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Are you going through an identity crisis? 5 ways to cope

April 27, 2022 - 18 min read

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What is an identity crisis?

7 symptoms of an identity crisis

11 causes of an identity crisis 

5 ways to cope with an identity crisis

Seeking treatment for an identity crisis

I think we can safely assume that all human beings will wrestle with their identity at some point in their lives. Even the people who seem to always know exactly who they are have had to weather a few life transitions.

As with many people, my identity has evolved along with major changes in my life. For example, how I defined myself as a teenager is much different from how I define myself as a 30-something. I will spare you my My MySpace and AIM screenname details for my own sake. But I can tell you, I no longer define myself as I did when I was a teenager. 

When I went to college, I felt a sense of identity tied to my college major. I often introduced myself with my major attached. It became a part of who I was as a person. When I got married, I felt like I had a decision to make about my identity. I personally decided that I wanted to keep my maiden name because it felt like it was a part of my identity. 

As humans and social beings, we’ve learned how to identify ourselves in a number of ways. We do this in part to give others a shortcut — a way to place and understand us, like the way I introduced myself with my major. But we also do it to try to make sense of ourselves.

Some people tie their identities close to their work and career. Other people tie their identities to their families, relationships, or parenthood. And other people tie their identities to their passions, hobbies, and dreams. 

But life doesn’t often play well with the best-laid plans. So when life throws you for a loop, it can put your identity on the line. When an identity crisis strikes, it’s only natural to wrestle with it. It can be rattling and upsetting. But it can also bring an entirely new and wonderful chapter to your life. 

In this article, you’ll learn what defines an identity crisis. You’ll also learn the symptoms of an identity crisis — and how to cope with one. 

What is an identity crisis?

First, let’s understand what an identity crisis means. 

An identity crisis usually occurs when there’s a change in a person’s life. But an identity crisis can happen at any time. 

identity-crisis-everyone-is-on-their-own-path

What is identity? 

Identity is a tricky concept because, at its core, it’s pretty subjective. As an added complexity, we often define it ourselves (though external factors certainly have influence). 

According to Psychology Today, our identities encompass memories, experiences, relationships, and values. These components all help to create our identities and our sense of self. 

Psychologist Erik Erikson studied identity and the concept of the identity crisis. In Erikson’s theory, he found there are developmental stages of identity. The theory outlines eight stages, with each stage capturing a specific virtue. Erik Erikson called these the stages of psychosocial development: 

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Why is identity important? 

As human beings, identity serves a few purposes that help us live and be well. Having a sense of identity lends itself to a sense of belonging. If we know how we define ourselves, it’s easier to find communities and places where we feel like we belong

Identity can also be a way to structure some parts of our lives and choices to make them more manageable. If I think of myself as an ambitious accountant, it makes it more obvious to choose a career with a big professional services firm and structure my time to pass the CPA exam.

If my identity includes being an extreme outdoors person, I make travel plans and buy gear that aligns with backpacking and adventure. I might do this because it reinforces my identity. But it's important to realize this can be helpful but also limiting. 

Identity is important for social connections and overall well-being. Identity can often be tied to communities, like religions, political or social values, shared language, cultural experiences, and more.

With strong communities, you’re better positioned to build strong social connections. And as a result, strong relationships can help strengthen your mental fitness, your resiliency, and even your physical health

7 symptoms of an identity crisis

Sometimes, we don’t know we’re going through an identity crisis until we’re already in the middle of it.

My husband recently went through an identity crisis. After a traumatic accident, he was left changed forever — physically, mentally, and emotionally. In many ways, the accident robbed him of critical components of his identity. We pivoted our very active, outdoor lifestyle to be more accommodating of physical restrictions, like car camping instead of backpacking. In the summers, we go paddleboarding instead of going on long hikes. 

It wasn’t until months after his accident that he realized he was having an identity crisis. It was only because symptoms of an identity crisis started to show up in our everyday life. 

So when it comes to spotting the symptoms, it’s important to check in with yourself. These seven symptoms could be a sign that you’re experiencing an identity crisis: 

How an identity crisis can lead to depression

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that an identity crisis can lead to depression, especially if you’re living with depression already. 

In fact, science can back this up. Studies have found that identities are significantly more prevalent in people living with depression. Negative self-views are generally a consistent sign or symptom of depression. When your idea of yourself (including how you define yourself) suffers, it’s likely your mental health with suffer, too. 

If you’ve been struggling with an identity crisis, look out for these symptoms. Talk to your doctor or trained mental health professional about what you’re experiencing. 

