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Are You Having an Identity Crisis?

Four key ways to identify your identity.

Key points

  • An identity "crisis" may occur at any time in one's adult years when faced with a challenge to one's sense of self.
  • Four identity statuses are built from high and low positions on two identity dimensions: commitment and exploration.
  • People low in identity commitment have an uncertain sense of self.

You've undoubtedly heard the term "identity crisis," but you may not know its origins. The developmental psychologist Erik Erikson defined eight crisis stages that characterize our lives from birth through death. Identity achievement vs. identity diffusion is the fifth crisis that individuals experience as they navigate the potentially stormy years of adolescence. The crisis is one of heightened susceptibility to particular developmental changes associated with puberty. Teenagers experience rapid changes in body build, hormones, emotions, and cognitive abilities. Perhaps for the first time in life, they contemplate their roles in society, including their careers, values, and gender role.

There are advantages to exploring your identity during your teenage years. According to Erikson, it's important to think seriously about these issues and ultimately to come to enough of a resolution so that the path you embark on in adulthood is one that you have consciously chosen. This is the psychological state that Erikson called "identity achievement." If you don't come to grips with these crucial life decisions and never arrive at a firm identity, your "identity diffusion" will not prepare you for the developmental tasks that lie ahead.

A strong identity emerges not only from this conscious contemplation of your life's purpose but also from successfully resolving the developmental challenges that characterize the previous childhood years. Having a strong identity in adolescence, the thinking goes, rests in part on your having a strong sense of trust in infancy, autonomy in toddlerhood, ability to play as a preschooler, and solid work ethic in the elementary school years. The issues of childhood may re-emerge later in life as well. You may confront problems in your connection to work in your young adult years if you feel you're in a dead-end job. Similarly, you may confront issues associated with later life in your early years. Young people coping with the death of someone close to them, or even their own terminal illness, may face the psychosocial issues associated with later adulthood.

Let's get back to the question of identity. An identity "crisis" may occur at any time in your adult years when you're faced with a challenge to your sense of self. In addition, some adolescents may not go through an identity crisis at all but instead accept the roles and values handed down by parents. Others adolescents remain in a permanent state of crisis.

Because there are more than two ways that people navigate their adolescent identity issues, researchers following Erikson's theory expanded his concept of the identity crisis. Simon Fraser University psychologist James Marcia, working at the University of Buffalo at the time, developed a framework that went on to stimulate a large body of work on adolescent identity development. Called "identity statuses," Marcia defined four alternate ways that teenagers resolve identity issues.

Identity status is defined by two dimensions

The four identity statuses are built from high and low positions on two identity dimensions. Dimension one is "commitment." People high on commitment have a firm sense of who they are and feel strongly about the choices they have made. People low in identity commitment have an uncertain sense of self. Dimension two is "exploration." If you are high on the exploration dimension, you are actively questioning your sense of self and looking for ways to come to a decision.

Combining the high and low points on each dimension, we arrive at four identity statuses. People high on the commitment and exploration dimension are the traditional "identity achieved." At the opposite pole on both dimensions, people low in commitment and exploration fit Erikson's criteria for "identity diffused." People high on exploration but low on commitment are in a category that Marcia called "moratorium." This means that they have placed a hold on making the major decisions in their lives. They're thinking hard about what they want to do but aren't ready to commit. The final category applies to people who are low on exploration and high on commitment. In other words, they have a firm sense of self but they never went through a serious process of questioning their commitments. Marcia calls these "foreclosed"; in other words, they have closed off any serious contemplation of what they really want out of life.

The most favorable status for people to have in terms of adjustment is identity achieved. People who are in the moratorium category, at least during adolescence, will be the most likely to fit the classic image of the rebellious teen. The identity diffuse can also experience difficulties because they tend to float and may be led astray and into high-risk behaviors. The foreclosed group is perhaps the most interesting, however. Their commitments most likely coincided closely with the expectations their parents had for them. These are the teens most likely to enter the family business or profession and follow the values that fit closely with those of their parents. The problem for them is that without an actual period of exploring their own commitments, they may find themselves in mid-life to regret those decisions that did not match their true, inner needs.

