that they themselves do not have the capacity or courage to cope with the resulting dissatisfaction. 

But the process of forming identity is different for each individual and it is perfectly normal if these challenges are resolved at different times. The most important thing to keep in mind is the image of the person we want to be, the attitudes we choose to live by. Accepting all this means that we can live according to our own values and principles. This enables us to align our authentic self with the expectations and opportunities present in the world and successfully begin the journey of adulthood.