Tag Archives: Identity Crisis

Identity Problems And Their Link To Childhood Trauma


identity problems

How are identity problems linked to childhood trauma?

Our identity (ie how we define ourselves) is based upon our beliefs, values, memories, behaviours and how we go about living our lives in general. It comprises, for example, our likes and dislikes, our religious beliefs / lack of beliefs, our general philosophy of life, our political leanings, our sexual orientation / behaviour, our hobbies and interests etc.

All being well, our identity starts to crystallize between the ages of about 18 and 25 years.

The psychologist, Erikson, suggested that four stages of development need to be traversed if we are successfully to get to this point (ie the point of developing a solid identity). These four stages are as follows:

1) 0 to 1.5 years – TRUST VERSUS MISTRUST




If we get through these stages successfully, they form firm foundations upon which our identity can be built. However, if we have problems getting through one or more of the stages, we are likely to develop significant problems with forming a strong identity in our adult lives.

As each stage builds upon the stage preceding it, problems traversing any of the stages leads to further problems traversing later stages.

Let’s now examine examples of problems which might occur at each of the four stages above, thus endangering and undermining the development of our identity and subsequent identity problems:


Successful completion of this stage allows the infant to perceive the world as essentially safe and to believe s/he can depend on her/his carers.

However, abuse, neglect and/or abandonment can sevely adversely affect how the infant negotiates this phase, as can inconsistent parenting and parental stress that interferes with the parent-infant bonding process.


During this stage the infant needs to start developing some autonomy whilst still feeling safe in the world. In other words, s/he needs to start seeing her/himself as a separate entity from her/his patents with her/his own unique will. For example, learning s/he can say ‘no’ or exploring her/his immediate environment on her/his own.

Parents who are over-protective can cause their child problems traversing this stage (ie by stifling their efforts to achieve a degree of ‘separateness’ from the parents).

Also, parents who are too permissive may also prevent their child getting through this stage effectively. For example, if the parents are too permissive the child may not learn to behave in accordance with her/his society’s/culture’s expectations (eg s/he may ‘misbehave’ at nursery school) leading to feelings of shame when members of that society/culture criticise and punish the child for her/his ‘transgressions’.


In this phase the child endeavours to develop new skills (eg by helping her/his parents with cooking, gardening etc.).

If, however, the parents are critical, discouraging the child by pointing out every minor error, for example, s/he is likely to lose the confidence necessary to try new things and use initiative, thus preventing the successful completion of this stage.


During this stage the young person needs to develop the requisite confidence, skills and abilities which will allow her/him to flourish within her/his particular culture. These include:

– work/career skills

– social skills

– skills necessary to achieve independence

– solid self-esteem

– feeling good/fulfilled in relation to career/life-style

If the young person tries to develop these things, but in a way that the parents do not approve of (eg the parents may criticise the young person for wanting to specialize in the ‘wrong’ academic subjects at school, causing her/him to abandon the subjects s/he finds most interesting) then another obstacle is likely to be placed in her/his path to forming a strong sense of identity.


Effect on Adult Identity.

How the young person develops through these four stages will effect the first adult stage relating to identity, according to Erikson’s theory. Depending on how the first four stages were traversed, the first adult stage the young person enters (which lasts from about the age of eighteen to the age of thirty) may be any of the following four:

1) Identity achieved

ie we have obtained a solid sense of our own identity

2) Psychosocial moratorium :

(see below)

3) Foreclosed:

ie in terms of our identity, we have moved on little since adolescence.

4) Identity confused:

ie our view of our own identity is extremely nebulous and we have no clear idea of ‘who we are’, what we want to do in life or what our values are.

The Psychosocial Moratorium Stage:

Erikson suggested that in order to form a strong identity everyone needs to go through a period of rebellion which he called the psychosocial moratorium stage. This involves questioning the values and beliefs inculcated into us during youth and then breaking away from them, or embracing them, as the case may be. The point is that this allows us to truly ‘own’ our beliefs and values, rather than having them as a consequence of having been conditioned to hold them by authority figures in our youth.


In order to possess a strong identity, Erikson also stressed the importance of being commited to one’s values and beliefs. In other words, one needs to act on them rather than, say, just talk about them.

Resource to help overcome identity problems :

Find Your Identity | Hypnosis Downloads. Click HERE.


David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).



Childhood Trauma: Identity Problems and How to Tackle Them.


One outcome of childhood trauma can frequently be that the person who has suffered it is prone to develop IDENTITY PROBLEMS.

A person’s identity represents their attempt to pin down the essential elements he sees (rather than what others see) that make the individual who s/he are. One’s identity develops over time.

