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Developing and Exploring Identity
Identity development is a lifelong process that involves defining your beliefs, values, and sense of self. Our understanding of identity development is primarily influenced by psychologist and psychoanalyst Erik Erikson, who theorized that identity formation is the critical task of development in adolescence.
For many of us, our concept of personal identity constantly changes from adolescence through adulthood. Friends, social groups, colleagues, and culture all play essential roles in shaping and forming an identity throughout life.
While exploring your identity can be exciting, it can also be a source of confusion. It’s not easy to question your own identity, especially when identity formation conflicts with societal norms. With that said, your identity plays a pivotal role in forming a positive relationship with yourself, and taking steps toward identity commitment and achievement can improve your overall well-being.
Identity Development Challenges
Although the process of identity development is different for everyone, there are a few common areas in which adolescents and adults commonly experience identity conflicts, including:
- Social identity: You might feel unsure where you fit in a social context or think that your friendships and close relationships are unstable.
- Family identity: You might feel like your values and beliefs do not match those of your family.
- Cultural, ethnic, religious, or racial identity: Your identity might conflict with the norms and expectations of your cultural, ethnic, racial, or religious background, or you may be navigating several identities that conflict with each other. Societal pressures and discrimination against marginalized groups can further contribute to identity issues.
- Professional identity: You may question whether your chosen professional path is the one you want, or you may lack a sense of competence at work. Some people may feel as if their identity at work is misaligned with their behavior at home.
- Gender or sexual identity: You may question your gender identity or sexual orientation. Societal norms about gender roles and sexuality can further exacerbate these challenges.
In some cases, individuals facing identity development challenges may attempt to avoid identity commitment. For example, a high school senior experiencing identity development challenges might avoid thinking about what they want to do when they graduate high school.
According to Erikson, this process, known as identity diffusion, slows the identity achievement process and affects psychological adjustment in adolescence.
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Identity Development and Mental Health
For some individuals, identity development can lead to mental health symptoms. Certain pre-existing mental health conditions, such as depression and anxiety, can distort an individual’s sense of identity.
Common mental health issues related to identity development and diffusion include:
- Anxiety or worry: You might feel preoccupied with concerns surrounding identity and find it difficult to focus on other things, especially if you’re navigating conflicting identity statuses.
- Sadness or depression: Struggling with identity diffusion, role confusion, or a lack of competence surrounding your identity may lead to despair and hopelessness.
- Stress: You might constantly feel stressed or experience physical symptoms of stress, such as unexplained aches and digestive issues.
- Interpersonal conflicts: Feeling unsure of your identity might lead to family issues or conflicts with friends. You might also feel like you don’t fit in or feel uneasy during social interactions.
- Academic/professional challenges: Especially if you’re questioning your professional or academic identity, your identity conflicts may negatively affect your academic or professional performance.
According to Erikson’s theory, children and adolescents who are not allowed to engage in identity exploration may experience role confusion in late adolescence and young adulthood. Role confusion can disrupt the adolescent identity development process. Individuals may feel unsure of who they are or what they like, have difficulty forming close relationships, and feel unsure what to do with their lives.
What should you do if you’re struggling with identity development?
If you’re experiencing mental health challenges related to identity development, some of these options can help you find strength and support.
- Therapy: Therapy can help you navigate identity development challenges, find support, and cope with mental health issues. Working with a therapist who shares your gender identity, ethnicity, or religious affiliation can also help you explore challenges related to gender roles, racial identity, social identity, and group membership.
- Local resource centers: Searching for resource centers in your area can help you meet like-minded people and explore different identity statuses. For example, try searching for “resource center,” your zip code, and traits related to your identity, such as “LGBT.”
- Journaling: Writing down your thoughts and feelings surrounding different roles can help you make sense of new experiences.
- Meditation and mindfulness: Practicing meditation and mindfulness regularly can help reduce the mental health symptoms that may accompany identity exploration.
- Community groups: If you’re struggling with identity issues related to ethnicity, culture, race, or religion, finding an in-person or online community of young adults who share your identity can help you gain perspective, form close relationships, and find role models in your community to look up to.
Finding a Therapist
Developing a sense of identity is an essential part of maturing as an adult—and struggling with elements of your identity is a normal part of the process. Psychotherapy provides a safe space for individuals to discuss issues related to their identity, find ways to cope with identity development issues and find themselves in the process.
To find a therapist, reach out to a mental health professional through WithTherapy. We’ll connect you to a therapist you feel comfortable with, regardless of your personal preferences and requirements. Whether you’re struggling with identity exploration in young adulthood or you’re experiencing an identity crisis for the first time, one of the licensed therapists on the WithTherapy platform can help you navigate identity conflicts and gain a stable sense of identity.