Identity/Identity Formation

Identity is a person's mental representation of who he or she is.

Identity formation has been extensively described by Erik Erikson (1902–1994) in his theory of developmental stages, which extends from birth through adulthood. According to Erikson, identity formation, while beginning in childhood, gains prominence during adolescence. Faced with physical growth, sexual maturation, and impending career choices, adolescents must accomplish the task of integrating their prior experiences and characteristics into a stable identity. Erikson coined the phrase ‘identity crisis’ to describe the temporary instability and confusion adolescents experience as they struggle with new choices. To cope with the uncertainties of this stage, adolescents may overidentify with heroes and mentors, fall in love rapidly, or bond together in cliques, excluding others on the basis of real or imagined differences.

According to Erikson, successful resolution of this crisis depends on how a child has progressed through the previous developmental stages that center on issues of trust, autonomy, and initiative. By the age of 21, half of all adolescents are thought to have resolved their identity crises and are ready to move on to the adult challenges of love and work. Others, however, are unable to achieve an integrated adult identity, either because they have failed to resolve the identity crisis or because they have not experienced a crisis. James E. Marcia identified four common ways in which adolescents deal with the challenge of identity formation. Those who experience, confront, and resolve the identity crisis are referred to as identity-achieved. Others, termed identity-foreclosed, make commitments (often conventional ones, identical or similar to those of their parents) without questioning them or investigating alternatives. Those who are identity-diffused shrink from making definite choices about their futures and remain arrested, unable to make whole-hearted commitments to careers, values, or another person. By contrast, those in the moratorium group, while unable to make such commitments, are struggling to do so and experience an ongoing unresolved crisis as they try to find themselves.

Although the phrase ‘identity crisis’ was initially popularized in connection with adolescence, it is not limited to this time frame: Erikson actually formulated the concept to describe World War II (1939–1945) veterans. A variety of changes that affect someone's work, status, or relationships can bring about a crisis that forces one to redefine oneself. Values, priorities, chosen activities, and lifestyle continue to change throughout the human lifespan. Personal growth comes from the ability to encompass change; flexibility is considered a sign of mental health.

See also Adolescence ; Erikson, Erik; Personality development ; Self-concept .



Campbell, Joseph Keim, Michael O'Rourke, and Harry S. Silverstein. Time and Identity. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2010.

Erikson, Erik H. Childhood and Society. New York: W. W. Norton, 1950.

Josselson, Ruthellen. Finding Herself: Pathways to Identity Development in Women. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1987.

Sheehy, Gail. Passages: Predictable Crises of Adult Life. New York: E.P. Dutton, 1976.

Solomon, Andrew. Far from the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity. New York: Scribner, 2012.


Stanford University. “What is Identity (as we now use the word)?” (accessed February 23, 2015).

University of California, Los Angeles. “Beyond “identity.” (accessed February 23, 2015).