Imagine you've been told all your life you're the smartest kid in class. You get the highest grades, get into the best colleges, and are deemed a high potential leader. But then, a romantic breakup, moving cross country, and dropping out of grad school alter your life's course—and in a few years, you don't quite feel like the major success that your teachers, family, and friends praised you to be. You may start to ask yourself, "Who am I?"
Although the specifics might vary for different people, these kinds of ups and downs in life are very common. Depending on the intensity of these life changes, it can send some people into an identity crisis.
What is an identity crisis?
An identity crisis can be understood as the in-between stage from one sense of self to another.
Developmental psychologist Erik Erikson introduced the concept of the identity crisis in the 1950s. His examination1 of the ego identity led to the theory that we all experience specific growth stages for healthy personality development throughout our lives. Some of us experience these life transitions in an intensely abrupt way, which can feel like a crisis. Common ways that our culture talks about these transitions are tied to specific life segments, such as a midlife or quarter-life crisis.
According to licensed therapist Steph Tuazon, LCSW, we "feel most authentically like ourselves when we have a felt sense of security in our body, a knowing that we believe ourselves to be confident in our identities and have this affirmed by our community, loved ones, or even society; an identity crisis can occur anytime there's a conflict when how we see ourselves differs or is invalidated."
What causes an identity crisis.
An identity crisis is not a mental health diagnosis nor a medical condition. Rather, it's a "normal stage in development," according to licensed therapist Aki Rosenberg, LCSW. "Just being in an age demographic from 12 to 26 on its own can cause an identity exploration," she explains. "That said, there are lots of environmental things and life experiences that can inspire questioning and might provoke questions around identity."
According to Rosenberg, some situations that may trigger such questioning include:
- Moving away from home
- Changing jobs
- Entering or exiting a significant relationship
- Loss of a loved one
- Becoming a parent
She adds that these events might also result in feelings of an identity crisis if they're also paired with internal experiences like:
The pairing of the new life challenge with the negative internal emotional experience can send someone into what our culture calls an identity crisis.
The role of identities like race, gender, and more.
It's also crucial to highlight Kimberlé Crenshaw's work on intersectionality, which emphasizes that we all live with multiple identities that overlap and influence each other within social and cultural systems like patriarchy and race. If we're experiencing extreme financial hardship, realizations about other aspects of ourselves—like class, gender, and race—may become heightened during this time, forcing us to confront many pieces of our identity at once.
Sometimes realizations related to an aspect of our identity—such as our gender, sexual orientation, or ethnicity—can also themselves trigger a so-called identity crisis. For example, if you've been raised by conservative parents with traditional gender roles and realize you might actually be trans, your internal world might start to have a strong desire to change its external world accordingly. However, we might hesitate because of the many implications coming out might have on our lives, and it might not feel safe to express ourselves just yet—leading to an internal feeling of confusion or crisis.
"For many of us with multiple marginalized identities or systematically minoritized people, this can actually occur quite frequently as we navigate systems that are not made for us," Tuazon says.
Warning signs to look out for.
Here are some warning signs that might indicate you're experiencing an identity crisis:
You keep asking yourself the same identity questions.
Moments of introspection are useful for self-development. However, we can sometimes get stuck in an endless loop of the same questions. Those who are experiencing an identity crisis may not have the tools to get themselves out of the loop of questions just yet.
Tuazon notes common questions could be:
- Who am I?
- Is what I'm doing even important?
- Do my values align with this (relationship, activity, work) that I'm participating in?
- What is my purpose and passion in life?
Your body feels off.
They say our gut is our second brain. Having a gut feeling sometimes is our body telling us something is off about our environment.
"Our body feeling a sense of insecurity can help clue in whether or not we are having an identity crisis—we can feel fatigued, less motivated, irritable in places we typically have felt validated in," Tuazon explains.
These physical signals from our bodies are useful. It's our job to pay attention. Learn how to feel into what wisdom your body has to offer.
Your life "on paper" doesn't match your thoughts.
An incredibly common way for people to feel the onset of an identity crisis is that they are "just going through the motions."
Rosenberg shares that her clients often show up in therapy saying things like "my life looks great on paper" and "nothing is really wrong" but who are also feeling deeply unsatisfied or unhappy. There is often an added layer of judgment that comes through in statements like "what's wrong with me?" or "I just need to stop complaining."
The statements, paired with judgment, can be an indication that you're in an identity crisis.
The relationships around you feel different.
You might feel a little off because your social circles are shifting.
