Family of Origin Trauma, Identity Formation & Compulsive Sexual Behavior

Article Abstract

Identity formation is a critical task for adolescents to achieve. The task of identity formation is a process that naturally elicits a certain amount of anxiety and chaos. Adolescents who do not successfully form an identity can suffer from identity diffusion. Specific aspects of today’s American culture and parental involvement are two influences that can hinder a teen’s identity formation.  Successful identity formation includes positive self-esteem, a stable sense of self, the ability to reflectively function, and identity continuity. Teens with a diffused identity can enter adulthood with issues such as low self-esteem, insecure attachment, and intimacy deficits in romantic and other relationships. Pathological consequences of identity-diffusion can come in the form of eating disorders, personality disorders and, addictions in adulthood. Erikson’s theory of personality development continues to demonstrate the critical importance of successful identity formation in the adolescent stage. Empirical evidence substantiates the negative implications associated with identity diffusion.

Adolescent Identity Formation and Identity Diffusion

Are We There Yet? Identity Formation

According to Erik Erikson’s fifth stage of development: one day a child falls asleep only to wake up the next day as a hormonal teen with the pressing and alarming question of, “who am I?” (Clinton & Ohlschlager, 2002). It does not exactly happen overnight, but according to Clinton & Ohlschlager (2002), the shock and anxiety brought on by the adolescent stage of identity development can feel in a way like personality or identity amnesia. Compounding an already distressing situation, a teen not only begins to question who they are, but this phase also brings to light the painful reality of other people’s expectations (Clinton & Ohlschlager, 2002). Not only does a teen have to wrestle with the question of  “who am I?” but the ancillary question of, “and does everyone else think who I am is ok?” also weighs heavy (Clinton & Ohlschlager, 2002).

Identity formation is a time when adolescents search to find what makes them different and special (Feldman, 2011). A normal part of this process is identity testing. In this feature, a teen may imitate a peer or an admired celebrity, while also carefully observing the identity of his or her parents from the corner of his or her eye (Clinton & Ohlschlager, 2002; Feldman, 2011). Formation of identity happens when one identifies the boundaries of oneself against another, and a sense of autonomy is created where one becomes comfortable with who one is (Goth et al., 2012). Goth et al. (2012) noted successful identity has been achieved when one has the ability to form meaningful and positive relationships with others, and is aware of how one can impact another outside oneself. When adolescents form a stable identity, a sense of sameness across all social domains and also internally exist (Goth et al., 2012).

Living in Limbo: Diffusion Defined

Identity confusion, to a certain degree, is a healthy part of identity formation. When an adolescent’s identity remains confused, identity diffusion can occur (Feldman, 2011). Identity diffusion creates a disorganized, chaotic and uncommitted identity, or a sense of severe discomfort or alienation in one’s own skin (Feldman, 2011). Goth et al. (2012) characterized a diffused identity as one who has severe feelings of emptiness, superficial relationships, and describes oneself and others in inconsistent and often negative ways. Also referred to as a lack of identity integration, diffusion causes impaired interpersonal functioning and relationship difficulties (Goth et al., 2012). Goth et al. (2012) also noted impulsiveness and difficulty handling anxiety as traits of a diffused identity. According to Marcia, diffusion leads one to be socially withdrawn (Feldman, 2011). Clinton & Ohlschlager (2002) described a diffused identity as one who is a constant performer on the stage of life. The diffused individual moves from one life-play to the next, unable to stick to any certain role, constantly seeking, in vain, the approval of others.

Pittman, Keiley, Kerpelman & Vaughn (2011) suggested that intimacy and identity are strongly connected; identity diffusion reduces the possibility for one to form long lasting intimate relationships. Intimacy requires one to be vulnerable to another; without having a sense of self and identity first, one cannot be known to one’s partner (Pittman et al, 2011). Dunkel & Sefcek (2009) correlated identity diffusion with earlier sexual experiences, more sexual partners, lower overall relationship intimacy and instability in romantic relationships. Casual sexual relationships and a shifting or lack of sexual standards were correlated with identity diffusion (Dunkel & Sefcek, 2009). Identity diffusion was also connected to a lack of empathy and long-term focus, which would make intimate relationships, especially marriage, difficult to achieve (Dunkel & Sefcek, 2009).

