I Don’t Know Who I Am: The Stages of Personal Identity Development

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Reader’s Question

I am confused and don’t really know who I am. On top of that, any time I move closer to people, I will do what they are doing. In fact, I will do it better than they do. For example, if I get close to a smoker, I will become a smoker too. But in love I never allow myself to get close. When I see myself becoming like the person I’m getting close to, I immediately start moving away and promise myself not to get close to anybody again. Instead I read novels.

I’m still wondering if I’ll ever get to know who I am.

Psychologist’s Reply

Solidifying a sense of personal identity is one of the key tasks of late adolescence and early adulthood and is one of the stages of psychosocial development outlined by Erik Erikson. For various reasons, some folks have difficulty developing a solid sense of self. In such cases, it’s not uncommon for a person to mimic the behavior of others. It’s also not uncommon for a person who’s already not very sure of who they are to experience apprehension when they become so “close” to another that they fear losing all individual identity and becoming “engulfed” by the other.

Generally speaking, the ease with which a person masters the task of defining personal identity has a lot to do with how successfully they mastered the developmental tasks that came before. The stages Erikson outlines that precede identity solidification include:

  • Basic Trust vs. Mistrust (established during the very first years of life)
  • Autonomy vs. Shame and Doubt (the task of toddlers to develop a sense of self-reliance and will)
  • Initiative vs. Guilt (the pre-school age task of developing courage, independence, and a sense of purpose)
  • Industry vs. Inferiority (the childhood task of developing confidence, work ethic, and responsibility)

So, if mastering any of the prior stages has been particularly difficult or impaired, a person is likely to have more difficulty with the next step, which has to do with defining one’s identity and developing a solid sense of self. Unless this step is mastered successfully, there are likely to be problems with the critical tasks that lie ahead:

  • Intimacy vs. Isolation (the task of young adulthood to learn how to be intimately involved with others without risking the loss of one’s sense of self)
  • Generativity vs. Stagnation (the task of mid to late adulthood to discover one’s place in society and to make a meaningful contribution)
  • Ego Integrity vs. Despair (the task of senior years to contemplate our accomplishments and maintain a sense of personal worth while declining in our ability to produce)

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Depending on how old you are and how difficult it’s been for you to master the developmental milestones that precede the task of identity solidification, your quest to acquire a stable sense of self might be particularly challenging. The things you report suggest not only that you’re still searching for a sense of identity but also that you’re struggling with issues pertaining to intimacy vs. isolation. It’s probably best to consider visiting with a counselor or therapist, especially one who specializes in helping folks address emotional development issues and concerns.

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