Four Identity States

Where Am I on the Journey?  The Four “Identity States”

A psychologist named James Marcia came up with a good way to look at where you might be at any point on your journey. He determined that a person could find him or herself in one of four “identity states” that relate to the challenges of exploring and committing.

These identity states are useful because you can see yourself in a particular state and say, “OK, that’s where I am right now. Where do I want to go?” But remember, this is a journey and not a race, so don’t rush to “Identity Achieved.”

The following charts provide (1) a quick overview and (2) a set of characteristics for each identity state, so that you can find where you are (and some notes about what to expect in dealing with this challenge).

The Four “Identity States” Overview

1. Made It“Identity Achieved” (high exploration and high commitment)

After all the exploration a young adult identity has emerged through discovery and commitment. Over time and lots of exploration leading to commitment you can create an authentic solid identity.  On the heroic journey, this is highlighted by a sense of discovery and mastery.  Full exploration leads to a confident sense of identity.  But remember that it’s not a race to get to this point.

2. Good Trajectory – “Identity Moratorium” (high exploration and incomplete commitment) 

You are still on the path and still dealing with lots of “inbetweenity’, but the exploration is showing results, as your identity becomes more and more clear.  This phase leads to “Identity Achieved.”

It is high on exploration, but clarity of commitment has not yet happened.  Key elements of identity are still in play.  It can also be high energy – both excitement and anxiety.  It can also have periods of clarity and periods of confusion.  On the heroic journey, this is a combination of discovery and “inbetweenity,” but the trajectory is toward commitment and mastery.  Just keep on going down the path.

3. Pretty Much Drifting – “Identity Diffused” (low exploration and low commitment)

Here you can continue to drift, you can move forward into more exploration and commitment, or you can move back and assume an identity others have for you.  This state is low on both exploration and commitment.  It is also low on energy and characterized by drifting.

Hopefully, energy for exploration can be found because otherwise the drifting will continue.  On the heroic journey this state is all about “inbetweenity”, but it does not have the trajectory that “Identity Moratorium” has.  It has a stuck or wandering nature to it.  It’s not a major problem to be here, but it is if you stay here too long.

4. Didn’t Really Start – “Identity Foreclosed” (low exploration and high commitment) You can get stuck in high commitment, but with low exploration – just taking on an identity imposed by others with little or no exploration.  This can come from family, faith community, gang affiliation, etc.  On the heroic journey this is the refusal to go forth on the journey and become the author.  There is no letting go, so there can be no discovery, but you do get to skip the tough period of “inbetweenity.”

Your Trajectory Is What Matters

The key point is that which box you find yourself in is less important than the direction you are moving – your trajectory.  Developing your own authentic identity as a young woman or young man is a journey, so getting to the “Identity Achieved” box is the goal, but it takes time.  If you are moving toward that goal, you are in good shape.  If you are temporarily stuck, that’s to be expected as it is common on the journey and you will get unstuck if you keep paying attention.  If you are not engaged and not moving at all, that is a problem.

“Most people are other people. Their thoughts are someone else's opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation.”



Marcia‘s Four Identity States – Characteristics

How much have you explored your identity and how much
of a commitment have you made to an identity?

Remember – it’s not the box you find yourself in, but the path
or trajectory you are on.

Exploration High Exploration Low
Commitment High

1. Made It “Identity Achieved”

You usually get here after working through an identity crisis of some kind

Getting here means that you have established an “internal locus of self-definition” (fancy term that means you have become the author and have defined your identity for yourself)

You have achieved reasonable clarity of values, beliefs, self-image, goals, purpose, and the other elements of identity

4. Didn’t Really Start “Identity Foreclosed” 

Commitment to identity made with little or no exploration

Passive acceptance of identity assigned by parents, gang, community, etc.

Little contemplation or testing – commitment made by default without exploring alternatives

Identity not really achieved – it is simply either willingly adopted or imposed

“Negative Identity” can form in direct opposition to the identity being imposed (still just reactive) – not a true commitment after exploration

Commitment Low

2. Good Trajectory “Identity Moratorium”

 You are in the midst of exploration, but have not yet gotten clarity – may be clear on some things, but not others

Still some upheaval – old values are being re-examined and new alternatives are being explored

Identity in flux – not yet predictable or clear – struggling to make it so

Sometimes an “identity crisis” with lots of energy – confusion, anxiety, frustration

3. Pretty Much Drifting “Identity Diffused”

Making little or no effort to search and explore

Floating – easily influenced

Can be socially isolated or reacting to social isolation

Not much anxiety because little push for commitment

Feels stagnant in terms of development

Motivation is to avoid discomfort and find pleasure

Kind of “on hold”

Notes – What to Expect

  1. Identity changes during adolescence are 2x as likely to be positive vs. negative, particularly late adolescence and early adulthood
  2. You will probably go through more than on of these cycles in a life
  3. As a teenager, you may or may not be particularly conscious of these states and a great deal of development can be unconscious – but awareness is better, particularly awareness of development over time and the exploration
  4. Although as a teenager you will move from one state or status to another, there is no set path – you can skip a state or repeat one
  5. You might only experience two states – you might experience more
  6. This approach is based on a primarily Western value of individual rights, choice and responsibility
  7. As with most of the challenges on the journey, this one is best done connected to others – a topic for talking with others, exploring with others, getting and giving support, etc.

There comes a time when you have to stand up and shout, “This is me damn it! I look the way I look, think the way I think, feel the way I feel, love the way I love! I am a whole complex package. Take me…or leave me. Accept me…or walk away! Do not try to make me feel like less of a person, just because I don’t fit your idea of who I should be and don’t try to change me to fit your mold. If I need to change, I alone will make that decision.”