Are you questioning who you are? Maybe what your purpose is, or what your values are? If so, you may be going through what some call an identity crisis.

The term “identity crisis” first came from developmental psychologist and psychoanalyst Erik Erikson. He introduced the ideas of adolescent identity crises as well as midlife crises, believing that personalities developed by resolving crises in life.

If you’re experiencing an identity crisis, you may be questioning your sense of self or identity. This can often occur due to big changes or stressors in life, or due to factors such as age or advancement from a certain stage (for example, school, work, or childhood).

Here’s what you need to know about identity crises, if you might be having one, and what you can do.

Having an identity crisis isn’t a diagnosable condition, so there aren’t typical “symptoms,” as with a cold or flu. Instead, here are the signs you may be experiencing an identity crisis:

  • You’re questioning who you are — overall or with regards to a certain life aspect such as relationships, age, or career.
  • You’re experiencing great personal conflict due to the questioning of who you are or your role in society.
  • Big changes have recently occurred that have affected your sense of self, such as a divorce.
  • You’re questioning things such as your values, spirituality, beliefs, interests, or career path that have a major impact on how you see yourself.
  • You’re searching for more meaning, reason, or passion in your life.

It’s completely normal to question who you are, especially since we change throughout our lives. However, when it begins to affect your daily thinking or functioning, you may be having a crisis of identity.

Is it something more serious?

Any type of crisis can also result in a decline in your mental health.

Viewing yourself or your life negatively has been shown to be a marker for vulnerability to depression.

If you have any signs of depression, consider seeking help. You should seek help immediately if they’re accompanied by suicidal thoughts.

Symptoms of depression can include:

  • depressed mood or feelings of hopelessness or worthlessness
  • loss of interest in things once enjoyed
  • fatigue
  • irritability
  • changes in appetite or weight
  • issues with concentration, energy levels, motivation, and sleep

Although often thought of as happening at certain ages (for instance, in teens or during “midlife crises”), an identity crisis can happen to anyone, of any age, at any point in one’s life.

Oftentimes, identity crises or other mental health issues can arise due to major life stressors. These stressors don’t have to be inherently bad, but they can still cause a lot of stress, which makes you question who you are and what you value.

Stressors can include:

  • getting married
  • getting divorced or separated
  • moving
  • experiencing a traumatic event
  • losing a loved one
  • losing or getting a job
  • new health issues

These and other stressors can certainly have an impact on your daily life and how you see yourself.

One recent study found that factors such as social support, stress levels, and health issues could all influence the development of an often-called midlife crisis.

Questioning your sense of self may be stressful, but it can actually be a good thing in the long term. Knowing who you are better and adapting to changes can help you grow as a person.

Here are some things you can do to get through an identity crisis:

Look inward and explore

Take some time out to really look within yourself and ask yourself some questions about what you like and don’t like anymore.

Ask yourself questions and see if you can answer them over time and if the answers help you figure things out. Remember, you don’t have to have all the answers — and they may change from year to year, or decade to decade.

Questions might include:

  • What qualities and characteristics define you? How has this changed over the years?
  • If you’re experiencing a major life change: How have things changed for you? Are you content with these changes? How can you cope with these new things occurring?
  • What are your values? Is anything working in opposition to them?
  • What are your interests, passions, and hobbies? Are you doing what you like to do, and if not, why not? (If you love to play tennis and haven’t for several years, what factors are preventing it?)
  • What grounds you? What helps you cope when you’re struggling?
  • What’s important to you regarding your values, purpose in life, or sense of identity? Is there anything you feel you can do to improve your sense of self?

Search for joy and other ways to cope

What makes you happy? What gives your life a sense of purpose and joy?

You don’t necessarily have to have the perfect job, but if you aren’t doing anything fulfilling in your life, then this might be why you feel like you’re in crisis.

You may find fulfillment in volunteering, taking up a new hobby, connecting with others, or any number of other things outside of your employment. Or, you may find that a new job will be a more appropriate match for who you are.

Find support

Having good social support can help influence how well you cope with big changes, stressors, or questions of identity. There are so many places you can find support.

Look for support in:

  • friends, partners, and family members
  • your community or church
  • a new group, club, or meetup that shares your interests
  • a support group, especially when dealing with a new health issue
  • mental health group or individual therapies
  • team sports or activities

Ignore internal and external judgment

Other people’s expectations as well as our own can have a big effect on how we’re feeling. But don’t let society’s standards dictate who you are and what you should like.

Just because you’re of a certain age, gender, or cultural group, doesn’t mean that you need to follow along if you no longer believe in what you’re following.

Your self-perception is important to your overall well-being, and spending time and energy on judgmental thinking can get you nowhere. It may take time for the people you love to understand any changes you make, but you’ll be happier in the long term if you’re true to yourself.

Seek outside help

If the stress ever gets to be too much, consider seeking outside help. This can come from a trustworthy friend or family member to talk to, or a mental health professional to help you resolve and cope with what’s going on.

Never feel afraid to ask for help. Life — especially big changes — can feel scary, but we all go through it.

Sense of self and identity is important to everyone. Although having an identity crisis can make you feel lost or frustrated, these types of crises can also be fundamentally helpful.

Questioning your sense of self, your purpose, and your values can help you gain a better sense of you who are and who you will be. Remember, change is a part of life, and looking back you will see that you’ve been changing all along.

If you’re experiencing a lot of major life stressors and you feel like you’re in a serious mental health crisis, contact a professional who can help you work through what you’re going through.

Q:

Do all adolescents experience an identity crisis, and how can parents support their children who might be going through this?

A:

Many people believe that adolescence is invariably a time of “storm and stress,” which may be partially attributable to identity formation or even “identity crisis.” However, research does not support this notion. Many adolescents make it through this developmental stage without issue, while some find themselves having moderate challenges that they are able to negotiate after some time and effort, or with some additional support. A small minority will have substantial issues that require intensive and ongoing supports. Whatever the case, all adolescents do find themselves defining and deciding upon “who they are,” as they are given more opportunities to be self-directive and autonomous during the transition to adulthood. It is important for parents to create an atmosphere of safety and openness, whereby adolescents feel comfortable sharing their insights and feelings without fear of judgement. Such a relationship will foster the types of conversations that will support adolescents through their transitions, whatever the level of challenge or “crisis.” 

Dillon Browne, PhDAnswers represent the opinions of our medical experts. All content is strictly informational and should not be considered medical advice.