  • Feelings of hopelessness or worthlessness 
  • Loss of interest in things once enjoyed 
  • Fatigue 
  • Irritability 
  • Changes in appetite, weight 
  • Difficulty concentrating 
  • Low energy levels and low motivation 
  • Difficulty sleeping 

identity-crisis-woman-looking-at-window

11 causes of an identity crisis 

There’s no one cause that we can pinpoint as the identity crisis trigger. Because we all identify ourselves differently, different life events can trigger an identity crisis. Here are 11 common causes of an identity crisis: 

  • Marriage or a new committed long-term relationship 
  • A divorce or separation 
  • The loss of a loved one (parent, spouse, child, sibling, family member, loved one, friend) 
  • Moving 
  • A traumatic event (like an accident) 
  • Losing a job 
  • Getting a new job 
  • Physical health issues (like chronic illnesses, a major diagnosis, and more) 
  • Mental health issues 
  • Retirement 
  • Becoming a parent 

How to cope with an identity crisis

If you’re going through an identity crisis, you’re not alone. There are ways to cope with what you’re experiencing — and communities that can help provide support. Here are five ways to cope with an identity crisis: 

  • Ground yourself in your values. You might need to revisit your core values. Or, perhaps you’re ready to recreate or redefine what values are important to you. No matter what stage you’re in, ask yourself: what’s most important in life right now? What values do you care about? What values do you want to care about? 
  • Be aware of your emotions. And give yourself permission to feel those emotions. An identity crisis is rattling to your mental health and mental fitness. It can feel scary, intimidating, and numbing all at once.

    But if you let yourself experience the emotions you’re feeling, it’s better than bottling them up. Get in touch with how you feel. You could try journaling or writing down your feelings to help process, too. 
  • Create a mental fitness plan. If you find yourself in your identity crisis, it’s time to ground yourself in your mental fitness practice. Are you making space for Inner Work®? Are you doing things that bring you joy? How are you caring for your mental health and mental fitness? In what ways are you prioritizing yourself? 
  • Enlist the help of a coach. A coach is your own personal guide to navigating what life will throw at you. If you’re experiencing an identity crisis, seek the help of a coach. They’ll be able to help you process your identity crisis and create a roadmap for the path forward. 
  • Try to stay optimistic about what the future holds. It might just be that an identity crisis will be one of the best things that can happen to you.

    You’ve lost your job as a lawyer but you’ve always wanted to write a book? Go follow your dreams. You’re going through a challenging divorce or breakup? Someone else might come along when you least expect it. Your career takes a turn and your entire job seems to have turned upside down? Maybe that’s the push in the direction your career needed to go.

    Stay positive. You never know what the future holds. While life happens, you can dial into your locus of control. Hard things are hard for a reason. We typically learn a lot from the hardest experiences.

identity-crisis-you-build-every-good-thing-in-your-life

Seeking treatment for an identity crisis

It’s important to know when you need professional help. For example, both my husband and I sought professional help after experiencing a traumatic accident. It was critical for our mental health, especially amid an identity crisis. 

If you’re seeking treatment, there are options out there. Here are some things to keep in mind.

Talk therapy 

Talk therapy can help tremendously when experiencing an identity crisis. I’ve been in therapy for nearly 16 years — and I don’t think I could go without it.

Talk therapy gives you the space to talk vulnerably and openly with an unbiased third party. You can talk about your challenges, identify your strengths, and build confidence. It can help re-center and re-ground you in who you are, regardless of the identity you might be wrestling with. 

Cognitive behavioral therapy 

Sometimes, more evidence-based therapies like cognitive behavioral therapy are needed. With CBT, you can work with a trained therapist to help identify and change thought patterns. If you feel an influx of negative automatic thoughts, talk to your doctor or therapist. It might be worth exploring cognitive behavioral therapy. 

Support groups 

Lastly, there’s power in numbers — literally. Support groups can offer you a sense of community for those who might be experiencing something similar. I’m a big fan of NAMI. This organization hosts a variety of types of support groups that can help you weather an identity crisis. 

For example, if you’ve recently had a traumatic loss of a loved one, seek out grief support groups. As a supplemental aspect to professional treatment, consider coaching. BetterUp provides professional, trained coaches who can help serve as supplemental support if you’re going through an identity crisis. Our coaches can focus on key topics like grief, career change, job loss, and more. 

Start finding your true self 

Identity issues aren’t uncommon. And sometimes, it feels like that existential crisis is looming. We might feel the signs of an identity crisis coming on after a major life event or traumatic experience. Some might laugh it off as a midlife crisis. Young people or young adults might dismiss it as a growing pain of life. 

But the reality is, identity crises have a huge impact on our mental health and wellbeing. And at one point, we might all ask ourselves the question, “Who am I?” 

Tap into your self-awareness. What about your personality development has changed? What about your identity development has changed? And in what ways can you use this crisis as an opportunity for growth and development? 

With BetterUp, you can reach your full potential. A coach can help guide you through your emotions, thoughts, and feelings. And with some support, you can find a stable footing at the core of who you are.

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Published April 27, 2022

Madeline Miles

Madeline is a writer, communicator, and storyteller who is passionate about using words to help drive positive change. She holds a bachelor's in English Creative Writing and Communication Studies and lives in Denver, Colorado. In her spare time, she's usually somewhere outside (preferably in the mountains) — and enjoys poetry and fiction.

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