Maybe you see your friend struggling, trying on different preferences and opinions, without a clear sense of self. Or maybe you see the pain they’re in, feeling so lost and unclear on who they are.

To help you help a friend in this situation, find background info on what an identity crisis is, how to tell if someone might be having one, and finally, ways you can help someone develop a better sense of self.

What is an identity crisis? 

An identity crisis is a period of time in which a person loses sight of important aspects of themselves: their personality, preferences, purpose, and/or habits.

An identity crisis can present in very similar ways to an existential crisis; they can both involve a loss of sense of self and driving purpose, and a feeling of aimlessness and pointlessness.

Find examples of what an identity crisis can look like, below.

Is my friend having an identity crisis? What does it look like?

An identity crisis can either be ‘loud’ or ‘quiet.’ Some people react to the discomfort in ways that are easily perceived and often worrisome to loved ones. But many others keep struggles with identity issues hidden, perpetuating the problem already causing so much pain.

Signs someone might be having an identity crisis, either obviously or not:

  • Saying things like “I don’t know myself at all”
  • Having a hard time making decisions
  • Struggling to express opinions OR loudly expressing opinions that don’t go with their usual beliefs and preferences
  • Difficulty remembering events from their past or things they’ve done
  • Expressing fear or dismay over where there life is headed
  • Struggles in finding good matches while dating
  • Feeling like life is pointless
  • and more

Please remember that even if a friend exhibits all of the above, it doesn’t mean they’re definitely struggling with their identity. It’s never a good idea to diagnose a friend, so remember you’re just trying to see if this is something they realistically *might* be going through.

What can cause an identity crisis? 

All of the following may only be fragments of the larger picture. But understanding more about the origin of your friend’s identity crisis can always put you in a better position to help.

Events that shatter one’s belief system

Major traumas are known to shatter the belief systems of their victims. After a sexual assault, accident, violent attack, or even intense loss, religious people may lose faith in God. Students may abandon the educational system. And anyone might start to believe that life just isn’t what they thought.

When something traumatic happens to you unexpectedly, it makes sense you might believe you don’t know how anything works. And that might make it feel pointless to carry on as usual – that applies to a person’s identity as well.

An individual might find it hard to maintain their old identity, when they feel like they’ve entered a different world, governed by different rules. And this can be a root of identity crisis.

Childhood abuse

Those coming from a background of chronic childhood trauma may find it especially hard to create one cohesive identity. Narcissistic, emotionally abusive, physically abusive, or even just overly demanding parents may increase the likelihood of identity crisis in their kids.

This may be a two-part cause:

  1. Our identities are formed by how caregivers interact with us. When parents aren’t good mirrors for their kid (poor ‘informants’ on a child’s needs and preferences), it’s hard for the kid to know who they are!
  2. Traumatizing circumstances can cause people to cling to false identities. In abusive situations, it may feel safer to commit to a personality that doesn’t actually fit, because it’s the personality that’s acceptable. Coming out of that situation, people may fall into identity crisis – because they’ve never even tried to be themselves.

Major changes in life circumstances

You might be forced to move, switch jobs, change education paths, leave a relationship, etc. Any of the above can leave you feeling like a fish out of water.

Your personality and general operating principles might not fit your new environment, so you’re left (subconsciously) torn between who you’ve always been, and who you need to be in order to adapt. This is how changes to life circumstances can induce an identity crisis.

What you can do to help

Our identities are formed in the presence of others – around our caregivers, alongside friends, and within communities and other social contexts. Others’ reactions to what we express form our self-image and identity, by reflecting ourselves back to us.

When helping someone through an identity crisis, your main goal is to help this person accurately see themselves. If you’re a friend, you’re in a good position to do this – you can reflect back a realistic version of your friend’s identity.

You can help them see themselves through the eyes of someone who sees both their flaws and strengths, yet loves them anyway.

Send your friend this video, which gives the following tips:

Ask them to tell you something they did today.

