Although purpose and identity are closely linked, it is possible for an individual to have a purpose while simultaneously experiencing an identity crisis. An “identity crisis” refers to an individual, often an adolescent, struggling to find their place in the world. Identity is the discovering who you are and where you fit in the world (Schwartz, Zambonga, Luyckx, Meca, & Ritchie, 2013).
Purpose is something to accomplish that gives your life meaning (Damon, Menon, & Bronk, 2003). Some researchers believe purpose helps develop identity (Burrow & Hill, 2011), whereas others believe identity helps develop purpose (Schwartz et al., 2013), especially if youth identify with community service (Harre, 2007; Thoits, 2012; Vianna & Stetsenko, 2011). This which-comes-first tension raises the question of whether one can have a purpose while experiencing an identity crisis.
Take Julia, a fourteen-year-old Chinese-American struggling with her national identity. Julia’s parents were born in China and her relatives live there, but she was born and raised in America. Although Julia feels like an American, her peers see her as Chinese. This makes her doubt whether she is truly American, even though she knows very little about Chinese language or culture. Despite this identity crisis, Julia believes her purpose is to help homeless people in her community, and her purpose has not been affected by her recent identity crisis.
While the current literature on the relationship between identity and purpose is inconsistent, Julia’s example demonstrates that it is possible to have purpose in the midst of an identity crisis.
By Haley Gilmore, Clark University, USA
Burrow, A. L., & Hill, P. L. (2011). Purpose as a form of identity capital for positive youth adjustment. Developmental Psychology, 47(4), 1196-1206.
Damon, W., Menon, J., & Bronk, K. C. (2003). The development of purpose during adolescence. Applied Developmental Science, 7(3), 119-128.
Harre, N. (2007). Community service or activism as an identity project for youth. Journal of Community Psychology, 35(6), 711-724.
Schwartz, S. J., Zambonga, B., Luyckx, K., Meca, A., & Ritchie, R. A. (2013). Identity in
emerging adulthood: Reviewing the field and looking forward. Emerging Adulthood, 1(2), 96-113.
Thoits, P. (2012). Role-identity salience, purpose and meaning in life, and well-being among volunteers. Social Psychology Quarterly, 75(4), 360-384.
Vianna, E., & Stetsenko, A. (2011). Connecting learning and identity development through a transformative activist stance: Application in adolescent development. Human Development, 54(5), 313-338.