Psychological study of Identity over adolescence, adulthood and old age

Identity within a Psychological framework could be referred to as an understanding of the ‘self’ or ‘personal identity’. Personal identity has many important influences, but is effectively gained through understanding of the world around an individual. Relationships with others, whether it’s another individual or a group of people can affect an individual’s identity – physically or mentally. As an infant, there is very little understanding of identity or being a separate entity from the primary caregivers.

This develops as the infant/child gains a stronger understanding of their environment and as they gradually become less dependent from their parents. Identity as an individual gets older is formed through their peers, and they become part of a ‘social identity’. Adolescents are stereotyped into different identities by society and this can be a deliberate action against society, in order to rebel. Physical changes in adolescence can also mark a change in an individual.

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It can symbolise the growth from a child into an adult, and this change in responsibility can be hard for the individual to embrace. Many difficulties can appear within adolescence, in particular regard to body appearance. Sweeting and West (2002) suggested that early physical changes with young girls could have a negative impact on their body image, which would make social interaction more difficult. This can also be reversed in aspects teenage body image, as girls maturing earlier, for example in size of breasts can make others feel inadequate as a ‘woman’.

Most physical changes can be treated like a competition within adolescence, for who is developing into an adult quicker can mark a form of dominance over others that appear to still be children. This is where identity conflict can arise. Many individuals will try to form an identity to surpass the expectations of a ‘normal identity’. These altered and transformed identities can be formed through exposure to peer groups, idols and the mass media. As many adolescents are exposed to a high level of media intake, particularly television, it is an important factor in their lives.

Fiske & Taylor (1991) discovered that the media can create new or modify existing mental representations, and that these representations can manipulate the existing schemas, which therefore alters social judgements and the autonomy of the individual. It is clear with the media repeatedly showing how individuals should/nt behave and look, and with the minds of adolescents so fragile and influential, that there would be a major change in behaviours, attitudes and appearance in identity. Erickson (1994) created a majority of the theoretical framework on identity. There were eight stages of the theory that applied across the lifespan.

In adolescence the stage is described as identity versus role confusion, as the individual challenges their parents, in an attempt to form their own identity and personality based on their own beliefs, dis/likes and goals for the future. Lack of success in this stage may leave the adolescent individual feeling isolated or misunderstood, displaying difficult behaviour and having a lack of self esteem and confidence in their own abilities. A criticism of Erickson is that this rebellion from the parents of the individual may not occur, with varied parenting styles and approaches.

A parent that is domineering and vastly in control of the adolescent could influence them either way, either being more determined to fulfil their own separate identity, or, having such a lack of self assurance, that they continue to live as an entity belonging to the parents. This may be through environmental circumstances or masochistic tendencies and submissiveness in an attempt to please the parent due to insecurities. Adults within the identity framework would be assumed to be secure in their understanding and belief of themselves.

Usually, the conflict over ‘who am I? would be resolved, and they would have formed a sense of acceptance within themselves. Identity as an adult would be formed within a peer group as similar to adolescence, but also will be influenced by relationships within their work setting, and most importantly within intimate relationships with a ‘partner’. Success in forming identities can be assessed by how successful the relationship with the partner, and willingness for intimacy. Erickson (1994) suggested this in the stage intimacy versus isolation, which suggested that adults not willing to commit themselves to another person for intimacy, would usually be unhappy or lonely.

This therefore could affect the personal identity of the individual, as extended periods of isolation can result in lack of confidence and social awkwardness. Schaie, Labouvie, ; Buech (1973) commented on adult identity formation, recognising early that the role that historical events (life events) may have on many dimensions of personality. An example of this is an adult in early adulthood, during a feminist movement, may alter their personality and identity somewhat, as it is a current change in their environment.

Individuals in the later stage of adulthood may not have the same beliefs and ideals as the younger generation, as they haven’t experienced the same moment in a pivotal stage of their lives. This can be applied to all stages of the lifespan however, as every individual experiences different life events, which shape them in the personality they are in the current time. Adulthood can be a difficult stage, particularly in traditional surroundings. Individuals can be expected to meet a long term partner, get a sustainable career and go on to raise a family.

