None of us makes it through our 40s, 50s or 60s without going through at least one identity crisis, and it is common to go through several. You may be surprised to learn that is a good thing.
Identity crisis defined
The term “identity crisis” was created over 60 years ago by the fascinating, nearly forgotten developmental psychologist, Erik Erikson who suggested that formation of identity was one of the most important conflicts people face.
Perhaps you have experienced an identity crisis without being aware. It happens whenever you begin to think deeply about yourself and ponder your place in the world. Frequent questions are:
- What do I believe in?
- What do I really care about?
- Who am I?
- What is my purpose?
Erikson believed our sense of identity forms from the experiences and challenges presented by different developmental stages, not just adolescence. He suggested that identity is not set in stone by adulthood but shifts and changes throughout life.
Eight stages of life
In his book, “Childhood and Society,” Erikson introduced the concept of eight stages of development that are achieved by facing a pair of opposing emotional forces. Resolving the tension between these forces bestows a virtue. This would suggest that we need crises of conflict to move forward. Here are a few examples:
- Trust versus mistrust leads to hope.
- Initiative versus guilt leads to purpose.
- Intimacy versus isolation leads to love.
Identity issues after 40
Erikson proposed that some of the most interesting conflicts take place after age 40 — one being a crisis of generativity versus isolation. Generativity refers to the desire to make a difference. Erikson defined it as the ability to transcend personal interests to provide care and concern for younger and older generations. He thought that by resolving the conflicting forces of generativity and isolation we achieve a deep sense of love.
Then, after the age of 65 a crisis develops between ego integrity and despair. Ego integrity is the ability to see past yourself as an individual and feel part of something bigger. Resolving this conflict results in wisdom.
Why Erickson matters
Unlike most other developmental psychologists, Erikson stands out for his optimism. He recommended that we not fear conflicts but embrace them. He was one of the first to suggest the later stages of life could be filled with growth and value.
Erikson’s works changed the way psychologists viewed aging. No longer are middle- and late-adulthood seen as irrelevant, as they once were. Because of Erikson, the later years are now considered active and significant times of personal growth.
So, go ahead — have an identity crisis. You will be so much the better for it.