Identity vs. Role Confusion


Shared with permission of the author: Lindsey Wilson


One of Erikson's stages most frequently examined is that of Identity vs. Role confusion. This paper will attempt to examine the experience of coming out as a lesbian in the context of Erikson's stage(s) and the ramifications it had. The information for this paper was gained primarily from pages 40-41 of The Developing Person Through the Lifespan.


There are many identities we are expected to assume as part of our cultural heritage in the US. For the purpose of this paper I will exclude other nations and cultures for the sake of solidarity and length. Erikson's research led him to propose several stages of development from infancy through adulthood. Usually the stage of Identity vs. Role Confusion is applied primarily to adolescence, but there are many facets to human identity and it is quite common for persons considered to be living as adults to also be experiencing period of extended adolescence and/or still facing issues left from that period of their lives (most notably college student who retain some parental sheltering but with unprecedented freedom in an environment devoted to establishing identities). Also, of course, it was well noted by Erikson that stages can be dealt with repeatedly as people reforge or are forced to change their identities in the face of changing circumstances.


The basic concept of Identity is hotly debated in social and sexual politics within the US and has been for decades. Erikson called it the assumption of our places - boys become men, students become workers, and so on. One important identity that is assumed in the most literal sense of the word is the identity of the heterosexual. This identity is so deeply ingrained in our culture that rarely is it even called into question during adolescence. The young person either assumes their heterosexual identity and seeks out members of the opposite sex for companionship (segueing nicely into Intimacy vs. Isolation) or they do not for one reason or another, and feel confused or depressed (a common term is "emasculated").


One common reason for failure to assume a heterosexual identity is that the adolescent in question is not heterosexual and therefore cannot assume that identity in any truthful sense. Many people have felt such a strong social pressure to conform to this sexual identity that they attempted to assume the verisimilitude of that identity and faced disastrous personal consequences later in life. Role Confusion is very common among homosexual youth, as attested by the high suicide rate among known gay or lesbian adolescents. The reasons for the forceful infusion of heterosexual identity into our culture are too diverse to go into here.


My own personal experience carried years of alternating role confusion and confidence as I tried fitfully to become what my parents and friends expected and what I want to be. High school was a horrible experience for a variety of reasons, not the least of which was never quite empathizing with the desires and habits of my peers in their endless dating cycles. I was terribly confused and at the same [time] time pretty certain as to what was "wrong" with me. The most telling point of these years of "role confusion" had to do with a different stage but played into the difficulties I was then experiencing. Trust vs. Mistrust is the first of Erikson's stages, and by making the choice to lie about being a lesbian I violated the trust I held with my parents, particularly my mother, and that hurt for many years.


College was a turning point for the stage in my development. I already had a solid identity for my planned career and life after college, and quickly had a steady crowd of friends far and away from anybody I had the pleasure of dealing with in high school. It was during that time that I decided to step forward and embrace a lesbian identity in a public way and accept the issues that came with it. Even twenty years ago this would have been much harder to do, and I am grateful for the changes in our society that allowed it to be so. At one point during that time period I was so active in the college gay community that I helped organize and participated in a press conference involving Ellen Degeneres's mother, Betty, and spoke with her briefly afterwards (me and fifty or so others). Her words were encouraging to me .freedom that granted has been a great lift to my soul, for lack of a better term.


Even more importantly it granted me further freedom to pursue real Intimacy with others. Family is a large part of intimacy and everyone in our culture is familiar with the ordeal of facing parents of a loved one. Having my identity confirmed allowed me to view my relationships as more permanent, as meaningful in a larger context and important not just to me but also my family. This climaxed in bringing my girlfriend home for a Christmas vacation (a different nerve-wracking story) and letting her meet my parents and some old friends, but more importantly fusing the disparate identities I had held before of Lesbian and Daughter which were the same, just in different places, until that time.


I hate grading my own papers but I think this one was pretty good, and if it is graded for the reaction it gains from the audience, well, the only audience is me and I reacted strongly for some reason, so I think I should get an A.