Identity Diffusion is defined as: “A state of uncertainty about one’s role, purpose, and meaning in life.” It commonly occurs in adolescents but may persist throughout adulthood, making individuals feel lost and out of place. Identity diffusion occurs when people are not allowed to explore themselves. This concept was discussed by Erik Erikson in his theory of psychosocial development. Most often, these individuals are less autonomous and more prone to giving in to external pressures. This blog post provide some insights into characteristics of identity and its various dimensions.

Characteristics of Identity Diffusion:

1: Contradictory Personality Traits:

People with identity diffusion usually demonstrate a contradictory set of traits. They can be extremely caring towards others at one moment and totally indifferent in the next. These individuals also experience the extremes of emotions without sticking to one state for long. For example, they exhibit both suspicion and naivete, greed and generosity, arrogance and timidity. These extreme states make them unpredictable and complicated to understand. The acknowledgment of this contradictory behavior makes those individuals feel as a “misfit.”

Individuals with identity diffusion also lack empathy for others and may have a hard time relating to others. Their confusion about interests leads them to pursue multiple vocational goals which are polar opposites. For example, they have the desire to be a movie star and a scientist at the same time. This pursuit varies from experimentation as the latter includes an inclination towards one side while the other becomes a hobby. Healthy individuals enjoy both vocations, while individuals with identity diffusion keep fluctuating between multiple vocations without any enjoyment or purposefulness.

2: Character Discontinuity:

People experiencing diffusion of identity lack character integration. They struggle with various phases of personality development. The past, present, and future are not connected in a smooth manner, and individuals struggle to differentiate between them. They may feel young and old at the same time. They also keep oscillating between nostalgia of the past and planning for the future while ignoring the present. This leads to a disconnection from reality.

3: Inauthenticity:

People with identity diffusion struggle with displaying true affection, feelings, thoughts, or beliefs. They tend to act in various situations as they are expected to, and they don’t express their true selves. They lack unique characteristics and imitate others in mannerisms, beliefs, and ideologies.

4: Hollowness:

Identity diffusion influences the ability of individuals to live in solitude. When left alone, they feel empty inside and have no resources to survive. They begin to catastrophize, which makes them feel doomed. They may then adapt unhealthy coping mechanisms such as compulsive socializing, bulimic episodes, self-harm, drug overdose, aggressive sexual behaviors, and risky behavior that leads them to feel rage. This feeling of rage wards off the emptiness.

It is important to note that hollowness is different from loneliness. All individuals are prone to loneliness at some point in life. However, hollowness is a disturbing state where individuals feel terrorized and indulge in unhealthy behaviors.

5: Ethnic Component:

The ethnic component is a crucial part of a healthy identity. Exposure to the family’s moral code and ethnic practices instills a sense of belonging in developing children. It is commonly observed that individuals may grow distant from their parental ethnicity during adolescence. However, extreme factors like abrupt change under extreme circumstances may lead to confusion about ethnicity, fueling the perception of being a misfit.

Lack of a moral compass is another critical factor that leads to the diffusion of identity. Rigid adherence to a certain moral principle while ignoring others leads to a polarized attitude. This leads to an unhealthy obsession with certain aspects while neglecting others. An imbalanced approach makes them vulnerable to cultish behaviors and following others blindly without any inner sense of direction.


Identity diffusion encompasses three dimensions that explain the various ways in which identity diffusion can manifest. These dimensions are: foreclosure, moratorium, and negative identity.

1: Foreclosure:

Foreclosure refers to the adaptation of an identity without adequate exploration. Their important life decisions are based on the expectations of others, such as parents or authority figures, rather than self-reflection. Individuals adopt an identity without understanding their own motivations, strengths, and desires. They may feel satisfied by their choice at the time but can face challenges later in life when they realize there is a huge gap between their chosen identity and their authentic self.

A career choice is a common example of foreclosure. A teenager might choose the path to become a doctor as his parents want him to, without exploring his interests and passions.

2: Moratorium:

Moratorium refers to active exploration and experimentation without making firm commitments. Individuals in this phase are open to trying different roles, beliefs, and experiences to understand their own interests. Moratorium entails uncertainty but provides an opportunity for growth. It is a healthier approach compared to foreclosure because it allows individuals to gain insight before making important life decisions.

A college student is involved in various extracurricular activities, internships, and part-time jobs to explore different career paths. He is experiencing various perspectives to determine his passion and interests.

3: Negative Identity:

Negative identity is described as adopting an identity which is opposite to what is expected or socially accepted. It can manifest as rebellion or as a response to feeling misunderstood or pressured. It can be a way to assert independence, but it may lead to confusion and difficulty forming positive relationships.

A teenager might adopt a “bad boy” or “bad girl” persona in response to restrictions and feeling trapped by societal norms. However, this may cause them unnecessary troubles and they may feel that they are not their authentic selves.


Identity diffusion makes an individual feel left out and not belonging in society. They may struggle to navigate various life challenges and have trouble developing healthy relationships. Understanding the various dimensions of diffusion will help in identifying destructive patterns. Individuals often move between these three dimensions as they continue to grow and explore their identity. Identity diffusion is a dynamic process, and most people experience it in a non-linear fashion. Successful identity development often involves moving from foreclosure or negative identity towards the moratorium phase. The moratorium phase allows individuals to experiment and explore their interests with an open mind.