All this and the demands of everyday lifestyle (in Western culture), can leave an individual feeling powerless and vulnerable to how they can achieve these things and ultimately please other important people in their lives, that they feel required to fulfil their expectations for. Kastenbaum (1993) noted that even though there was not a significant amount of research into adulthood and identity/subcultures, nearly every individual within Westernised culture, has heard of the ‘mid-life crisis’. Also, it was stated that within adulthood in relation to the ego, that there was a form of stability.

Individuals work their way to the people they are, through the difficulty of adolescence, and are assumed to reach their goal and a level of fulfilment and happiness. It is difficult to sustain this idea, particularly when modern society and culture are observed. The demands put on the individual to ‘be the best’, and succeed all that is expected of them are typically very high. Coming from adulthood into old age can be a difficult transition for some individuals. Environmental, physical and societal factors can contribute to the level of difficulty in this transition.

Ward (1984) identified seven factors that marked the adoption of the ‘old age identity’. Many of these points included physical deterioration that limited the individual’s capability. Social roles are also a very important factor and can be difficult when an aspect of the individual’s life changes, such as retirement. A loss of independence and a lack of purpose in the life of the individual can be difficult to accept. It is important not to devalue the theories based on physical deterioration, particularly when applied to certain health conditions.

The onset of physical illnesses and conditions can seriously alter the mental health as well. Victor (1987) also complimented this idea and went on to say that older people could identify a fall, stroke or heart attack as a serious implication of their becoming older. Also factors such as becoming tired easily and having difficulties getting to places by walking or transport can mark the idea of being ‘old’. Of course health implications aren’t the only physical form of decline into old age. With societal views of old age being overall quite negative, there is great emphasis into ‘looking younger’.

A decline in body image may affect an individual’s confidence and this could limit positive social activity. The concept of old age being negative is something that has increased in modern society. There is now less respect for the older generations, and the media typically portrays the elderly as grumpy, useless and boring. Very little understanding is given to older people, due to the massive label stuck on them. This is particularly adamant in Western culture and is less prominent in other areas of the world. Ebersole & Hess (1997) claimed that in Thailand, this negative stigma attached to the elderly is not present.

Old age was celebrated and people that advanced into old age were given a label of importance, due to their knowledge and wisdom. Also, in many cultures, the extended family is still very much prominent the involvement of the elderly individual is still considered important to the running of everyday life. It is clear that identity can be formed through many different aspects. Most theory based on identity is largely influenced by the idea of life events and experiences over time, so it is difficult to claim that the identities formed by individuals could be exactly the same.

Every individual has differing experiences that will shape their personalities differently, therefore the idea of being able to sum this up in stages, such as Erickson’s theory is difficult to apply to all individuals. A ‘one size fits all’ approach is just not viable when exploring an idea that is based on individuality. The cultural relevance in studying various theoretical aspects can be focused strongly on Western culture, which is not an overall sample of what is relevant to all areas of the world. In many aspects of culture, the idea of being a ‘teenager’ does not exist.

This can also be applied to different religions, where a child can have a celebration where they will become an adult – such as a bar mitzvah in Jewish belief, that marks the coming of age of a boy or girl. This idea also applies to old age, as mentioned before, where the elderly individual is celebrated for their knowledge and experience. Also the social roles of the elderly may change but not meaning they become purposeless. They may be at the head of the family, and still be able to exercise control over other people, leaving them feeling more empowered.

Social activity within old age is considered very important, and with the Western world leaving many older individuals isolated, there is a less strength in communities, which used to be a lifeline in socialising for many individuals. Overall, identity and the crisis’ identified with this idea can be applied over the entire lifespan, particularly as society changes. It is quite possible with the demands that society puts on the individual to be ‘perfect’, identity will be made even more difficult to understand and almost impossible to be content with.