Identity Achievement

Colin Leath

Psychology 306, Section AG

Professor Brown

March 10, 1997

Identity Achievement

The purpose of this paper is to account for the development of a trait or behavior. I would like to detail the process of the examination of a life and the determination of a direction for that life. This is the process of the development of an identity.

Operational definition of the behavior

The behavior I will account for is my present status in the identity achievement process, a cognitive position in which I have made some of my most basic behavior-directing (identity-determining) decisions, but in which I have yet to determine in more detail the direction of my life-behaviors. I will use Erikson's theory of development to account for the present status of my identity and to predict the continued development of my identity through commitments to progressively more clearly defined courses of action.

I will operationally define my behavior by asking myself to choose which stage in the identity achievement process I feel that I fit in most appropriately. To do this I will use constructs which have been refined and tested by J. E. Marcia, who has done significant work in operationalizing Erikson's theory of identity. Here are Marcia's constructs, all of which are closely related to concepts Erikson described:

Identity StatusDefinition
Identity Achievement Identity Achievements are individuals who have experienced a decision-making period (crisis) and are pursuing self-chosen occupational and ideological goals.
ForeclosureForeclosures are persons who are also committed to occupational and ideological goals, but these goals have been chosen for them by their parents or others. They show little or no evidence of crisis.
Identity Diffusion Identity Diffusions are persons who have no set occupational or ideological direction, regardless of whether or not they have experienced a crisis.
MoratoriumMoratoriums are individuals who are currently struggling with occupational and/or ideological issues; the are in an identity crisis.

(adapted from Marcia, 1980, p. 161)

Which of these statuses most closely apply to you?
I am partially in the Identity Achievement status, as I have made some general ideological and occupational commitments, but the fact that I have not more fully defined these commitments leaves me partly in the Moratorium status.

Other ways of operationalizing this type of behavior have been through the use of clinical interviews and questionnaires. My approach is most closely related to the questionnaire method.

Accounting for the development of the behavior

The identity crisis

The identity crisis is a construct originally proposed by Erikson as a description of the ailment of WW II veterans who had "lost a sense of personal sameness and historical continuity" (Erikson, 1968, p. 17). He later recognized a similar disturbance in adolescents and refined and further defined the construct and included it as one of the seven stages of development in his theory. According to Erikson's theory, the identity crisis is preceded by four other crises, each of which, depending on its resolution, can help or hinder the individual in the resolution of the subsequent crises. The crises of Erikson's theory which precede that of identity are: Trust versus Mistrust; Autonomy versus Shame and Doubt; Initiative versus Guilt; and finally, occurring during the period from the time one begins school to adolescence, Industry versus Inferiority. Each of these stages is present in a more or less resolved state throughout the individual's life and it is possible that new experiences might call earlier resolutions into question. A successful resolution of each crisis makes the successful resolution of subsequent crises more likely. (Erikson, 1968)

The identity crisis of adolescence is the first time in which cognitive, physical, and social elements of one's environment enable one to begin to consider and determine a direction for one's behavior as an adult (Marcia, 1980). While adolescence is the first time such a crisis will occur, it is not the last. This first identity crisis, successfully resolved, is the acquiring of an ongoing process of examining one's situation and determining a direction for one's life. Marcia writes:

A well-developed identity structure, like a well-developed superego, is flexible. It is open to changes in society and to changes in relationships. This openness assures numerous reorganizations of identity contents throughout the "identity-achieved" person's life, although the essential identity process remains the same, growing stronger through each crisis. (1980, p 160)

In a recent paper, Stephen et al. discuss Marcia's identity statuses in terms of the underlying processes of exploration and commitment. They describe Foreclosure and Diffusion as statuses which exhibit no exploration, while the Moratorium and Achievement statuses continue to explore. When the identity statuses are considered in terms of their underlying processes, it becomes clear how a person could have an identity crisis and become an Identity Achievement and then later become an Identity Foreclosure, Diffusion, or Moratorium, if either or both of the processes of exploration and commitment are lost. The Identity Achievement status is the only status which maintains both exploration and commitment at the same time. This is what allows for continued reorganization and refinement of identity contents, which might also be called continued personal growth. (J. Stephen et al., 1992)

The dangers of an unsuccessful resolution of the identity crisis are overidentification with a stereotype, clique, or ideology (often only temporarily), or the acceptance of a negative identity (an identity opposite to that which one's community views as good or respectable) if one is unable to visualize for one's self a meaningful place in society. (Erikson, 1968)

The correlates with the attainment of Identity Achievement status, i.e. the successful resolution of the crisis, include: reduced anxiety (Moratoriums are the most anxious of the statuses); a stable, high self-esteem; reduced inclination towards authoritarianism (all Foreclosures who delivered maximum shock in a Milgram obedience task were willing to do it again); tendency to be functioning at post-conventional levels of moral reasoning; greater cultural sophistication; improved cognitive performance under stress; and the achievement of a higher degree of intimacy. (Marcia, 1980)

The last correlate is predicted by Erikson's theory. In addition to the successful resolution of the Intimacy and Distantiation versus Self-Absorption crisis, the attainment and maintainment of Identity Achievement status makes more likely a successful resolution of the Generativity versus Stagnation and Integrity versus Despair and Disgust crises. (Erikson, 1979)

My identity crisis

I was prepared for a successful resolution of my identity crisis by the basic trust I had for other people. This was due primarily to the consistent behavior of my parents and their maintenance of continued commitments to each other and to their children, part of which meant ensuring that most of my experience was with trustworthy individuals. In addition, I had a confidence that I was able to care for myself, largely due to my parents trusting me with the care and responsibility for myself when I went off on solitary expeditions or ran errands for them. My feeling of independence allowed me to successfully resolve the Initiative versus Guilt crises, and as a result I was able to form friendships of my own, and this was encouraged and supported by my parents. In addition, I was able to perform well in school and in Boy Scouts, thus fairly successfully (I wasn't good at all I did) resolving the Industry vs. Inferiority crisis. Some of the situations I have described do not fit the age range of Erikson's crises, but they are all relevant because they occurred before and during my identity crisis.

