Life on Hold: Staying in Identity Diffusion in the Late Twenties

Johanna Carlsson

Experience of a long-term identity crisis has been suggested to result in symptoms of identity diffusion, such as lethargy and intimacy problems (Erikson, 1968). This study explored this issue in detail, by investigating what it means to experience identity diffusion across time. The investigations were guided by three research questions:

1. How do identity narratives from individuals assigned to identity diffusion at both ages 25 and 29 change and remain stable over time?
2. What do individual patterns of narrative change and stability reveal about experiences of identity diffusion in the late twenties?
3. Do individuals who are assigned to identity diffusion at both ages 25 and 29 report identity distress or psychological symptoms at either age?

The study is based on the eighth and ninth wave of GoLD (Gothenburg Longitudinal study of Development; Lamb et al., 1988) when participants were approximately 25 (M = 24.9, SD = 0.7) and 29 (M = 29.3, SD = 0.6) years old. A total of 124 (63 women) participants took part in both these waves. This study involved an in-depth investigation of the seven participants (all male) who were assigned to identity diffusion at both ages 25 and 29 (Carlsson, Wängqvist, & Frisén, 2015), based on Identity Status Interviews (Marcia et al., 1993; Frisén & Wängqvist, 2011).
Change and stability in participants’ identity narratives were examined through Identity Status Interviews. The interview narratives were analyzed in three steps: (1) The participants were treated as singular case studies, in which differences and similarities between their interview narrative from ages 25 and 29 were summarized for each participant separately. (2) The seven case summaries were analyzed with thematic analysis (Braun & Clarke, 2006). A combination of inductive and deductive approaches was used. The deductive parts were based on a model derived from previous analyses of individuals assigned to the same identity status, with established commitments, at both ages 25 and 29 (Carlsson et al., 2015). (3) The final step was to make sure that the thematic model (developed in Step 2) represented the data, and to determine individual patterns across the model. First, a coding scheme was developed based on the model. Then, the seven case summaries were coded according to this coding scheme.
At both ages 25 and 29 experiences of identity distress was measured with the Identity Distress Survey (IDS; Berman, Montgomery, & Kurtines, 2004). At age 25, psychological symptoms were measured with the SCL-90. At age 29, a short version of the same measure, BSI-18, was used.

The longitudinal analysis of the identity narratives showed that long-term experiences of identity diffusion may be described through a model including three dimensional themes: (1) Individuals’ approach to changing life conditions, spanning from decreased activity and lack of initiative in relation to changing life conditions to increased haphazard activity in relation to changing life condition (without desire to make commitments); (2) The extent to which individuals engage in meaning making, spanning from decrease in elements of meaning making to substantial increase in elements of meaning making; And (3) how individuals develop their personal life direction, spanning from dissolving of personal life direction to further development of personal life direction.
Participants’ individual patterns across the model showed that most approached changing life conditions either with decreased activity or increased haphazard activity, unwilling or unable to explore alternatives or make identity commitments. Most of them also showed no or little increase in meaning making and either no change in or a dissolving of their development of personal life direction. Two participants differed from this general trend: One by showing little change in the identity narrative between the interview occasions (i.e., his case summary was consistently coded to the middle of the model), and one by showing some signs of identity development (i.e. substantial increase in meaning making and further development of personal life direction), but still this participant approached changing life conditions with increased haphazard activity.
Participants generally reported few signs of psychological distress. They reported low levels of identity distress, but sometimes specific identity issues were rated higher. Most participants also reported normative levels of psychological symptoms at both interview occasions (within one standard division of the Swedish norm mean value for the SCL-90), with a tendency toward less severe symptoms than normative at age 29.

This study furthers the understanding of the dark side of identity development by showing how experiences of identity diffusion may change across time. Although no participants reported severe levels of psychological distress, qualitative analyses showed a general trend among participants to keep commitments on hold through decreased activity or increased haphazard activity in relation to changing life conditions, to make little new meaning, and in some cases to dissolve their personal life direction. Thus, this in-depth investigation of long-term identity diffusion suggests that individuals who appear ‘carefree diffused’ (e.g., Luyckx et al., 2005), in terms of psychological distress, may still become increasingly disengaged with time.


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