10 Signs You're Having An Identity Crisis — And How To Figure Out Who You Really Are

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woman having an identity crisis

Being confused does not feel good. It makes you anxious and full of self-doubt, especially when it comes to an identity crisis and whether or not you're being your real self.

It can be upsetting to wonder if you are who you think you are. In these times, you feel out of control and you're riddled with anxiety and panic. I call this experience “identity confusion.” While it differs from an identity crisis, it can often be the driving force behind finding yourself in the midst of one.

When people say “I feel,” or, “I think,” people don’t stop to think that “I” is not singular; it actually has two parts. “I” is a blend of “me” and “them.” The “me” is how you naturally react and feel, and the “them” is the influence of your family, who raised you.

The identity confusion lies in the question: “Is the way I feel at a given moment because of who I am, or because of what I was taught?”

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Everybody is a combination of their feelings and training. Without stopping to separate those two parts, you can often fail to identify your real self and easily include reactions that have been trained into you. You must learn to recognize the difference or who you are will merge with who you were told to be.

Identity confusion starts at birth and continues throughout your adult life. You are born into dependency and vulnerable to influence as a child. You are trained by your parents to behave in certain ways for reasons that make sense to them. The problem is that no parent is perfect, and the rules they teach are imperfect.

When you recognize that something "feels" wrong, there is a clash between your natural reason and your dependency on your parents for survival.

You handle this confusion by splitting into two selves, creating one to please your parents (self for others), and one to represent your real reactions (authentic self). You maintain your relationships with your family at the expense of honoring your real self.

You must hide your natural reactions to preserve your connection with your parents. And this can eventually lead to an identity crisis.

What is an identity crisis?

An identity crisis is when you persistently question who you are, and feel confused or uncertain about both the present and future. This can include anything about you — your life purpose, core beliefs, personality, or experiences.

The most common period of time for an identity crisis to occur is when you undergo a huge life change. However, this crisis can happen at any point in a person's life.

Psychologist Erik Erikson originated the concept from his work. He believed people went through several "identity crises" while their personalities developed. According to Erikson, a crisis is "a make-it-or-break-it moment" where you're forced to confront a specific situation in your life related to your sense of self and growth as a person.

If you're not sure if you are having an identity crisis, there are a few signs to look for.

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10 Signs You’re Having An Identity Crisis

1. You repeat the same patterns.

When you find yourself making the same mistakes over and over again, you are most likely being driven to avoid guilt and shame. You may not feel the emotions because the actions you take avoid the experiences that trigger them. You anticipate and avoid the feeling.

You also do not easily feel your natural emotions. You continue to listen to the louder emotions that keep your anxiety low at the cost of the connection to your authentic self.

In those moments where you ask yourself, “Why do I not learn?” ask yourself how you would feel if you did the opposite of what you did. You will begin to feel what you are trying to avoid.

2. You change when you're around people you're close to.

This is a common symptom of an identity crisis that is often recognized by others but not by you. However, it can also signal an identity crisis.

A friend or spouse will point out how you change when you are around your family, and you will deny it. It is an automatic reaction that happens so fast you may not even feel the shift.

You're so used to adjusting to the anticipated reactions of your family that you don’t see your emotional programming kicking into gear. You will change to avoid the disapproval of your family.

Others will easily see the shift while you will experience it as an authentic reaction. You will have hidden your real self that your friends are used to seeing.

3. You're told you don't listen.

The ability to listen to the emotions of others is a good test to see if you are having an identity crisis. Emotions are contagious, so listening for and recognizing others’ emotions will resonate with your own experiences.

Their emotions will trigger your natural emotions. In your authentic self where you are true to who you are, you will use this reaction to empathize and feel compassion toward another.

Natural emotions within the authentic self are soft. They don’t take up much space in your brain. There is room to listen and absorb the emotions of others. You will not be surprised or made anxious by the natural associations and triggering of your own natural emotions.

The reactions of others may trigger internal reactions in you that you do not want to admit. Your anxiety will rise if this occurs. The emotions of others will be seen as a threat and must be silenced.

This can take the form of discounting or dismissing others’ reactions or lead to a fight where you try to silence the opinions of others. Your self for others is protected but your relationship is harmed.

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4. Your 'shoulds' win more than your 'wants.'

People have a hard time recognizing shame, the core emotion of the self for others. They can often report feeling guilty, but not aware of how quickly guilt can turn into shame.

