Erik Erikson: Identity Crisis – Explained with 1000 Words

Abstract: The term ‘identity crisis’ was coined by psychoanalyst Erik Erikson who drew experiences from his own life in formulating the theory. He laid down eight phases of psychosocial development of the individual personality. Identity crisis is a phase in this development and usually occurs during the period of adolescence. There are two types of identity crisis- identity deficit and identity conflict. James Marcia developed four identity statuses according to which an individual’s degree of identity formation could be recognized. The resolution of this crisis is finally dependent on the subjective actions of the individual though social factors such as social support, peer groups, family and other social institutions play a significant role in channelling self-identity towards particular directions.

Erik Erikson: Identity Crisis

Erik Erikson was an American psychologist and psychoanalyst who coined the term ‘identity crisis’. He was mentored by Anna Freud, daughter of Sigmund Freud and a psychoanalyst herself. Erikson is best known for his book ‘Childhood and society’ where he introduces the eight stages of psychosocial development which is an extension of Freud’s theory as well as the concepts of identity crisis and role confusion. Erikson’s mother remarried and his original father was never revealed which meant that he always had a troubled identity with regard to his surname until he changed it to Erikson, a surname he created.

The Development of Identity

Erikson describes identity as a self-image comprising a sameness of character and a strong belief in maintaining that sameness in all social interactions. Like Sigmund Freud, he too believed in the stagewise development of individual personality. He laid down eight stages of personality development, the adolescent stage (around 12-18 years of age) being the one most prominent in determining the identity of the individual. In each of these phases, the individual develops certain qualities or virtues if they are able to encounter their circumstances optimally.

However, he emphasised on the social aspect of individual development rather than the sexual aspect as Freud did. Moreover, he argued that individuals developed their personalities throughout their lives in stages and adolescence was not the climax of development as Freud had stated.

However, it is in the adolescent phase that the question of identity crisis occurs so we will first state the previous stages of development in brief. In the infancy stage (0-1.5 years), the optimum virtue is hope while the two extremes are basic trust and mistrust. So, an infant who is conditioned optimally in this stage will learn to hope to trust without being naive or distrustful. In the early childhood phase (1.5-3 years), the child develops willpower on successfully balancing the concepts of complete autonomy and independence as opposed to shame and incompetence. In the preschool phase (3-5 years), the child learns to take initiative by doing things by themselves. If the child is not given the space to make these decisions, he/she develops guilt and a lack of confidence. The optimum virtue in this stage is developing a sense of purpose in one’s life. The school age (5-12 years) is the phase where a child begins to recognize their strengths and weaknesses and the need to develop certain areas. If encouraged, they develop confidence and competency while restriction and humiliation from elders and friends will result in a sense of inferiority. From 12-18 years is the phase of adolescence though Erikson never emphasised on the rigidity of time periods for development stages. Rather, he believed that the journey from phase to another was a transition instead of jumping across clear boundaries.

Adolescence and Identity formation

The phase of adolescence is when the child begins to seek individuality. Individuality comprises a sense of uniqueness and developing a self-image according to one’s own inclinations. Every experience in this stage impacts one’s development of self-identity. The individual now begins to question the meaning of life, the function of society, their role and purpose in it and so on. One who has successfully achieved the virtues in the previous stages is likely to attain a coherent sense of self-identity and purpose in one’s life. This will allow them to fit into society and face adulthood confidently. On the other hand, a lack of meaning and inability usually results in a negative identity formation. Erikson pointed out that association with groups, gangs and cults encouraging negative values such as chaos, nihilism and violence resulted in role confusion. Role confusion is the inability to maintain and fit in the roles given to one in society. For instance, one may not want to become a dutiful son who takes care of his parents but start an independent life instead. It comprises the constant feeling of uncertainty, indecision, lack of confidence and a nihilistic approach to life. His views coincide with Howard Becker’s labelling theory which also states that when an individual deviates from social norms, he/she is labelled and stereotyped. Stereotypes are often associated with stigma which means that social support is withdrawn from the individual. This drives the individual to seek deviant groups where he/she finds others of similar dispositions. Deviant support groups only increase the deviant tendencies of the individual making him/her prone to antisocial tendencies and actions.

Stages of Identity Making

James Marcia, a clinical psychologist furthered the theory of identity formation by laying down four statuses of identity: foreclosure, diffusion, moratorium and achievement. Identity foreclosure refers to the commitment to an identity without exploration. The individual growing up in a conservative household, a conformist lifestyle may merely inherit an identity imposed upon him/her by others around him/her. Although they will have an identity, often of a stubborn nature, it will not contain the element of uniqueness. An identity crisis may occur for such individuals when they grow disoriented with their established ways of life due to some reason. Identity diffusion occurs when the individual neither explores nor commits to any identity. This is a transitory phase, as per Marcia, as individuals will at some point have to face their uncertainty and thereby move to the moratorium status or slip into depression and other mental illnesses resulting from an existential crisis. In the moratorium phase, the individual undergoes a crisis and actively explores possibilities for their identities simultaneously. On successfully overcoming the crisis, an individual achieves a strong sense of self-identity internally. Marcia believed that these identity statuses were cyclical in nature and an individual may experience repeated deconstruction and creation of new self-identities throughout their lives. While Erikson lays down adolescence as the age of identity formation and the development of a crisis in its absence, Marcia completes his theory by stating that such a crisis may reoccur later in adulthood resulting in a mid-life crisis. This also implies that identity is subjective and a concrete self-identity for one individual may turn out to be disorienting for another individual who seeks a different kind of identity. For instance, one’s parents may be satisfied with their inherited identity comprising conservative beliefs and ethics but one might want to be sceptical of old values and wish to explore new possibilities of living.

Types of Identity Crisis

As Jurgen Habermas described, there are two types of identity crisis. One is identity deficit and the other is identity conflict. In the former, the individual faces a motivational crisis and struggles to establish personal goals and values. The existentialist philosophy brings up the concept of free will which would require one to break out of all conformities and establish their own unique identities thus creating a chance of facing an identity deficit even if for a temporary period of time. In an identity conflict, the individual has multiple commitments and evolving a concrete identity would require the rejection of some commitments in favour of others. For instance, Charles Darwin was recorded to have been in a severe conflict (involving physical disorder) in choosing between his identity as a Christian and publishing ‘On the Origin of Species’ which refuted the biblical origin of humans from Adam and Eve. Resolution of identity crisis is ultimately dependent on the subjective experiences of the individual undergoing the crisis. They may seek professional help during such crises but only they can imbibe certain meanings and values in their lives which they feel appealing or inclined to.

In contemporary society where exploration of our inner lives is being constantly encouraged, we must be ready to not only confront our existing identities but also undergo the process of seeking and crisis to find a synchronised identity for ourselves. Also, we must be able to face life not as a linear narrative but as a cyclical repetition of experiencing, learning, deconstructing and creation.


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I graduated in Sociology from Hindu College, Delhi. I love reading almost anything and watching movies, especially art and indie films. You can find me on Instagram at @sounak_01