Our identity can be helpful to our psychological health (if we see ourselves in largely positive terms) or unhelpful to it (if we see ourselves in largely negative terms). People, especially if suffering from depression, lacking in confidence etc, extremely often view themselves FAR MORE NEGATIVELY THAN WOULD BE OBJECTIVELY WARRANTED; whereas many others (not suffering from mental illness, in many cases) may see themselves in far too glowing terms (this ‘over self-congratulatory’ view adopted by many is thought to have developed to confer evolutionary advantages on those who have it, appearing confident to potential mates, for example, provided, I suppose, it is not absurdly exaggerated).

Aspects of our lives which can affect our identities include:

  • our values
  • our physical appearance
  • our mental/physical health
  • our education
  • our achievements
  • our work (Freud attributed especial importance to this, as he did to sexual fulfilment, the thwarting of which, he proposed, could lead to extreme neurosis)
  • our relationships
  • our age
  • our financial situation
  • our perception of our social status 

The identity which emerges from such factors is strongly related to our self-esteem and self-confidence.


This begins very early in our lives. Ages 4 years to 6 years are thought to be a critical time; TRAUMA during this period is LINKED to the DEVELOPMENT OF IDENTITY PROBLEMS IN LATER LIFE. From the ages of about 6 years to 12 years, the child normally develops the skills necessary to MANAGE EMOTIONS, a skill strongly linked to identity (for example, ‘cool’ versus ‘volatile’); indeed, if TRAUMA INTERFERES WITH THIS PROCESS AN EXTREMELY TEMPESTUOUS ADOLESCENCE CAN FOLLOW).

In ‘normal’ development, adolescents may experiment with various identities and this process gradually leads to the stage in which there is a sense of the identity becoming crystallized. Again, however, individuals affected by trauma will often find this period exceptionally stressful and find that NO CLEAR SENSE OF THEIR OWN IDENTITY EMERGES ; THEIR SENSE OF THEIR OWN IDENTITY CAN BE CONFUSED AND THEY MAY FEEL THAT THEY ‘DON’T KNOW WHO THEY REALLY ARE’.


By adulthood, then, those who have experienced childhood trauma will often find that their identity is UNSTABLE and FRAGILE ; this will often mean that their attitudes, values and sense of who they are are all prone to wildly fluctuation; these changes are frequently dramatic (for example, oscillating between feeling deep love and deep hatred towards the same person; or, sometimes, perhaps, feeling exceptionally important only to shift without warning or obvious trigger into a feeling of despair, self-loathing and worthlessness).


Identity problems in adulthood are often a symptom of BPD. BPD frequently occurs as a result of childhood trauma and much more about the condition can be discovered in the by clicking here to read my article about it.


How can people with identity problems make their sense of identity stronger? One possible place to start this process, which needs to be gradually worked on over time, is for the individual suffering from the crisis in identity to consider the things which are of most importance to him/her in life; identities are largely formed based on these considerations. Prorities in life which people choose to concentrate on, and, which, therefore, contribute to making up their identities include:

  • friendships
  • relationships
  • family
  • academic interests
  • career
  • creativity (for example, painting, writing, acting)
  • hobbies
  • choice of entertainment (for example, musical taste, taste in film, cinema, theatre, favourite kinds of books etc.)
  • material possessions
  • spirituality, religion, atheism, agnosticism
  • charity work (for example, for homeless, rehabilitation of ex-prisoners, environment, hospice, Amnesty International)
  • physical appearance
  • financial situation
  • This is not, of course, an exhaustive list and there may well be other areas that can be added, depending on preferences.

A starting point might be to pick out 3 or 4 areas of interest (this, in itself, reflects identity, and, therefore, can be seen as providing foundational pieces of the jig-saw yet to emerge, as it were) and to concentrate on these at first (other elements can be added later; merely starting the process may lead to other ideas emerging at a later time).

For each of the factors selected, it can then prove of use to set some goals relating to how these areas may be incorporated, or, more fully incorporated, into one’s life (these goals need to be quite specific and achievable; there is little point starting with such challenging goals that they may prove impossible to meet and thus damage morale).

Here are some examples:

  • because academic achievement is important to me, I will enrol in a night-school class (investigate and specify appropriate course) and complete the course.
  • because family and/or friends are important to me I will attend an anger management course.
  • because creativity is important to me I will set aside two hours a week to write poetry or a novel.
  • because my mental health is important to me I will seek out appropriate counselling and complete the sessios recommended (provided the therapy proves of potential value, of course).

The more the individual is able to incorporate and develop areas such as those listed above, which reflect his true values, interests and priorities, the more AUTHENTIC and REWARDING the person’s life is likely to be; the more, too, will the individual’s true and stable sense of self continue to evolve.



David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).