Identity diffusion is a state in which an individual has not yet fully developed a sense of identity or purpose.
Identity diffusion usually happens in the early stages of adulthood, when people start to delve into various aspects of themselves and look for their role in society.
This period is characterized by confusion and ambivalence, as individuals may find that they struggle to commit to any particular interest or activity.
In lieu of this, individuals might engage in activities that bring about momentary contentment or joy over sustained fulfillment or intention.
For example, they may go from one job or hobby to another without finding something that truly resonates with them on a deep level.
Identity diffusion is like a starting point before the identity moratorium, where people try out various identities to understand their beliefs, preferences better, and aims before committing to something long-lasting.
So, identity diffusion indicates that a person is still grappling with discovering their true self and defining which path to take in life.
Identity Diffusion Definition
Identity diffusion is a state in which individuals lack a clear and consistent sense of identity and begin exploring different aspects of themselves and searching for their place in the world.
From a scientific perspective, this state of identity confusion has been linked to underdeveloped or delayed cognitive development, such as slower problem-solving skills, inhibition control, and decision-making ability (Marcia et al., 1993).
It also involves changes in one’s sense of self—the psychological construct which helps people make sense of their experiences—which can lead to difficulty in forming long-term commitments or sustaining relationships.
Kernberg (1978) believes that:
“…identity diffusion results from the adolescent’s inability to solve the ambivalence of newly achieved independence and attachment to parents and to integrate mental representations of self and others” (Rivnyák et al., 2021, p. 7).
Those in the midst of identity diffusion have neither made any firm decisions nor gone through a period where they investigated their future selves.
It is possible these people never experienced a crisis that prompted exploration, or alternatively, experienced it and failed to settle on an outcome.
Simply, identity diffusion is the dynamic, intermediate phase that occurs between adolescence and adulthood. It marks a time when individuals have not yet formed an identity but are in the process of doing so.
Identity Diffusion Examples
- Questioning Religion: A young girl raised in a particular religious tradition begins to question the beliefs and practices she grew up with. As she encounters people of different faiths and learns about their beliefs, she feels unsure about which religion to adhere to and experiences a sense of confusion about her spiritual identity.
- Uncertainty in Career Path: A recent college graduate feels uncertain about what career to pursue. Despite having a degree, they constantly jump from one job to another, unable to settle on a specific field or industry, leaving them feeling lost and confused about their professional identity.
- Cultural Confusion: A teenager who has spent time living in multiple countries struggles to identify with a single culture. They feel disconnected from each cultural background and have difficulty determining which traditions and customs they should embrace, leading to a lack of clarity about their cultural identity.
- Indecision in Relationships: An individual who has been in several relationships finds it difficult to commit to a single partner. They may be unsure of their own feelings or desire to explore other options, leaving them uncertain about their romantic identity.
- Changing Friend Groups: A young adult frequently switches between different social circles, wondering where they truly belong. They may feel like they are constantly adapting to fit into each group but need help finding a genuine connection or sense of belonging, leading to confusion about their social identity.
- Ambiguity in Political Beliefs: People encounter problems charting course amongst cloudy belief systems while identifying singular ideological groups. This uncertainty can lead individuals to have no committed stance on their preferred political identity.
- Gender Identity Uncertainty: Individuals experiencing gender identity uncertainty may feel unsure about their identification as male, female, or non-binary. They may experiment with different gender expressions and pronouns but struggle to find a stable sense of self in terms of their gender identity.
- Hesitation in Extracurricular Activities: A high school student finds committing to any specific club, sport, or hobby difficult. They frequently join and then quit various activities, trying to decide which ones truly interest them and match their talents, leading to confusion about their interests and passions.
- Unclear Moral Values: An individual may be uncertain about their own ethical beliefs and values, feeling pulled in different directions by the opinions of friends, family, and society. It can lead to a sense of confusion and an inability to form a solid moral identity.
- Undefined Aesthetic Preferences: A young person may frequently change their clothing style, home décor, or artistic preferences, unable to settle on a consistent aesthetic that reflects their personality. This constant shift in taste can confuse their personal style and self-expression.
