When a psychologist says ‘identity crisis’, they are likely referring to someone who has come through adolescence without crystallising a sense of self.
But in everyday language, we also call it an ‘identity crisis’ when we feel we are losing touch with who we are and what we want, and it’s affecting our ability to cope.
So is the scenario you are going through an identity crisis, or is something else entirely?
Major life changes like losing your job or divorce, cause a very high level of stress.
And a side effect of stress can be feeling like you don’t know what anything is about anymore, or even who you are. You need to give yourself time to process and feel better.
Within weeks or months, you will start to get used to your new life, and realise that your personal values haven’t changed, even if your life circumstance has. You still are that loyal, success driven person you were, or that charitable person with a sense of humour.
Bereavement is a very intense, very particular kind of stress that can leave you feeling lost at sea. Life can lose all meaning for awhile. The grief does, with time, lessen, and we do get back on our feet. If you feel like you just can't stabilise, consider grief counselling. It really helps.
All normal. As a teenager you are actually supposed to be questioning your identity.
American psychologist Erik Erikson in known for creating a system called ‘the Stage of Psychosocial Development’. Stage five, ‘Identity vs Confusion’, generally takes place in adolescence. We start to question if we agree with our parents, if we even like friends we’ve always had, what we really want to do with our lives.
If, however, you really have no idea who you are, if people keep commenting you seem lost, and if you are already in your mid-twenties? it might be time to seek support. Not succeeding in this stage of development does leave us with an identity crisis.
Again, if you are a teenager, this can be normal and part of your identity development.
But if you are changing your clothes and hobbies to impress others rather than out of real curiosity? Or you are older, and tend to change all of your habits to match a romantic partner? And friends accuse you of being too easily influenced? You might indeed lack a solid sense of self.
This is different story than changing your appearance. If you struggle to form solid relationships and are always hopping from friend to friend and partner to partner, it means you have intimacy issues.
And intimacy issues often happen as we don’t know who we are, and run before the other person realises this. So these two things, intimacy issues and identity issues, can come hand-in-hand.
If this comes along with all that friend and partner changing, then it’s highly likely you have a weak sense of self. It would be a good idea to seek counselling and work to find and heal the roots of this inner instability.
If you had a very close family, or helicopter parents who made decisions for you, or have never really experienced life outside your hometown? Leaving home is a huge deal. It's normal to feel lost for the first six months as the freedom of making your own choices overwhelms you. You are actually getting closer to your identity, not further away -- even if it feels messy at first.
This is a sign of codependency, where we take our self-worth from others' opinions of us. It can leave you with identity issues. But what needs to be focused on here is finding your own value within yourself, not from other people’s ideas of who you are.
Do you find it hard to make decisions? And deep down it’s because you don’t trust your own mind and feelings? When we don’t trust our own selves it does tend to be a symptom of a crisis of identity.
Borderline personality disorder means we are highly emotionally sensitive and also terrified of abandonment. We can close down and cut people out as a way to protect ourselves, and act in impulsive ways that can scare others. Often from a traumatic childhood, there are certain types of therapy designed to help with BPD, such as dialectical behaviour therapy and schema therapy.
Therapy really helps. Identity issues and identity crisis often relate to living through difficult experiences as a child, or parenting that left us never feeling loved and safe. A therapist can create that safe environment you never had.
Sometimes just having someone to talk to who isn’t invested in your choices and isn’t going to judge you, can be such a relief that you can for the first time drop your barriers and let yourself be the you waiting inside all along.
Ready to stop feeling lost and start knowing who you are? Find a therapist you like at a price you can afford now, and start the road to lasting change.
Andrea M. Darcy is a mental health and wellbeing expert and personal development teacher. With training in person-centred counselling and coaching, she often writes about trauma and relationships. Find her on Instagram for useful life tips @am_darcy