top of page
identity therapy los angeles

Identity Work in Therapy: Discovering Your Authentic Self.

IDENTITY WORK IN THERAPY

Therapy is the ideal place for people to explore their sense of identity and ultimately develop a cohesive sense of 'Self.' Identity can be defined as having a stable sense of one's goals, beliefs, values, and guiding principles in life, and identity work in psychotherapy is simply the process of helping someone understand, explore and improve insight into who they are.

A strong sense of identity is closely intertwined with mental well-being and our ability to connect with others. Embracing and clarifying one's identity allows for authenticity and alignment with personal values, contributing to overall emotional stability and resilience, it gives us a sense of direction and purpose.

Conversely, identity issues can manifest in feelings of confusion, low self-esteem, depression, anxiety, difficulties in forming meaningful relationships, and a lack of direction or agency in life.

Therapy provides a supportive environment and safe space to address identity-related challenges, resolve identity gaps and to help empower individuals to navigate through life transitions and mental health struggles with greater clarity and confidence.

Therapy for Identity Exploration

Erik Erikson, renowned for his psychosocial developmental theory, posited that identity formation is a pivotal task as an adolescent. According to Erikson, the goal is to cultivate a cohesive identity through self-reflection, experimentation, and exploration.

Identity, in Erikson's view, encompasses one's goals, beliefs, values, and life aspirations. While Erikson suggested that identity formation primarily occurs in adolescence, modern understanding acknowledges that identity is a fluid and evolving construct subject to continual reshaping throughout life. The new understanding of identity development and is more complicated, involving a crisis then a commitment to the identity.

identity exploration in therapy
how to explore identity in therapy

  • Identity Diffusion: Characterized by a lack of exploration and commitment, individuals in this stage may exhibit disinterest or indecisiveness regarding their identity.

  • Identity Moratorium: In this phase, individuals engage in exploration but have yet to make a firm commitment to an identity. Uncertainty and questioning are prevalent.

  • Identity Foreclosure: Marked by a premature commitment to an identity without thorough exploration, often influenced by external expectations or societal norms.

  • Identity Achievement: The culmination of identity development, wherein individuals explore various options and commit to a self-defined identity.

Identity Work In Therapy

A CASE STUDY IN IDENTITY WORK IN THERAPY 

Up until he came into treatment, 'Jim'*, a fictitious client was in the 'Identity Diffusion' state, having become a lawyer to follow in his father's footsteps which insinuates that he hadn't explored his career options thoroughly, he was under-performing at work and he felt he was on the verge of being fired. 

A recent incident with his boss was the 'crisis' Jim needed to start thinking about his career, and in therapy, we move from the 'Identity Diffusion' state to 'Foreclosure', in which he accepted he had to be a lawyer for right now and show up to work in order to get a paycheck.  At the same time, we were able to explore other options.  

Identity work with Jim involved supporting his exploration of other careers by examining his interests, passions, and values. As he started to 'try on' ideas, he began steps in developing a more stable sense of self and moved into the Moratorium phase of Identity Work. 

identity work in therapy

Supporting Jim as he explored a career change allowed him to move into the 'Identity Achievement' phase when he handed his notice in and accepted an offer to attend grad school. This constitutes a much more solid identity state as it involved exploring, considering and then choosing a career identity. 

*Jim is not a real client, I do not discuss real clients with anyone and certainly not on my website.

IDENTITY GAPS AND IDENTITY CRISIS

Identity isn't just a simple construct; it operates on multiple levels, influencing how we perceive ourselves, interact with others, and cope with the complexities of the world. One useful framework for understanding this complexity is the concept of the four layers of identity.

  1. Personal Layer: This is how an individual sees themselves internally. It's their self-perception, the image they hold of themselves. For example, someone might see themselves as honest, compassionate, or ambitious. This layer reflects their inner beliefs and values about who they are.

  2. Enacted Layer: This layer is about how individuals express or behave in alignment with their personal identity. It's how they demonstrate their identity to others through their actions, behaviors, and choices. For instance, if someone sees themselves as honest, their enacted identity would involve consistently telling the truth and being transparent in their interactions.

  3. Relational Layer: This layer focuses on the individual's desire for connection and how they want others to perceive them based on their identity. It involves seeking validation and recognition from others in line with their personal identity. For example, if someone identifies as honest, they may seek affirmation from others that they are trustworthy and reliable.

  4. Communal Layer: The communal layer is about how individuals engage with broader communities or social groups based on their identity. It involves participating in social, cultural, or professional communities that align with their personal identity. For instance, someone who values honesty may seek out communities or organizations that prioritize integrity and transparency.

exploring identity in therapy

Identity Gaps: The concept of identity gaps is introduced as a discrepancy between different layers of identity. For example, there might be a gap between how one sees oneself (personal layer) and how one behaves or expresses oneself (enacted layer). This incongruence can lead to distress, depressive symptoms, communication issues, social anxiety, and even affect health behavior decisions and relationship satisfaction.

  • I feel depressed when I am a runner, but I can't actually run right with an injured knee (personal and enacted)

  • I am an 'affectionate' person, and I get anxious when I can't show my affection in public (personal and relational)

  • I identify as female, but my work does not allow me to express my female identity.

Helping a client reduce identity gaps is a key part of therapy exploration, as this gap is the cause of anxiety, distress, and sometimes depression.

Strategies for Navigating Identity Challenges in Therapy

Therapists employ various strategies to help individuals navigate their identity-related struggles, this study shows us that there are benefits of using a more intellectual approach and a more feelings-based approach.

 

These interventions may include:

  • Cognitively Focused Self-Construction Approach: This method involves using your logical thinking and problem-solving skills to shape your identity. It's like being a detective in your own life, where you carefully examine different choices and options (like career paths, hobbies, values) and then logically decide which ones are best for you. It's a structured way of building your identity based on thoughtful decision-making.

  • Emotionally Focused Self-Discovery Approach: In this approach, you focus more on your feelings and inner experiences to understand yourself. It's like being an explorer of your own emotions, where you pay attention to what activities or thoughts make you feel most fulfilled and true to yourself. You use these emotional insights to guide you in discovering your identity, emphasizing personal passions and inner fulfillment.

  • Exploration of Values. Examining how cultural norms, societal expectations, and interpersonal relationships shape one's sense of self.

  • Embracing Exploration:  As an affirmative therapy it's important to me to be affirming of the exploration process of any identity. It could well be that someone explores an identity and then decides against it- this is a fantastic win regardless of the outcome. 

  • Assisting individuals in embracing personal and societal growth, allowing for the development of a more authentic and fulfilling identity.

Through this journey of identity exploration, therapy offers individuals a valuable opportunity to redefine themselves, navigate life transitions, and create a more authentic and resilient sense of self.

bottom of page