What Is Identity?

The pioneering identity researcher Erik Erikson first proposed the term “ego identity,” which he conceived as an enduring and continuous sense of who we are. The ego identity allows a person to merge all the different versions of oneself (the parent self, the career self, the sexual self) into one cohesive whole, so that when unexpected disaster strikes, there's a stable sense of self.  

Of course, major life upheavals cause many people to explore and redefine their identities. This reappraisal can occur at any stage of life, though people think that adolescence is the primary identity-forming period. Yet, today, many people in their late twenties and older are still trying to figure it out. As a person grows older, the overall trend is toward identity achievement, but divorce, the death of a loved one, retirement, and other shake-ups can make one question the very concept of "Who am I?" and "Who do I want my future self to be."

Who Am I?

"We contain multitudes," wrote Walt Whitman, referring to the fact that we see ourselves radically differently in different contexts. Everyone struggles with the existential question, "Who am I?" For people who are overly concerned with the impression they make, or who feel a core aspect of themselves, such as gender or sexuality, is not being expressed, this struggle is acute.

Erikson believed that identities move along a continuum. His contemporary, James Marcia, theorized that people traverse among four distinct stages: diffusion, foreclosure, moratorium, and achievement. While cycling through these stages, the person continually attempts to answer, “Who am I?” Upon reaching identity achievement, he can simply declare, “This is who I am.


Personality Change

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