Origins of Identity Diffusion
Identity diffusion is an extension of Erik Erikson’s theories on identity formation, suggesting that individuals may struggle to form an identity when faced with competing values and beliefs.
The concept, first introduced by Erikson in the 1950s, suggests that individuals can experience a lack of understanding or clarity around their own values and beliefs when struggling to determine their sense of purpose in life (Erikson, 1994).
In 1966, James Marcia put forth his “Identity Theory,” which expands on Erikson’s original conception of identity formation. The theory suggests that identity crisis occurs in three stages: exploration, commitment, and foreclosure/diffusion.
Marcia’s original discussion of the concept focused on how it can manifest itself among adolescents who are transitioning into adulthood and facing new responsibilities and expectations (Marcia et al., 1993).
However, since then, psychologists and sociologists have begun to explore how identity diffusion can affect people from all walks of life, from young adults facing major career changes to senior citizens dealing with grief or loneliness.
Identity Exploration Categories
Depending on an individual’s state of identity exploration, people can find themselves in one of four categories: identity diffusion, identity disclosure, identity moratorium, and identity achievement (Marcia et al., 1993).
- Identity diffusion occurs when individuals need help determining their sense of purpose in life, leading to a lack of understanding or clarity around their values and beliefs.
- Identity disclosure occurs when individuals have explored options and can articulate the factors that make up their personal worldview.
- Identity moratorium involves an individual exploring different possibilities before settling on one.
- Identity achievement refers to being secure in one’s choices and having confidence in the direction of one’s life.
So, each of these stages of identity formation has its own distinct characteristics that are important to understand when exploring a person’s development (Erikson, 1994).
Importance of Identity Diffusion
Identity diffusion is important in helping individuals understand who they are and how their life experiences inform their personal beliefs and values.
It is a way for people to explore possibilities and consider different worldviews without feeling compelled to immediately commit to any one path.
Through this exploration process, individuals can better understand themselves and ultimately determine the direction they want their lives to take (Marcia et al., 1993).
For example, individuals may experience identity diffusion while considering different career paths or educational options.
By intentionally taking time to research each potential path—its pros and cons and its implications on their future goals—they can be more confident in their choice when it is ultimately made.
Critique of Identity Diffusion
While identity diffusion can be an important part of self-discovery, it can sometimes lead to prolonged uncertainty or confusion.
With intentional exploration and engagement with different experiences, individuals may be able to move beyond this period of limbo and into a space of identity achievement.
Additionally, identity diffusion can sometimes signify stagnation instead of creative exploration. Becoming too comfortable can lead to stagnation and a lack of motivation to seek out valuable experiences according to one’s own standards (Ragelienė, 2016).
Without taking time to establish clearly defined limitations while encountering issues pertaining to identity confusion, individuals can find themselves stuck in an endless loop of indecision or uncertainty.
At some point, it is necessary to decide which path to take—be it deciding between two career options or settling on what religion best describes one’s spiritual beliefs—to make progress toward personal growth and fulfillment.
Identity diffusion is a critical phase in an individual’s journey towards self-discovery and understanding their sense of identity and purpose.
As a natural part of personal growth, it allows individuals to explore various aspects of themselves, including beliefs, values, and interests.
However, it is essential to recognize that prolonged periods of confusion or indecision can hinder personal development.
By intentionally engaging in self-reflection and exploration, individuals can eventually move from identity diffusion towards identity achievement, resulting in a clear sense of self and direction in life.
Acknowledging and embracing this stage of development while setting boundaries and making purposeful decisions ultimately contributes to a fulfilling and meaningful life journey.
Erikson, E. H. (1994). Identity and the life cycle. New York: Norton.
Marcia, J. E., Waterman, A. S., Matteson, D. R., Archer, S. L., & Orlofsky, J. L. (1993). Ego identity: A handbook for psychosocial research. Springer New York.
Ragelienė, T. (2016). Links of adolescents identity development and relationship with peers: A systematic literature review. Journal of the Canadian Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 25(2), 97–105. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4879949/
Rivnyák, A., Pohárnok, M., Péley, B., & Láng, A. (2021). Identity diffusion as the organizing principle of borderline personality traits in adolescents—a non-clinical study. Frontiers in Psychiatry, 12, 1–7. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyt.2021.683288