The identity statuses were originally meant to apply to adolescents but later researchers have extended them to the adult years. In looking at adults, though, the natural question to ask is whether an identity exploration in adolescence is enough to keep people optimally adapted in adulthood. Several identity researchers, including me, examined the commitment and exploration dimensions as continuous developmental processes that can carry on throughout life. Just because you experienced a period of identity exploration as a teen doesn't mean that you are set for life. It's healthy to keep exploring your values, roles, and sense of self regardless of your age.


There are various questionnaires that identity researchers use to measure identity statuses or the dimensions that produce them. I've found it helpful to boil them down into a simple, four-question quiz. The quiz gives you a quick assessment of which identity status is closest to how you are right now. Once you've taken the quiz, I'll give you some pointers on how to interpret your answers and move from there to plans to work on areas that may require some re-examination.

The questions cover four identity commitments: politics, religion, career choices, and gender roles, the areas covered by the identity status measures used in the literature.

For each question, pick the choice that is closest to the way you feel right now.

1. Politics is something that:

a. I can never be too sure about because things change so fast. But I do think it's important to know what I can politically stand for and believe in.

b. I haven't really considered because it doesn't excite me much.

c. I feel pretty much the same way as my family. I follow what they do in terms of voting and such.

d. I have thought it through. I realize I can agree with some and not other aspects of what my family believes.

2. When it comes to religion:
a. I'm not sure what religion means to me. I'd like to make up my mind but I'm not done looking yet.

b. I don't give religion much thought and it doesn't bother me one way or the other.

c. I've gone through a period of serious questions about faith and can now say I understand what I believe in as an individual.

d. I've never really questioned my religion. If it's right for my family it must be right for me.

3. Regarding my career choice:
a. I haven't really settled on a career and I'm just taking whatever jobs are available until something good comes along.

b. I'm still trying to decide where my career interests lie and actively thinking about what jobs will be right for me.

c. I thought a little about my career, but there's never really any question since my parents said what they wanted for me.

d. It took me a while to figure it out, but now I really know that I am on the right career path.

4. With regard to men's and women's roles:

a. My views are identical to those of my family. What has worked for them will obviously work for me.

b. I've never really seriously considered men's and women's roles. It just doesn't seem to concern me.

c. I've spent some time thinking about men's and women's roles and I've decided what works best for me.

d. There are so many ways to define men's and women's role; I'm trying to decide what will work for me.

Here's the guide to the answers:

Politics: a= Moratorium b= Diffuse c=Foreclosed d=Achieved

Religion: a= Moratorium b= Diffuse c= Achieved d= Foreclosed

Career: a= Diffuse b= Moratorium c= Foreclosed d= Achieved

Gender Role: a= Foreclosed b= Diffuse c=Achieved d= Moratorium

Adding up your totals, you may have a mix of the four identity statuses, but it's likely you lean more toward one than another. The areas you might want to address in your own development right now are those for which you scored diffuse or foreclosed. People in the moratorium status, as long as they don't stay there forever, simply need more time or perhaps the chance to continue their exploration before they're forced to make a choice. The problem with the diffuse status is that the longer you float on these important areas, the less likely it is you will shore up your sense of self enough to handle your future developmental challenges. For example, it is difficult to establish true intimacy if your identity is weak.

In the areas for which you rate as foreclosed, you can benefit from taking a step back and engaging in some serious exploration. Continuing on the path set for you by your family can lead to later discontent; the path through adulthood I call the "straight and narrow." Remaining diffuse, on the other hand, can lead a person to the negative outcomes associated with the "meandering way" (Whitbourne, 2010). Constantly remaining in moratorium can also be detrimental in different ways, particularly if the individual's continued explorations lead to tumultuous ups and downs. In contrast to these three negatively oriented trajectories, people who continually evaluate their commitments and make adjustments to achieve greater realization of their identities ("authentic road") are most likely to achieve fulfillment throughout their lives.

This quiz, though brief, can give you a quick snapshot of where you stand on a developmental task that maintains its centrality in your personality and ability to adapt to your life's challenges. You can also use this tool to help advise your own teenagers, students, advisees, and clients to provide them with a sense of where they may need to move up or down the exploration or commitment scales.

Keep your mind open, but not too open, toward change. Your identity can adapt to whatever developmental tasks come your way.

Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2012


Whitbourne, S.K. (2010). The search for fulfillment. New York: Ballantine Books

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