Identity crisis

My Identity

Finding your identity

One of the most influential thinkers in the field of developmental psychology was Erik Erikson. Originally a pupil of Freud, he made a name for himself with his work on the development of human social identity.

I read about Erikson’s theories when studying for my professional qualification, but most emphasis on developmental theory in careers is dominated by the work of Donald Super. However, Erikson’s ideas of identity formation in adolescence has provided the basis for much thought and exploration around the transition from childhood to adulthood.

A couple of recent posts (Playing a role and Non-stop action) have jogged my memory about this, so I thought I would blog briefly about this classic theory and some recent developments related to it.

Erikson proposed eight major developmental stages. Each stage is represented by a struggle to achieve a particular developmental goal. If these goals are not successfully achieved by an individual, they will find it hard to move on to the next stage:

  • Basic Trust vs. Mistrust – Can you trust the people who are looking after you?
  • Autonomy vs. Shame and Doubt – Can you learn to explore the world under your own steam?
  • Initiative vs. Guilt – Can you learn to perform necessary actions on your own?
  • Industry vs. Inferiority – Can you compare yourself successfully to others?
  • Identity vs. Role Confusion – Can you establish and commit to a sense of your own personal identity?
  • Intimacy vs. Isolation – Can you form stable relationships with others?
  • Generativity vs. Stagnation – Can you produce something that will outlast you?
  • Ego Integrity vs. Despair – Can you face death and look back on your life with satisfaction?

Much subsequent effort has focused on the Identity vs. Role Confusion stage as the transition from adolescence to adulthood. At this stage an individual is exploring various aspects of his or her identity: sexual identity, social identity political identity religious identity and, of course, career identity. Erikson postulated that, as society becomes increasingly complex, this stage may take longer and longer as the number of elements that make up an identity in the modern world increase. Although it is thought that the average age of transition to adulthood occurs somewhere in your mid-20s, it may extend as far as your early-30s.

One really simplistic application of this relates to networking. If you think of networking as primarily building relationships with people, then you are more likely to be successful at this if you have already established a clear and consistent  identity (or ‘personal brand’) that you can present to others.

Forming an identity

James Marcia built on Erikson’s work around identity development by proposing a process which involved crisis (in which existing identity values are re-examined) and commitment (in which a decision is made about what identity is going to be taken forward).

He also postulated four different Identity Statuses:

  • Identity Diffusion – (no crisis, no commitment) in this state an individual has not experienced any identity crisis and is unaware of the need to make a commitment to a particular identity
  • Identity Foreclosure – (commitment, but no crisis) in this state an individual has established a fixed identity but without going through any exploration or questioning. This may be because they have had this identity imposed on them.
  • Identity Moratorium – (crisis, no commitment) in this state an individual is exploring and questioning their assumptions about their identity but has not come to any conclusions yet. This is normal but could present problems if prolonged.
  • Identity Achievement – (crisis, then commitment) in this state an individual has been through a crisis and has formed some ongoing decisions about their future identity.

(There are some similarities with the Four-Rooms of Change I blogged about here.)

I quite like trying to induce an identity crisis in some of the junior doctors I work with by getting them to question whether the reasons they chose to study medicine are still valid. Do you want that ignorant 18-year-old to be in charge of your future?

Identity processing

Following on from this Michael Berzonsky (1990)  has put forward a model which identifies different processes (or styles) of identity formation:

  • Informational Style – People with this style tend to deliberately seek out and evaluate information about themselves. They are ‘self-reflective, skeptical about their self-views, interested in learning new things about themselves, and willing to evaluate and modify their identity structure in light of dissonant feedback‘.
  • Normative Style – People with this style tend to adopt the goals and standards of other people who are important to them. They tend to be associated with  ‘high commitment levels, self-control, and a sense of purpose but also a need for structure and cognitive closure, authoritarianism, inflexibility, a foreclosed identity status and low tolerance for ambiguity‘.
  • Diffuse-Avoidant Style -People with this style try to avoid identity conflicts as long as they can and are often driven by immediate demands. They tend to be associated with ‘weak commitments, an external locus of control, impulsiveness, self-handicapping, and a diffusion identity status‘.

Again, this reminds me of some of the decision-making styles. I wonder if anyone has studied the link between the two.

Identity development and values

In his most recent paper, Berzonsky tries to examine the influence that values have on the identity formation styles of individuals. He found that Informational identity styles were linked to values of openness and independence, but also to self-transcendence (a concern for and awareness of others needs as well as your own). Normative identity styles were associated with values of stability, tradition, order and security. Diffuse-Avoidant styles were associated with values around hedonism, power and a short-term focus on the self.



  • What particular difficulties might young people today face in forming their personal and social identities?
  • What is the role of a careers worker in an individual’s identity formation, especially if their ability to successfully build an identity might impact on their subsequent ability to form working relationships?
  • What was your identity formation style?


Further reading

  • Marcia, J.E. (1966). Development and validation of ego-identity status. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 3(5), 551-558. DOI: 10.1037/h0023281.
  • Berzonsky, M. D. (1990). Self construction across the life-span: A process view of identity development. In G. H. Neimeyer & R. A. Neimeyer (Eds.). Advances in Personal Construct Psychology (Vol. 1, pp. 155–186). Greenwich, CT: JAI Press.
  • Berzonsky, M., Cieciuch, J., Duriez, B. & Soenens, B. (2010, in press). The how and what of identity formation: Associations between identity styles and value orientations. Personality and Individual Differences. DOI: 10.1016/j.paid.2010.10.007

Related posts: What happened to my mid-life crisis?In the right zone

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  1. #1 by Joanna J on 30 October 2015 - 22:33

    I figured that in the developmental stages of Erikson there had been further findings, but I could never find them. Now I know what has come after. Now of course I had studied Marcia’s work a bit since the Identities were built off of Erikson but I hadn’t gone any further. Following that I was pleased to see that someone found different identity processes to follow the staged and types. However I believe there are a few more than just three identity processes. Humans, although we have similar personalities our processes are not identical. Some people stray away from social situations with strangers because they don’t like people while others are just shy. All processes are slightly different for every single person.
    For example my twin sister and I. Although we share the same basic values as each other we have different processes. She and I are social butterflies, we both love to spend time with people that we love, and we like being open, inviting, and happy. But the difference is that I will be like that with total strangers, where she likes to stay with people she knows. As I was saying, almost the same process with a very slight difference.

    • #2 by David Winter on 2 November 2015 - 09:47

      Hi Joanna

      I agree that humans are pretty complex and it’s dangerous to seek over-simplified explanations of how we function. However, I think it’s also important to understand that some very complex outcomes can arise from fairly simple processes.

      I guess it’s also important to remember that Berzonsky is talking about the process of identity formation. Obviously this will have an impact on the identity that comes out of the process but so will whatever raw material gets put into the process from your environment.

      I suspect the situation is probably more complex that just having one of three processes that form your identity. In one of my very first posts I talked about the idea that we have multiple identities

      Most of us probably use different processes for different aspects of our identity. So we might use an Informational style for some aspects of our identity, a Normative style for other aspects and a Diffuse-Avoidant style for others.

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