They can share with you the big, small, exciting, and mundane. Or something that made them happy, or sad. At least one thing every day!

One way to look at it is – the things you remember most are often the things you talk about, or ‘rehearse’ most. 

When you tell a friend something about your life, you can get not only support in the moment, but also a memory boost for what you tell them about yourself. In this way, having a community of people to check in with can help solidify your own view of yourself. 

It’s hard to have a solid sense of identity alone, in a vacuum. Many of us have grown up without ever feeling deeply seen or understood. Our brains are wired to form a sense of identity through interaction. So without open, understanding people to talk to – or without presenting yourself authentically to others – your brain may have trouble developing a sense of identity.

Use the following prompts to talk your friend through an identity crisis.

The following prompts are adapted from The School of Life’s Know Yourself self-exploration cards:

1. Ask them more specific questions about themselves.

From the self-exploration cards: “The issue of who we are needs to be divided to be digestible. Not ‘Who am I?’ but ‘Who am I with work, with love, with friends, around children etc.?’”

Help your friend think of specific circumstances that represent who they are, in different areas of life. It may help to focus on a part of life they’re having particular trouble with.

“How would you describe your work habits? What kind of jobs would fit that well?” or, “How might a partner describe how you are in a relationship?”

2. Ask what 5 words they’d use to describe themselves.

And then do the same for them. What did you mention that they didn’t? What did they mention that you missed? What can you learn from all of this?

You might get a hint on how to appreciate your friend’s identity better, and your description of them may help bolster their sense of self.

3. Suggest they think about both their good and bad qualities, from a random other’s perspective.

Whatever they came up with, ask them to consider this: they can accept their flaws while loving their strengths. It’s possible to have both.

You can be a “tough, generous friend to yourself,” and incorporate both your positive and negative qualities into one whole, perfectly lovable picture of yourself. Flaws don’t automatically make you unworthy or ‘bad.’

But ignoring your flaws makes it hard to understand yourself, and hard to consciously steer out of an identity crisis. Self-understanding forms the basis for our identity – understanding of both the good and bad in ourselves.

4. According again to The School of Life, asking yourself some symbolic questions can help you learn more about yourself. So throw out some random, metaphorical questions:

“Because the self is nebulous and shapeless, we can sometimes best grasp key bits of our identities via metaphors and analogies.”

The School of Life self-exploration cards give the following prompts to help reveal parts of one’s personality. Guide your friend through thinking about why their answers fit them, and what this can say about who they are:

  • “If I was a kind of weather, I’d be…
  • If I was a piece of furniture, I’d be..
  • If I was a make of car, I’d be…
  • If I was a piece of music, I’d be…
  • If I was a kind of food…
  • If I was an animal…
  • If I was a kind of font…”

If your friend has trouble answering these questions for themselves, you can give some input. It can help to share how you’d answer about your friend, but emphasize that their opinion is ultimately much more meaningful.

5. Together, list everything that’s on your mind and causing anxiety.

What can these anxieties tell you about yourself and each other? What might be the root of these worries? Why are these things important to you? Anxiety tells us what our brains feel is most important for survival. “Our panicky moments are attempting to teach us things – in admittedly often very unfortunate ways.”

This exercise can also help your friend feel less alone or broken in their stresses, which can make it easier to see and accept their own identity.

6. What kinds of art, music, books, buildings, and even memes mean the most to your friend?

When having an identity crisis, it might be hard for your friend to get in touch with what’s meaningful to them. But that can be an extremely important task!

According to The School of Life, “We often love in art what we don’t have enough of in our lives. Our ‘taste’ is an indication of an area of need. Taste tells us not only who we are, but what we want to be more like.”

It’s possible to get to know yourself even while feeling isolated, but it can require practice and concentrated effort. Most importantly, it does still require some ‘rehearsal.’

If you can’t or don’t want to see people in person right now, you can chat anonymously online (like in our peer support chats).