The Search for Identity

“When I discover who I am, I’ll be free.”- Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man identity

It seems as though lack of identity is one of the most pervasive, recurring themes in the world of therapy, at least in my experience. Complicated or undefined identity is often a primary topic of conversation in session, and one that tends to arise if not “figured out.” In a world overflowing with advertisements, gadgets, apps, and TV shows telling people what they need in order to discover their “true selves,” even the most assured, self-possessed of individuals often feel as though they are suddenly questioning who they are. Throw in a general mistrust of self and others, sometimes as a result of a negative childhood/attachment experience, and it’s not surprising that a lot of people struggle with who they are in the world, and therefore, what they need/desire in order to feel at least somewhat satisfied – again, with themselves and others.

Enter developmental psychology (see Erikson’s stages of psychosocial development below):

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This often assists individuals in determining where he or she may be “stuck” in relation to identity, or lack thereof. Whether a person is in his or her late teens, mid-20s, early 30s, or beyond, often he or she will indicate that adolescence (identity versus identity confusion, according to Erikson) was a time in which “things started going wrong.” However, in examining earlier experiences, it’s not uncommon for individuals to recognize that shame, guilt, inferiority, and mistrust were underlying factors when it comes to identity diffusion. This, then, allows for a basis of what some therapists call developmental debt that essentially needs to be paid off in order for one’s true identity to unearth itself.

According to David Flack (2016), “…sociocultural and biological factors keep pushing individuals forward, even when tasks at another stage are unresolved or only partially

completed” – thus, lying the foundation for developmental debt. Flack (2016) believes that a combination of factors/therapeutic techniques such as fostering self-efficacy, disrupting rigid thinking patterns and addressing existential concerns, can benefit an individual struggling with identity. Once a particular unsettled, or vague, area of development is resolved, the debt is reduced so that a person’s identity is slowly revealed. And, important to note – and as shown above – there’s a lot of life remaining once identity is established.


Written by Ann Kellogg, MS, LPC



Flack, D. (2016). Getting unstuck. Counseling Today, 58(10), 38-44.