Identity Derailed: Paths to Diffusion

In the past, it was believed that identity was something one was born with, determined by ones particular gene pool (Klimstra, 2013). From social to relational encounters, today it is agreed that environment plays a strong role in shaping identity (Klimstra, 2013). According to Clinton & Ohlschlager (2002), the process of identity diffusion can happen when a teen uses unhealthy, harmful coping strategies to deal with stress. The natural process of forming an identity causes stress. Identity formation induced stress can come in the form of confusion, frustration, anger, fear or sadness (Goth et al., 2012). Diffusion can occur when a teen engages in any form of acting in, such as blocking, sublimation, insulation, intellectualization or repression; or acting out behavior, such as displacement, projection or denial (Clinton & Ohlschlager, 2002). Diffusion may develop when a teen cannot process through the pain, anxiety and stress caused by the adolescent identity formation process (Clinton & Ohlschlager, 2002). As Marcia states, when a teen cannot properly explore various identities and consequentially attach to one and call it their own, their sense of identity essentially become like a leaf blowing in the wind (Feldman, 2011).

Other factors can attribute to the possibility of identity diffusion. A study conducted by Demir, Kaynak-Demir & Sonmez (2010) correlated pre-existing depression in teens and debilitating identity confusion. The longitudinal study included a treatment plan of anti-depressants to evaluate, compare & contrast the depressive symptoms. After the course of anti-depressants, the adolescents were again interviewed: 96% showed a relief of depressive symptoms. The teenagers who showed a significant decrease in depression also had a decreased in their severe feelings of identity confusion (Demir et al., 2010). Goth et al. (2012) noted depression or sadness can occur due to the natural need to detach from one’s parents in adolescence; this can create a sense of loneliness. Some depression can be an expected byproduct of Erikson’s identity formation verses identity diffusion stage; the danger is if the symptoms reach a level that consequentially undermines the developmental process, leading to diffusion.

Up to 17% of teenagers suffer from an anxiety disorder, according to Crocetti, Klimstra, Keijsers, Hale & Meeus (2009). Crocetti et al. (2009) noted that extreme anxiety could impair identity formation and lead to identity diffusion. Goth et al. (2012) discussed how teenagers reject their parent-given identity in order to autonomously author an adult identity. Although a normal part of the process, this destruction of the child-identity is a source of anxiety for the adolescent. As Klimstra et al. (2013) explained, the identity of the child must be redefined before the child can own the identity commitments. The process of identity formation is a process of selection. Selection implies exclusion; when deciding who one is, one also is forced to commit to who one is not, and this also creates anxiety (Crocetti et al., 2009). Solid social guidelines, security & a purpose driven life were previously modeled to identity-seeking adolescents of past generations (Crocetti et al., 2009). In Western culture today, these aids have all but vanished and as a result, anxiety has increased in adolescents searching for their sense of self (Crocetti et al., 2009). Deemed the “tyranny of freedom” (Crocetti et al., 2009, p. 846), indecision for teens today can set in due to the insurmountable identity options available (Crocetti et al., 2009). If permanent paralysis takes hold, adolescents can become stuck in a vacillating pattern, and identity cannot be achieved (Feldman, 2011).

Parental Influence on Formation and Diffusion

Insecure parental attachment and its correlation to identity diffusion are areas that are gaining attention in the field. Pittman et al. (2011) discussed the impact of insecure attachment on identity formation; a lack of secure attachment is another possible contributor to identity diffusion. Identity formation is in part an integration of self-descriptions given by one’s parents throughout the many years of development (Pittman et al, 2011). An adolescent with a secure attachment due in part to positive parental identifications develops an identity that includes high self-confidence (Pittman et al, 2011). The securely attached child also is able to form an identity, which retains positive belief, intrinsic worth & positive continuity of self and others (Pittman et al., 2011). In contrast, according to Pittman et al. (2011) an insecure attachment correlates with identity diffusion, which can display as low self-worth, lack of identity continuity, negative view of others and, inability to experience intimacy in relationships.

