How is identity formed?

18 October 2023 at 09:39 · 6 min read

A faceless man staring at a face.

Who we are is a complex issue, one that borders not just psychology but philosophy, neuroscience and a variety of different disciplines.

One thing that is generally agreed upon is that much of it is decided in adolescence, a period in which many of the most important, identity-related psychological processes take place. 

There are a number of different interpretations of these, but one of the more notable is Erik Erikson’s conception of Identification, Separation and Self-affirmation.

Each of these is a distinct process that represents challenges that we all face growing up. The idea being that, if successfully overcome, they contribute to the development of a stable identity as well as overall well-being throughout adolescence and later life.


The first process is identification. It involves a process in which adolescents develop and accept themselves in terms of their body and physical appearance, their personality traits, worldview and everything that essentially makes up their identity. In the process of identification, adolescents mostly explore and try out different styles, from dressing to behavioural. Some soon find a style they are happy with and incorporate it into their overall identity, but for some, the search takes longer and is sometimes complicated. The identification process is successfully completed once a person has accepted their body, personality and overall approach to interacting with people and dealing with everyday tasks and situations.


The next process is separation, in which a person separates himself physically and psychologically from his parents and becomes independent, realizing the current limitations, but also the newly acquired freedom that comes with growing up. 

In the process of separation, a crisis can arise when a young person feels the need to be independent, (usually financially or housing-wise) but something prevents them from doing so. These are most often unfavourable financial conditions or the inability to find employment. 

For example, someone may feel pressure to move out of their family home and be independent. They form an expectation of themselves, that they should be able to find a job and a flat of their own. However, maybe due to a lack of experience on their CV, or a recent economic downturn, they simply cannot find a job, leaving them feeling stuck in limbo.

A crisis of psychological separation can also occur when the adolescent is unable to set aside what they have learned and adopted from their parents or authorities and form their own worldview which consists of attitudes, beliefs and opinions acquired and established independently. In that case, the cause of the crisis is not actually the inability to separate from the parents, but rather the feeling that they are not capable of doing so. 

They may feel unprepared for separation and threatened in any situation in which they would have to deviate too much from what they are used to; i.e. their way of life up until now and the actions they have learned from parents or authorities.

Two realizations are in conflict: 

  • The first is that a person does not live his own life but someone else's, 
  • The second is that a person does not have the courage and audacity to think and create his own life.

Self Affirmation

The last process is self-affirmation, which involves confirming oneself, i.e. confirming one's identity and life choices in front of oneself, one's partner, family, friends and colleagues, authorities etc. In other words, self-affirmation is accepting the identity we have developed so far. It also means being satisfied with how this identity contributes to our abilities to perform in various roles, our relationships, coping strategies and overall well-being.  

That adolescence is a formative time in our lives should be taken for granted, but it’s worth remembering that it’s also a difficult time as well. It's a time where we must adapt to new responsibilities, with no previous experience of our own to guide us. In addition, there is a constant backdrop of not just mental but physical changes that complicate matters. 

Many of us make it through these challenges relatively unscathed. But for those who do not, it can create underlying psychological difficulties which, if left unaddressed, can linger and even fester beneath an otherwise healthy exterior. That’s why the job of a licensed psychologist is to unearth these issues and help clients to tackle the root cause of their problems.


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