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What Is Identity, Anyway?

Discover the definition of identity and how it differs from personality.

Have you ever found yourself questioning who you are or your role in society? Do you think about what makes you unique? This kind of contemplation is only natural, and everyone deals with these existential questions occasionally to reassess or confirm their perception of themselves. After all, a person’s subjective sense of self is an essential factor that guides the way they carry themselves, who they associate with, and how they make certain decisions.

In the most general sense, we can define identity as a person’s sense of self, established by their unique characteristics, affiliations, and social roles. Moreover, identity has continuity, as one feels to be the same person over time despite many changes in their circumstances.

The seeds of identity are planted during a person’s childhood when their caregivers influence them the most. Yet, as individuals transition from childhood to adolescence, they start questioning who they are and how they fit in society. Hence, adolescents set out to discover their senses of self by experimenting with different roles and behaviors (Erikson, 1956). Although adults continue to reassess their identities throughout their lives, the changes to their identities are relatively small. Therefore, according to the famous psychologist Erik Erikson, this significant identity development during adolescence is essential for forming a solid self-concept and developing a direction in life (Erikson, 1956).

Identity vs. Role Confusion

The explorations during adolescence are vital for the development of our identities. However, this identity formation process isn’t always as straightforward as it sounds. For instance, some adolescents’ caregivers and social circumstances may restrict their abilities to experiment with different roles and identities. As a result, these adolescents may not fully discover a sense of self or a life purpose for a while.

Erikson calls the adolescence stage of self-discovery “identity vs. role confusion.” According to this notion, individuals form their identities after testing various roles, behaviors, and social strategies. When they can’t complete this stage effectively, it leads to role confusion (Erikson, 1956).

Simply, role confusion can be considered to be a lack of a solid identity. A person with role confusion may feel unsure about themselves and how they fit in society. Not knowing who they are meant to be or what they really want in life, they may struggle to settle into a career path or have healthy relationships. These experiences may lower their self-esteem and fulfillment in life.

Types of Identity

  • Racial identity refers to a person’s sense of belonging to a racial group, such as Asian-American, white, etc. This identity trait remains constant throughout a person’s life.

  • Ethnic identity indicates a person’s affiliation with a specific ethnic group, such as Japanese, Malaysian, etc.

  • Geographical identity is the identity that indicates the local affiliation of a person. For instance, a person living in the United States may identify as a Mid-westerner, Southerner, New Yorker, Texan, etc.

  • Sexual orientation is an identity trait that indicates the sexual preference of an individual, such as heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual, asexual, etc.

  • Family identity is made up of all the roles a person plays in their family life. Typically, a person has a primary role (i.e., daughter) despite having multiple functions at a given time (such as daughter, sister, granddaughter, cousin). Yet, these roles, and thus a person’s primary family identity, can change over time as new functions are added to their repertoire (such as wife, mother, aunt, mother-in-law, grandmother, etc.).

  • Ability is a form of identity that reflects an individual’s ability/disability status. Non-disabled individuals may not feel the implications of this form of identity as much as persons with disabilities.

  • Body identity stems from a person’s body shape and size. Although some traits remain constant over time (i.e., height), others may fluctuate (i.e., weight, body shape, etc.)

  • Generational identity is also referred to as age identity. It reflects a person’s affiliation with an age group, such as child, adolescent, or elderly, among others.

  • The religious identity of a person reflects their spiritual belief system. People may be born to families that practice a specific religion. Yet, sometimes individuals adopt a different religious identity as they get older or become more or less religious.

  • Class identity of an individual reflects the social stratum they belong to, such as middle-class, upper-middle-class, etc. A person may not notice their class identity until they interact with someone from another social class.

  • Educational identity depends on the level of education a person has or the types of schools they have attended. Examples include ivy-league educated, high-school drop-out, private school student, and public school graduate, among others.

  • Career identity forms when a person selects a career path and may evolve with the changes to the person’s job titles and responsibilities. Some examples are doctors, scientists, teachers, superintendents, CEOs, artists, miners, etc.

Although the identities in this list are common, they aren’t the only ones we come across. Some identities are related to or encompass multiple types of identity or are frequently debated in our society.

In Sum

A solid sense of identity means that you know who you are, what you value, and how you see yourself in society. There are many components of our identities, such as religious, political, and gender, among others, and knowing yourself fully is essential to feel integrated into society. ​


  • Erikson, E. H. (1956). The problem of ego identity. Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 4, 56–121.

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