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Identity encompasses the memories, experiences, relationships, and values that create one’s sense of self. This amalgamation creates a steady sense of who one is over time, even as new facets are developed and incorporated into one's identity.

What Is Identity?

Everyone struggles with existential questions such as, “Who am I?” and “Who do I want my future self to be?” One reason why may be that the answer is so complex.

Identity includes the many relationships people cultivate, such as their identity as a child, friend, partner, and parent. It involves external characteristics over which a person has little or no control, such as height, race, or socioeconomic class. Identity also encompasses political opinions, moral attitudes, and religious beliefs, all of which guide the choices one makes on a daily basis.

People who are overly concerned with the impression they make, or who feel a core aspect of themselves, such as gender or sexuality, is not being expressed, can struggle acutely with their identity. Reflecting on the discrepancy between who one is and who one wants to be can be a powerful catalyst for change.

What defines identity?

Identity encompasses the values people hold, which dictate the choices they make. An identity contains multiple roles—such as a mother, teacher, and U.S. citizen—and each role holds meaning and expectations that are internalized into one’s identity. Identity continues to evolve over the course of an individual’s life.

How is identity formed?

Identity formation involves three key tasks: Discovering and developing one’s potential, choosing one’s purpose in life, and finding opportunities to exercise that potential and purpose. Identity is also influenced by parents and peers during childhood and experimentation in adolescence.

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How to Be Authentic

A hunger for authenticity guides us in every age and aspect of life. It drives our explorations of work, relationships, play, and prayer. Teens and twentysomethings try out friends, fashions, hobbies, jobs, lovers, locations, and living arrangements to see what fits and what's "just not me." Midlifers deepen commitments to career, community, faith, and family that match their self-images, or feel trapped in existences that seem not their own. Elders regard life choices with regret or satisfaction based largely on whether they were "true" to themselves.

Authenticity is also a cornerstone of mental health. It’s correlated with many aspects of psychological well-being, including vitality, self-esteem, and coping skills. Acting in accordance with one's core self—a trait called self-determination—is ranked by some experts as one of three basic psychological needs, along with competence and a sense of relatedness.

How do I live authentically?

Everyone subconsciously internalizes conventions and expectations that dictate how they believe they should think or behave. The decision to examine or challenge those assumptions, even though it’s difficult, is the first step to living more authentically. This set of 20 steps can guide you through that process.

How do I balance being authentic and fitting in?

There can be tension between being wholly yourself and operating successfully in your relationships and career. No one should be completely deceitful or completely forthright; a guiding principle to achieve a balance is that as long as you’re not forced to act in opposition to your values or personality, a little self-monitoring can be warranted.

Theories of Identity

One of the most enduring theories of development was proposed by psychologist Erik Erikson. Erikson divided the lifecycle into eight stages that each contained a conflict, with the resolution of those conflicts leading to the development of personality. The conflict that occurs during adolescence, Erikson believed, is “identity versus role confusion.”

Adolescents grapple with so many different aspects of identity, from choosing a career path to cultivating moral and political beliefs to becoming a friend or partner. Role confusion pertains to the inability to commit to one path. Adolescents then go through a period of experimentation before committing, reconciling the pieces of their identity, and emerging into adulthood.

Identity formation is most acute during adolescence, but the process doesn’t stop after the teen years. Taking on a new role, such as becoming a parent, can make self-definition a lifelong process.

As a person grows older, the overall trend is toward identity achievement. But major life upheavals, such as divorce, retirement, or the death of a loved one, often lead people to explore and redefine their identities.

How did Freud understand identity?

According to Freud’s psychoanalytic framework, the mind was composed of the id, driven by instinct and desire, the superego, driven by morality and values, and the ego which moderates the two and creates one’s identity. Many features contribute to ego functioning, including insight, agency, empathy, and purpose.

How did Erik Erikson understand identity?

Erik Erikson’s proposed a theory of development based on different stages of life. He also coined the term “ego identity,” which he conceived as an enduring and continuous sense of who a person is. The ego identity helps to merge all the different versions of oneself (the parent self, the career self, the sexual self) into one cohesive whole, so that if disaster strikes, there's a stable sense of self.

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