Diffusion can happen in adolescence when a lack of identity exploration then becomes a lack of identity commitment (Syed & Seiffge-Krenke, 2013). According to Dunkel & Sefcek (2009) adolescents are searching for a sense of self-continuity, which gives them the ability to develop solid psychosocial constancy. Dunkel & Sefcek (2009) noted that research has associated diffusion with a parental style lacking in strong connection and communication. An absence of cohesion within the family has also been found as a contributor to diffusion (Dunkel & Sefcek, 2009). Research has also showed that insufficient parental support and an authoritative parenting style can lead to diffusion of identity (Dunkel & Sefeck, 2009). Dunkel & Sefeck (2009) stated that diffused teens had parents they could not identify with, such parents were characterized as detached, unavailable and uninterested. On the contrary, Dunkel & Sefeck (2009) noted a correlation between authoritative parenting, which is characterized by attentive, warm parenting with appropriate boundaries in place and identity achievement.

Syed & Seiffge-Krenke (2013) conducted a study and discovered a correlation between identity formation and a parental style that advocates personal growth. Exploration is a key component of the identity development process. Knowledge-seeking traits were found in those adolescents with parents advocating personal development. Naturally, this correlated to adolescents who embraced the exploration process and achieved identity formation (Syed & Seiffge-Krenke, 2013).

Diffusion, Disorders, and Sexual Addiction

Studying identity formation is important and practical because it has been linked to psychological adjustment, or the lack thereof (Klimstra et al., 2013). What are some of the possible pathological consequences of identity diffusion? Is intervention and recovery possible? Drug addiction, eating and personality disorders have been strongly correlated with identity diffusion (Dunkel & Sefeck, 2009; Vartanian, 2009).

Borderline Personality Disorder is one of the most widely studied personality disorders associated with identity diffusion, and according to a study conducted by Westen, Betan & Defife (2011), symptoms can clearly display as early as 14 years of age. According to the DSM-IV-TR, identity diffusion is a key trait of those with Borderline Personality Disorder (Westen et al., 2011). Identity diffusion is considered the core component of those suffering from of Borderline Personality Disorder (Goth et al., 2012). In the study conducted by Westin et al. (2011), feeling a false sense of self was strongly associated with all Borderline Personality participants. The normal process of adolescent storm and stress is part of identity formation; those impacted by pathological identity diffusion need desperately to attach to others in order feel some sense of identity (Westen et al., 2011). Traits that characterize identity diffusion are also found in those diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder (Goth et al., 20112). The normal adolescent storm that coins the identity formation process is basically crystalized and intensified in those with Borderline Personality Disorder. Westin et al. (2011) advocate for intervention in adolescents showing symptoms of identity diffusion as it correlates to Borderline Personality Disorder.

A longitudinal study found a group of early adolescent boys, who demonstrated characteristics of a diffused identity; five years later were more inclined to substance addiction (Richard, Trevino, Baker & Valdez, 2010). Adolescents whom formed a negative identity in the earlier teenage years were predicted to have higher rates of cigarette smoking and illegal drug addiction (Richard et al., 2010). If during the identity formation process an adolescent experiences his or her sense of self as incongruent related to sexual identity he or she runs a higher risk of becoming identity diffused (Talley et al., 2011). In a study conducted by Talley, Tomko, Littlefield, Trull & Sher (2011) homosexual men and women were found to have higher rates of sexual identity confusion and disturbance, the study also correlated the group with higher rates of substance abuse. Substance abuse has been connected to negative coping strategies to reduce identity-related stress (Talley et al., 2011). Substance abuse was seen as a way to emotional regulate an unstable, or diffused sense of identity (Talley et al., 2011).

When one feels badly about whom one is, substance use provides an unhealthy way to escape the negative feelings associated with one’s negative self-concept (Talley et al., 2011). When identity diffusion occurs, it is argued that substance abuse is used as a way to fill the internal emptiness (Talley et al., 2011). The diffused adolescent is set up with predictors leading to substance abuse (Talley et al., 2011). An adolescent whom experiences a negative self-concept mirrored back from his or her peer group is also at high risk to experience a diffused identity (Richards et al., 2011; Talley et al., 2011). Both internal and external experiences of negative self-concept can position an adolescent to addiction (Richard et al., 2011; Talley et al., 2011)

Research has also correlated the need for a positive self-concept with the elimination of addictive behaviors (Richards et al., 2010). A study conducted by Mackintosh & Knight (2012) found the primary task for adults recovering from addiction was to re-visit Erikson’s stage of identity formation and complete the task of achieving a positive identity. The recovering addicts had to embark on the painful journey where creation of a non-addicted identity was explored and committed (Mackintosh & Knight, 2012). The negative self-image held by addicts was found as the major stumbling block that needed to be addressed in order for true recovery to take place (Mackintosh & Knight, 2012). Separating from the notion that one’s identity is solely attached to the disease or addiction is also important in recovery (Volgel-Scibilia et al., 2009).