Guilt tells you that you've done something wrong. Shame makes you feel worthless for making a mistake. It prevents you from learning through trial and error. You are expected to know something before you get a chance to learn it.

People are typically familiar with feeling a sense of obligation. They hear themselves say they “should” do something. “Shoulds” are the voice of shame and a sign that you're suffering from an identity crisis.

If you examine the obligation, you may see that it typically comes from some training from your family or culture about what you are expected to do in a given situation.

At that moment, you may not even be able to define what you want. The voice of shame hides your true reactions. You do what you are supposed to do, rather than what you want to do. Most importantly, you incorrectly feel it is what you want.

5. You have high, unexplained anxiety.

People will often report that they feel anxious, but not exactly sure why they're feeling nervous at that moment. Psychologists have coined a phrase to describe this experience. They call it "free-floating anxiety", or generalized anxiety disorder.

I don’t believe in free-floating anxiety. I believe there's always a reason that you experience anxiety. Sometimes, it's hard to diagnose.

If you look carefully, you will find that the anxiety was a signal of a pending emotional clash between your natural reactions and the way you were raised. This anxiety occurs in anticipation of a battle between themselves.

If you have not been tracking your emotions or thoughts, you can be caught off-guard by the sudden rush of anxiety, and think it comes out of nowhere.

6. You feel lost.

Feeling lost is like wandering through a dense, unfamiliar forest with no clear path ahead, as though the compass of purpose has gone astray, leaving you adrift in a sea of uncertainty. Intimidating, right?

It can feel like you are lost in a fog. It is a disorienting emotional state where the destination seems elusive, and the journey itself feels shrouded in confusion. When you have moments where you simply don't know what to do, where to go, or why you are here, you could be having an identity crisis.

Feeling lost can mean many different things, but if you feel as if you have no idea who you are or how to define your sense of self, it's time you start taking action to find it.

7. You question yourself often.

Another sign of an identity crisis is an obvious one: questioning who you are.

This line of questioning could run from wondering if you are actually a good person to character traits like "Am I truly honest?" It can even go as deep as doubting your core values or principles.

These are your passions, what you believe in, and when you start questioning them, you risk a mental and emotional breakdown of your psyche.

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8. You feel bored or restless.

This is specifically when you are doing things that used to be fulfilling and satisfactory. If you no longer get joy from things you used to be passionate about, it could be a sign of an identity crisis.

Though this is also a sign of depression developing, depression is a sign of a crisis occurring. You no longer understand who you are and have lost your sense of self. Of course, depression will sink in. And it's important to get help when you feel this way.

9. You have difficulty answering questions about yourself.

"What's your favorite color?" "Do you enjoy dogs?" "Are you good at math?" — If these questions spin you into a downward spiral of anxiety and panic, you are in the midst of an identity crisis.

When you are doubting who you are, you will have a hard time giving people answers about yourself, even if they are simple questions that should be easy to answer. Once you notice this habit, it is a warning that you need to do some reflection.

10. Your catchphrase has become 'What's the point?'

If you have caught yourself saying this phrase a bit too often, take a step back and evaluate why you feel the need to speak it. If you feel like there's no point in doing anything, it can be a dangerous sign of a crisis in your identity.

Your purpose in life is what keeps you going, what gets you up in the morning. When that's gone, there is nothing to live for. So, "What's the point?" is one of the most important questions to ask, and if you don't have an answer, you need to seek help.

How To Deal With An Identity Crisis

When it comes to being in the midst of an identity crisis, the most important thing to do is to let yourself feel what you are feeling. Give a name to your emotions. If you are scared, be scared. But then, bring yourself back in and evaluate why you are feeling the way you are.

You must give yourself time to fully understand what is going on inside your mind, so don't rush into anything. Understanding and managing an identity crisis is critical to feeling that you are being true to your real self and representing yourself clearly in all that you say or do.

If you feel you need help, you can always seek out a professional. Find a psychologist or therapist that best fits your needs and talk it out with them.

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Dr. Stephen Van Schoyck is a clinical psychologist who has been in private practice in Bucks County, PA since 1984. His practice of clinical psychology treats adults, couples, families, and children. He's also the author of "The Burn Rate Diet" and "Looking For Yourself in All the Wrong Places: How To Recognize Your Authentic Self and Live On Your Terms."