Synopsis of my crisis

My identity crisis began in the second half of my freshman year of high school. Evidence of the onset of this crisis consists of my beginning to question goals and activities which I had taken for granted as worthwhile for some time, such as achieving Eagle Scout and attending the Naval Academy, in addition to my reaction to my physical maturation, such as my frustration with the frustration of my sexual desire. The crisis encompassed periods of intense feelings of loneliness, extreme emotional highs and lows, and occupational and ideological anxieties. I experimented with many different ideological and occupational possibilities, but I was not able to make lasting ideological and occupational commitments. I will briefly mention a few highlights of my crisis which I refer to in my analysis of the process.

Instead of going to college, even though I had been accepted at several which I had once wanted to attend, I worked the last half of my senior year so that I could go to Maui to windsurf when I graduated, which I did. I later left Maui, returned to the home of my early childhood in Monterey, California, and made plans to attend college while testing the occupational possibility of being a teacher. Summer of 1995 I began classes at the University of Washington, and after several more cycles of crisis, I was able to make my first ideological commitments last summer, and I am now continuing to refine and define my occupational commitments.


It appears that more than any other cause, whether the successful resolution of previous crises, physical changes, or cognitive advances, it was my awareness that it was approaching time to leave home and make some extended commitment (to college or something else) that led to the onset of my crisis, i.e., my progression from a Foreclosure/Diffusion status to a Moratorium. My primary difficulty consisted in determining a direction for my life which felt good, a direction I could commit to with a feeling of integrity.

What prevented me from becoming an Identity Diffusion? An essential part of Identity Achievement is repudiation of what one does not want to do or be (Erikson, 1987). While I was not at all certain of what I wanted to do, I was sure of what I did not want, and that was to stay on the east coast. My desire to go west also prevented me from becoming an Identity Forclosure by attending the Naval Academy, which was where my dad had gone to college. The reason I had the confidence and initiative to take such a risky step of moving to Maui by myself is accounted for in Erikson's theory by a successful resolution of earlier crises.


During the break between Summer quarter '96 and Fall quarter '96, I gave myself some time to work through some of the questions which were troubling me. I had hypothesized that if I had the time to concentrate on my questions I might be able to resolve them. I had never been able to come to a lasting resolution before, but this time, I was. It was my ability and choice to make these ideological commitments that was the beginning of the resolution of my identity crisis. The significant causes of the resolution of my crisis appear to be that I set aside time to work through my questions, and that I was motivated to work through these questions by my belief that my questioning would be productive. Factors which aided me in the resolution of my questions were the discussions I initiated with other people about these issues, and the papers I had to write for my classes, the topics of which I chose to be related to questions I was working on.

Improving ability to resolve questions and make commitments

Because I was able to go through the process once, I have the confidence that I can do it again with whatever issue might come up. Just as importantly, it appears that I have fairly strongly established for myself the fundamental ideological commitment upon which others must be based, which, most basically, is the process of asking a question and coming to a resolution of the question. The ideological commitment I have arrived at has given me the feeling both that I have something to teach (a process of questioning) and something to test (the tentative resolutions of my questions). These goals, of teaching a valuable process and testing possible resolutions, guide me in the establishment of occupational commitments.


In conclusion, we have seen how an identity crisis began and how it has begun to be resolved. Critical variables appear to be: the existence of a decision-making period in a person's life; the presence of some clear ideas of what one does not want to do; a successful resolution of earlier crises which will enable the individual to successfully continue through her or his first identity development process; a period in which one is able to devote one's self primarily to resolving issues; and it also may help to be encouraged and challenged in the asking of one's questions by a close friend or friends. It appears that ideological commitment may have to precede other types of commitment. This order appears to be the same as in William James' identity crisis (Erikson, 1968). In the future I hope to further investigate the relative importance of these variables in facilitating a successful and thorough resolution of the identity crisis.


Erikson, E. H. (1968). Identity, youth and crisis. New York: W. W. Norton & Co.

Erikson, E. H. (1979). Identity and the life cycle. New York: W. W. Norton & Co.

Erikson, E. H. (1987). The human life cycle. In S. Schlein (Ed.), A Way of Looking at Things (pp. 595-610). New York, W. W. Norton & Co.

Marcia, J. E. (1966). Development and validation of ego identity status. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 3, 551-558.

Marcia, J. E. (1976). Identity six years after: A follow-up study. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 5, 145-160.

Marcia, J. E. (1980). Identity in adolescence. In J. Adelson (Ed.), Handbook of Adolescent Psychology (pp. 159-187). New York: Wiley.

Stephen, J., Fraser, E. & Marcia, J. E. (1992). Moratorium-achievement (Mama) cycles in lifespan identity development: value orientations and reasoning system correlates. Journal of Adolescence, 15, 283-300.


* Erikson describes a crisis "as designating a necessary turning point, a crucial moment, when development must move one way or another, marshaling resources of growth, recovery, and further differentiation" (1968).

about this site