Much psychological research suggests our relationships with other people inform how we view ourselves. For example, this could look like your friends all becoming moms, and you're the only child-free friend of the group. Your relationship with your friends as new moms can make you start to question your own identity.
Your inner voice is getting louder.
Your inner voice, inner knowing, or whatever inner being most resonates with you starts to get louder. Oftentimes, your inner voice starts as a whisper and crescendos its way up until you start listening to it. Your inner voice is getting louder because it wants you to pay attention to something in your life. (If you struggle with recognizing these signals, we have a full guide on how to listen to your inner voice more closely.)
If you're under the age of 25.
Not only do you get wiser with age, but your brain actually changes. "Our brains aren't fully developed until about 25 years old, so naturally, our identities are still in flux," Rosenberg explains.
Recent studies2 reveal that our brains don't fully develop until the age of 25. The prefrontal cortex, which is related to attention capacity and impulse control, is the last to develop. So our minds are neurobiologically changing through our mid-20s.
How to deal with it.
Although almost everyone experiences an identity crisis along their life path, it often feels like you're the only one. Here are a few tips to get through an identity crisis:
Rename the experience. Don't use "crisis."
It's worth repeating that an identity crisis is not a clinical mental health diagnosis or a problem for your physician to fix. As such, Rosenberg notes that naming this experience a "crisis" may be detrimental.
"I don't like the language of 'crisis' because what we are talking about is a healthy and arguably necessary part of human development," she explains. ""I actually think there's more danger in not having an identity crisis at some point because it's so important for our growth to be able to look at our lives and ask important questions about our beliefs and values and to understand how and why we arrived there. I like to think of it more as a period of exploration or as an opportunity to reevaluate and realign with ourselves."
Reach out to friends who are equipped to listen.
Reaching out to friends is a great way to move through an identity crisis. The people who are closest to us oftentimes see things that we don't. Asking for outside perspective can help ground you with a new way of looking at your current situation. However, it's a good idea to check that your friends have the capacity to support you before engaging deeply.
Start to notice the spaces around you and how they make you feel.
You may not be in the most supportive spaces to express your full identity. Toxic workplaces are examples of where we might feel the onset of an identity crisis but can't quite figure out why.
The first step of noticing is becoming still. Notice without judgment your surroundings, including the people around you, what's being said, how people are being treated, and how your body reacts to these cues. Just noticing what's around you while in stillness can help bring more clarity to your experience. You may also want to consider whether it makes sense to remove yourself from environments that are causing you to question yourself or find ways to create boundaries to protect your sense of self.
Know that this life development stage will pass.
No one can provide an exact timeline for when things will get better. But action is the best way to move through difficult times like an identity crisis. If you need an idea of how to move forward, here are 28 ways to rebound when life gets tough.
Learn about ego death.
Transcendence, or ego death, is a spiritual ideal that takes a step past identity crisis. Instead of holding on to the ego and fighting to fit it into an identity, some people find relief when they lean into their spiritual practice and let go of an ill-fitting identity, releasing all things that no longer serve them. Then, they can find ease by living closer to their most authentic self.
Learning and understanding what ego death is may take a bit of research and spiritual practice but can result in a freeing experience.
Work with a licensed professional.
Although an identity crisis is not a clinical mental health diagnosis, working with a licensed professional can help build up skill sets to become more resilient against life's challenges. Depending on what's at the heart of your crisis, there are many types of therapy to explore to find a professional to help you through this time in your life.
There are also ways to find support through an identity crisis beyond talk therapy, such as through somatic therapy or art therapy, where mental health professionals guide you through bodywork and artistic expression.
If you find yourself in an identity crisis, it may be uncomfortable and even painful—but know that you're on the right path. You are listening to your inner voice, which is inviting you toward a new way of being.
In a world that actively disconnects us from our true selves, we are the only ones who can steer ourselves out of crisis. Stay as close to your inner voice as you can, connect with your confidants (and possibly a therapist), and step courageously into the next version of you.
Stephanie Catahan is a health coach, community leader, and writer. With a psychology degree from University of California, Berkeley and trained at Duke Integrative Medicine, she applies a holistic lens to wellness and works with clients on their mindsets to prevent burnout. As a community leader, her work is intersectional, guiding clients through the many layers of their life’s context to reach their own version of ultimate well-being. She has experience building wellness initiatives for employee resources groups at companies like Google.
Additionally, Catahan blends intuitive wellness with practical habits as a reiki practitioner and certified nutrition coach with Precision Nutrition. Catahan utilizes her wide array of experiences to inform her unique perspectives in her writing for mindbodygreen. She currently lives between Brooklyn and San Francisco.