Such are the questions all teenagers ask as the adolescent years are a time of identity formation, meaning the time to figure out who you are and where your life is going.
According to Erik Erikson, a developmental psychologist, the primary task of adolescence is a search for identity, both as an individual and as a member of the larger community. Searching for one’s identity is far from an easy task. There are so many influences that compete for our attention that the process of self-discovery is exceedingly complex. Adding to the complexity of this struggle is the increasingly wide range of opportunities available to our youth.
Not long ago in history, your future was often determined by the family you were born into. If your parents were farmers, you would become a farmer. If you dad worked in a factory, you would work in the factory. This is rarely true in contemporary culture.
According to Erik Erikson, there are five potential outcomes for adolescent identity formation.
— Achievement: This is the ultimate goal of adolescence, identity achievement, which occurs when adolescents establish their own goals and values by abandoning some of those set by parents and society while accepting others. The process of maturation affords them a solid understanding of self and an understanding of how they can most effectively use their skills and talents to make their contributions to our world. For such teenagers, the path to achieving their goals is clear. They know what they need to do to prepare and then carry out the necessary plans to actualize their goals.
— Foreclosure: A very few adolescents achieve identity prematurely, a process Erikson calls foreclosure. Even before the teenage years, these children have a clear idea of where they would like to go with their lives. This is most often true of individuals who have unique talents that lead them to one day become concert musicians, professional athletes, artists, entertainers and so forth. Of course, such individuals place “all their eggs in one basket” which can result in an identity crisis in adulthood if their dreams are not realized.
— Diffusion: Some adolescents experience identity diffusion, which means they have few commitments to goals or values. This can easily lead to a directionless life. Such teens eventually become the adults who wander through life with little understanding of who they are or the unique contributions they are capable of making. Fortunately, some, in the process of living life, figure out who they are and find a direction. If this happens, it takes place later in life.
— Negative: Some adolescents, unable to find alternative roles that are truly their own, simply rebel and become the opposite of what is expected of them, adopting a negative identity. Becoming the rebels in society, they spend their lives reacting to their environment rather than responding. Unfortunately, when teens sets themselves in a pattern of reacting against society, they never gain the ability to think for themselves, which would mean that years of reacting leaves them increasingly further from an understanding of self.
— Moratorium: Many adolescents declare a moratorium on identity formation, often by using an institutionalized timeout such as college or voluntary military service as a means of postponing final decisions about career or marriage. This is very obvious in the college setting as most students still seem to be trying to figure out who they are. For this reason, the average college student changes majors three times before graduating.
Parents, teachers, and ministers can be very helpful in assisting teenagers in the process of self-discovery. They can provide avenues for identity formation in two ways: by listening carefully to adolescents as they go through the identity formation process and by providing opportunities for young people to experience different roles in our society. Ultimately, we all benefit when a teenager successfully completes identity formation.