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Identity/Identity Formation

A person's mental representation of who he or she is.

Components of identity include a sense of personal continuity and of uniqueness from other people. In addition to carving out a personal identity based on the need for uniqueness, people also acquire a social identity based on their membership in various groups—familial, ethnic, occupational, and others. These group identities, in addition to satisfying the need for affiliation, help people define themselves in the eyes of both others and themselves.

Identity formation has been most extensively described by Erik Erikson in his theory of developmental stages, which extends from birth through adulthood. According to Erikson, identity formation, while beginning in childhood, gains prominence during adolescence. Faced with physical growth, sexual maturation, and impending career choices, adolescents must accomplish the task of integrating their prior experiences and characteristics into a stable identity. Erikson coined the phrase identity crisis to describe the temporary instability and confusion adolescents experience as they struggle with alternatives and choices. To cope with the uncertainties of this stage, adolescents may overidentify with heroes and mentors, fall in love, and bond together in cliques, excluding others on the basis of real or imagined differences.

According to Erikson, successful resolution of this crisis depends on one's progress through previous developmental stages, centering on fundamental issues of trust, autonomy, and initiative. By the age of 21, about half of all adolescents are thought to have resolved their identity crises and are ready to move on to the adult challenges of love and work. Others, however, are unable to achieve an integrated adult identity, either because they have failed to resolve the identity crisis or because they have experienced no crisis. J. E. Marcia identified four common ways in which adolescents deal with the challenge

Developing a special talent, like playing the violin, can give young people a sense of identity. (Photo by Clayton Wolt. North Dakota Tourism. Reproduced with permission.)

of identity formation. Those who experience, confront, and resolve the identity crisis are referred to as "identity-achieved." Others, termed "identity-foreclosed," make commitments (often conventional ones, identical or similar to those of their parents) without questioning them or investigating alternatives. Those who are "identity-diffused" shrink from making defining choices about their futures and remain arrested, unable to make whole-hearted commitments to careers, values, or another person. In contrast, those in the "moratorium" group, while unable to make such commitments, are struggling to do so and experience an ongoing though unresolved crisis as they try to "find themselves."

Although the phrase "identity crisis" was initially popularized in connection with adolescence, it is not limited to this time frame: Erikson himself initially formulated the concept in connection with World War II veterans. A variety of changes that affect one's work, status, or interpersonal relationships can bring on a crisis that forces one to redefine oneself in terms of values, priorities, and chosen activities or lifestyle. In Passages, Gail Sheehy proposed that there are actually "predictable crises of adult life" that generally challenge people's conceptions of themselves and result either in personal growth or stagnation.

Further Reading

Erikson, Erik H. Childhood and Society. New York: W. W. Norton, 1950.

Josselson, Ruthellen. Finding Herself: Pathways to Identity Development in Women. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1987.

Sheehy, Gail. Passages: Predictable Crises of Adult Life. New York: E.P. Dutton, 1976.

Additional topics

Psychology EncyclopediaPsychological Dictionary: Ibn Bajjah (Abu-Bakr Muhammad ibn-Yahya ibn-al-Saʼigh, c.1106–38) Biography to Perception: cultural differences