Identity development is a topic that has been studied for some time. There are two main ways to address it: as young children who are just developing an identity and as adults who are changing or developing an identity they never created or did not like as a child. Each person, as he or she grows, develops a distinct and separate identity from other people (Willemsen & Waterman, 1991). While an individual may change over time, there is a part of that person's identity that generally remains the same as it was when it was first developed. The creation of an identity helps to define a person to others, but it also works to define an individual to himself or herself. Everyone has likely heard people say that they need to "find themselves," and that is part of the development and exploration of identity. The identity of a person can be something very personal and "human," or it can also refer to how a person is seen by others - such as with a professional reputation or notoriety. Both areas are part of a person's identity.
There are several parts to a person's identity. One is the sense of uniqueness he or she feels when compared to others (Steinberg, 2008). That uniqueness is very important to many people, because it is what sets them apart from everyone else and gives them a sense of self. Additionally, though, there are other parts to the identity of a person. These include the sense of continuity and the sense of affiliation (Willemsen & Waterman, 1991). In short, people want to belong to a group and also want to be different and separate from that group. These same people also want to see and feel a continuation of their identity as they move through life. They need to know "who they are," and they will not know that if their identity continues to change. Developmental psychology is a large part of the development of a personal identity. In fact, a large number of theories in the psychological realm focus on the sense of self and how it can be better developed in order for the person to be mentally happy and healthy throughout life. This can be a very difficult thing for some people to achieve.
The changes that take place in a person and his or her identity development generally come in stages (Grotevant, 1997). These stages are very important, and they can also overlap with one another in addition to being addressed separately. In most people, each stage is clear and distinct. In some people, the stages move from one to another very fluidly, so that there seems to be an overlap that is seen in between the stages. Both are viable ways for the individual to change and grow through the various stages of identity development. When discussing the development of identity and the stages through which a person goes, another thing that affects the understanding of identity development is the individual theorist who is discussing the issue. Some say there are many stages, and others say there are only a few. There is no right or wrong answer, necessarily, because each person will have an experience that is both similar to others and unique, at the same time. These experiences are likely not thought of in stages by the person going through them, so the stages have relevance only to the psychological theories and studies that are undertaken, and not to the individual.
The concept of self is one of the most important issues for development where identity is concerned (Goossens, 2008). As young children, an understanding develops that a person is different from others. Babies do not have that realization that they are not separate and distinct entities. They are not yet aware enough to realize that. However, younger children begin to realize some form of autonomy, and that they are not simply an extension of everything else. They have an identity that is all their own, and they should be encouraged to develop that. If they do not develop their own identities early in life, they can grow up codependent and struggling to make their own way in life (Steinberg, 2008; Willemsen & Waterman, 1991). They look for external validation from others and a sense of connectedness with the world, instead of taking the time to understand that they can be validated internally by their own self-worth. Having an identity that is strong enough to be completely separate from others is something that is only developed over time (Grotevant, 1997).
Children who are very young realize their uniqueness, but they also need to have some form of connectedness with others so that they understand their place within the world and within their community (Steinberg, 2008). There are so many different subsets of a person's identity, and they all need to be studied and considered in order to see what makes up a complete person. Self-concept is only one of the issues faced by individuals as they begin to learn who they are and how they fit into the world. The way a person interacts with his or her community is also part of a person's identity (Steinberg, 2008). He or she may be a community leader, or have ties to a business or a family in a particular community that causes that person to be recognized in some way. That can be an important part of the development of a person's identity, since he or she often still looks for some external validation and recognition along with the self-awareness that each person needs to learn the concept of internal validation.
Additionally, each person will develop a cultural identity (Goossens, 2008). That can be from the culture to which a person belongs, or the culture in which a person grows up. Some people hold onto aspects and traits of both cultures, because they find things in both cultures that speak to them and that make them feel "at home." That sense of belonging that is fostered when a person identifies himself or herself with a particular culture is highly valuable to that person, because anyone who needs to "belong" looks for ways in which that can be done. By finding those ways, each person is able to become a part of something bigger while still being separate. Both modern and historic aspects of culture also come into play when a person is developing his or her identity (Goossens, 2008). Some people feel that a cultural identity should be relevant and up-to-date, while others feel that it should be steeped in tradition. Nothing is right or wrong about either one of those approaches, and they can be combined to provide the best elements of both options. When that is done, a person is able to respond culturally to the further development of his or her identity throughout life.
Closely related to the development of a cultural identity is the development of an ethnic identity (Grotevant, 1997). Each person belongs to a specific ethnicity. That cannot be changed, because it is a genetic component of that individual. However, that does not mean that everyone identifies with his or her ethnic identity in the same way or to the same degree. Some people are very focused on who they are from an ethnic standpoint, while others are less concerned about that and prefer to focus on other aspects of their personality and identity. As they are developing their own identity, what they are taught about their ethnicity and the messages they receive regarding it can greatly affect whether they focus on that ethnicity as a part of themselves or whether they choose to focus on some other aspects of identity that they feel more strongly represents them and their life.
Each person also has a national identity to consider. Whether American, German, Syrian, or anything else, the place where a person is born can affect the identity that person develops. Part of that is culture and ethnicity, but some people move from one culture or landscape to another, and their identity can change with that move and transition to something new (Steinberg, 2008). The nationality to which a person belongs can change throughout life. Someone born and raised in one country, who then leaves that country and comes to another one, will have a national identity that is different from what he or she had previously. While most people hold onto the majority of their identity aspects, some people do change some of who they are because they identify with their old "home" and with the new one, as well. Over time, a person who moves to a different country will pick up some of the mannerisms and traits - as well as the patriotism - of that country. It is not only young children who react and adapt that way. Older people who come to a new country make changes in their lives because they want to share in the community…