Along with developing a new positive self-identity, those in recovery had to address the negative view others held of them as well (Mackintosh & Knight, 2012). The same way adolescents had to face these tasks, the addict had to learn to how to anchor a positive sense of self internally, as opposed to external validation (Mackintosh & Knight, 2012). The recovering addicts found it necessary to move away from negative relationships in order to repair the identity into a healthy and positive sense of self (Mackintosh & Knight, 2012). Integration of the new identity, apart from the previous negative, addicted identity, was key to recovery and healing from addiction (Mackintosh & Knight, 2012). An adolescent with a diffused identity who becomes addicted to substances consequentially must correct the diffusion as an adult for full recovery to take hold.

Vartanian (2009) found that women lacking a solid sense of identity were more at risk for developing eating disorders. Although there are many other identity dimensions incorporated in those with eating disorders, the aspect of a disturbed negative body image has been researched the most (Gazillo et al., 2013). Part of identity formation is the development of self-esteem; low self-esteem has also been linked as a common and predicting trait in those with eating disorders (Goth et al., 2009; Vartanian, 2009). Research has found eating disorders are correlated with a negative self-perception and highly self-critical behaviors (Gazillo et al., 2013). A strong sense of self was correlated with an ability to withstand the pressures of outward attractiveness messages sent via the media or other societal domains (Vartanian, 2009). A characteristic of identity diffusion is an inability to maintain a sense of self against outside forces (Goth et al., 2010). The barrage of media messages today that  “bone thin is really in” would wreak havoc on a person lacking a clear and strong self-concept.

Gazillo et al. (2013) stated eating disorders are usually found to start during the adolescent years. It was found in the study conducted by Gazillo et al. (2013) that three categories of pathology were present in adolescents with eating disorders. The three types described in the study were perfectionist, avoidant and emotionally dysregulated (Gazillo et al., 2013). The anorexic was correlated with the perfectionist type and avoidant type, while the bulimic type eating disorder was associated with the emotionally dysregulated type (Gazillo et al., 2013). Gazillo et al. (2013) strongly correlated identity diffusion especially in the bulimic type/emotionally dysregulated group of adolescents with eating disorders. Interestingly, Gazillo et al. (2013) also noted that adolescents with the bulimic type eating disorder were often found to also be comorbid with Borderline Personality Disorder. Identity diffusion is a common factor in bulimic eating disorders and those with Borderline Personality Disorder (Gazillo et al., 2013; Westen et al., 2011). Research has also indicated a strong comorbidity between adolescent substance abuse and eating disorders (Gazillo et al., 2013). Furthermore, research has connected adolescents with substance abuse and eating disorders with continued abuse and pathology into the adult years (Gazillo et al., 2013).


How Do I Know Me? Let Me Count The Ways.

Erikson’s theory of personality development continues to demonstrate the critical importance of successful identity formation in the adolescent stage. From insecure parental attachments to serious personality disorders, empirical evidence substantiates the negative implications associated with identity diffusion. Identity integration, formation, development, achievement, self-concept, self-esteem, self-clarity and self-worth are all ways to describe the adolescent journey to answer these two questions, “who am I?” and “am I ok?” Yes, many factors contribute to the successful achievement of identity and the fragile process can be thwarted in many ways, leading to a diffusion of identity. It is a somewhat mystical process, the way most humans soul-search to discovery his/her true self. Miracles can be seen when, in the midst terrible life circumstances, the human spirit manages to overcome all odds and solidify a secure identity. Regardless of age, ethnicity, sexual orientation or family background, hope is found in the truth that restoration can occur in even the most broken or empty identity.


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Amanda Asproni

Amanda Asproni

Master of Arts in Clinical Mental Health Counseling at Healing Affairs

Amanda has her Master's in Clinical Mental Health Counseling & is a Professional Life Coach specialized in infidelity recovery & problematic sexual behavior. She began facilitating affair recovery groups for unfaithful, betrayed & couples in 2011. She is a member of the Society for the Advancement of Sexual Health ( and has trauma training in the Emotional Transformation Therapy (

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