The Psychology and Spirituality Causes Of An Identity Crisis
Let the crisis be an opportunity to let go of what you aren’t.
A number of theories emerge from psychology to become part of popular culture. Unrestrained by academic textbooks, therapeutic rooms, or the halls of universities, popular psychology (or pop psychology) moves into the mainstream, helping people to understand themselves, and each other.
The continued rise of the self-development movement, and modern technology, makes this process more rapid, and more frequent. Top-selling books, trending blog posts, and popular YouTube videos often reference psychological insights. Whilst there are many advantages, sometimes the original meaning is lost in translation, detached from its original source.
One of these terms is identity crisis. It’s a term you’ve likely heard, or even used, to describe any form of discomfort around the nature of the self. It’s a term I’ve journaled approximately 1,453 times and counting. Society’s growing complexity, lack of spiritual foundations, and changing demands on big topics such as romance and work, can cause identity crises of all forms.
So how do you navigate an identity crisis? What’s the psychological source of this term? And how does spirituality, in its attempt to define identity in a completely different way, integrate with these theories?
Erik Erikson’s Stages of Psychosocial Development
Erik Erikson first used the term identity crisis in his theory of psychosocial development. A former student of Sigmund Freud, Erikson was particularly interested in how the ego developed across a lifetime. In his 1950 book, Childhood and Society, Erikson presented his theory on the eight stages of development. Uniting the psychological and the social, each stage presents a type of conflict, between individual needs, and the needs of society.
For Erikson, each stage of development provided an opportunity for transformation due to the tension caused by opposing demands. As we grow and mature, and develop our identity, we must navigate the culture and the people around us. When done successfully, this balancing act supports the healthy development of psychological and emotional maturity. An overview of these stages are:
- Stage One: Trust vs. Mistrust (0 to 1 ½)
- Stage Two: Autonomy vs. Shame and Doubt (18 months to 3 years)
- Stage Three: Initiative vs. Guilt (3 to 5)
- Stage Four: Industry vs. Inferiority (5 to 12)
- Stage Five: Identity vs. Role Confusion (12 to 18)
- Stage Six: Intimacy vs. Isolation (18 to 40)
- Stage Seven: Generativity vs. Stagnation (40 to 65)
- Stage Eight: Ego Integrity vs. Despair (65+)
We won’t go into the finer details here (see the detailed overview of Erikson’s stages for more information). But you can probably guess which stage the term identity crisis originated from — identity vs. role confusion, between the ages of 12 and 18, when children begin the journey to young adulthood. At this stage, most people start to consider who they’d like to be in the world, away from the ideas and beliefs presented by family structures or culture.
The ever-evolving ego
Within this context, Erikson used the term identity crisis to explain the difficulty in trying to understand their sense of self, and how they integrate into the wider world. Erikson saw every stage’s crisis point as an opportunity for development. This built upon the work of Freud, whose theory of the id, ego, and superego, attempted to integrate individual needs with wider society.
Erikson’s biggest distinction from Freud was that a person’s identity isn’t fixed, but ever-evolving. In the early stages of development, our identity develops as we try different roles, to see what fits, and what doesn’t. As our view of the world expands, and we meet different or like-minded people, we start to find our place and develop a sense of belonging. As our world grows, we grow, and our sense of self adjusts and develops alongside it. It’s all a process of trial and error.
But this leaves us in an interesting position. If our identity is ever-evolving and growing and dependent on the things we do, the thoughts we have, and the relationships we nourish, then it suggests the way we identify is, mostly, a matter of perspective. What, then, is beyond that? How do we truly understand ourselves, and attempt to answer one of life’s most profound questions… Who am I?
Identity Crisis and Spiritual Development
People in the Western world tend to define themselves by their ego. The ego is a collection of thoughts, beliefs, ideas, wants, desires, and feelings, all forming an I-dentity. Bond that identity with a physical body, a name, and other people who see your physical form and use that name to get your attention, and, boom — you have a person, you have an identity. You can safely say you’re human.
Your identity relates to the way you see yourself, your self-image, or your ego. It is in many ways contextual and linked to the points of reference that surround you, allowing you to understand your place in the world. Who am I? Answering this question is, in many spiritual traditions, a path to self-realization. Because it encourages you to look at everything you are not.
Mainstream culture leans towards atheism, and models of reality closely aligned with material science. This doesn’t support concepts of the spirit or the soul, an invisible essence that goes beyond the mind, or the body. Yet spiritual teachers have made this approach to the self increasingly popular. Eckhart Tolle, in books such as The Power of Now and A New Earth, highlights how the illusion of ego, echoing the philosophy of Eastern traditions such as Buddhism (which claims there is no ‘self’) and Hinduism (which speaks of Atman, a spiritual essence that is one with the universe).
My understanding is that, to navigate an identity crisis, we need to create a fusion between Western psychology, and its focus on ego development, and Eastern traditions. Where do we begin? By acknowledging that our model of reality is creating a collective identity crisis, disconnecting us from the Earth, and limiting our potential.
There’s another catch, too — all forms of growth involve letting go of models of the safe that no longer serve you. You could argue, and my journal will agree, that self-development can, at least in the beginning, create many, many identity crises as you begin to understand who you truly are.
Navigating an Identity Crisis
Spiritual teacher Jiddu Krishnamurti summarized the collective identity crisis when he said: “It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.” Wherever you look, it’s clear that the way society functions isn’t best supporting what makes us flourish, mentally, emotionally, and physically. From addictive technology, junk food, a lack of mental health awareness, and wider issues such as climate change and war, it’s hard not to agree that society is sick.
Attempting to adjust to things that are unhealthy is going to lead to anxiety, depression, and unfulfillment. And that’s the gift of an identity crisis, as Erikson highlighted — every crisis is an opportunity, to discover who you are, to evolve, to move closer to your true self, beyond thoughts or beliefs or ideas.
Psychology provides a useful model for how to develop a healthy, integrated, and mature ego. Erikson’s model, in particular, shows how, when navigating competing factors, different values, such as love and wisdom, emerge. Equally, spirituality reminds us that the truest essence of who you are isn’t the ego or a tangible fixed thing you can point to and say, “that’s me.”
Question to ask yourself
Ultimately, throughout any identity crisis, you are your number one guide. As someone dedicated to self-development, in my experience, frustration or doubts about who you are usually points to an unconscious process of deeper growth and transformation. And the more healthy distance you have from your self-image, the more likely you are to evolve in this way. If you experience an identity crisis, firstly, get curious. Ask yourself questions along the lines of:
- What is this showing me about my previous ideas about who I am?
- Does this conflict point to unseen parts of myself that I am avoiding looking at?
- Am I accepting other people’s stories about who I am, rather than living in a way that feels true to me?
- What value do I get from associating my identity with this belief, idea, or ideology?
- What happens if I don’t see my identity as fixed, but ever-evolving?
With Great Growth, Comes Changing Identity
Western psychology matures the “I”. Eastern philosophy shows you the “I” is mostly an illusion. Be reassured, all paths of self-development or spiritual growth, in some way, inquire into the nature of your identity. On a subtle level, overcoming limiting beliefs about what you’re able to achieve, or making a radical change in lifestyle, is another form of proving the previous identity you held wasn’t the truth of who you are.
Keep that in mind, and if you experience an identity crisis, be patient. Trust that something deeper is shifting in the periphery of your awareness. Let the crisis be an opportunity to let go of what you aren’t. In the midst of all the change and the transition, you might discover there is a part of you that is consistent, true, and stable.
It’s not what you’ve been taught to identify with. But that’s good news. Because it’s much, much greater.