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In works dealing with questions about identity, often the climax will involve the protagonist experiencing a full blown crisis, in which they question the life they lead, the roles in society they fulfill, the relationships they've made, and even the authenticity of their existence. An Identity Breakdown occurs when the sheer weight of these questions becomes too much to bear or the answer they've found challenges their very sense of self.

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An Identity Breakdown is a specific kind of Freak Out, Heroic BSoD, Villainous Breakdown, Villainous BSoD, or crossing of the Despair Event Horizon triggered by something/someone reinforcing or creating uncertainty surrounding a character's identity. The character may not have questioned their identity before this moment or this is just the straw that broke the camel's back: either way, they are sent spiraling into paranoia, despair, denial, and existential dread. note 

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Plot-wise, the breakdown can be the absolute rock bottom for the character, after which they gain the resolve and clarity to decide upon an identity, accept who and what they are, or forge a new identity for themselves, even going so far as to label their old one as ''dead.'' This is a neutral action and can result in good guys turning bad, bad guys turning good, neutral characters becoming aligned, and everything in between, so long as the end identity is a stable one.

However, a shattered psyche is ripe for Sanity Slippage as the answer to a character's question of "Who am I?" becomes less and less clear or too horrifying to even accept. This often leaves them in an unstable, dissociative state, complete with Mood Swings, Shifting Voice of Madness, and Suddenly Shouting, that is, if the breakdown doesn't drive them to take their own life before all that can manifest.

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While any story about identity can include an identity breakdown, this trope is used a lot in Split Personality, Doppelgänger, and Clone stories, since there are alternative versions of the character vying for the position of either dominant or sole identity. Also pops up in Individuality Is Illegal, Assimilation Plot, and Loss of Identity stories, though these assume the character had a stable and known identity to begin with, which may not be the case.

Double Consciousness, Secret Identity Identity, and Tomato in the Mirror especially tend to lead to this trope. Can be exploited or invoked by The Hero in a "I Know You're in There Somewhere" Fight. See also Shapeshifter Identity Crisis which often overlaps. Subtrope of Personal Horror.

Because this trope typically involves reveals about a character's identity which are likely to be significant to the plot or their character development, be cautious of spoilers below.


Examples:

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    Anime & Manga 
  • Bungo Stray Dogs:
    • As a clone with an artificially programmed personality, Verlaine was plagued by the notion that he wasn't a real person, but was kept stable by Rimbaud's support. Unfortunately, he was forced to betray his friend to save a young Chuuya, and without Rimbaud his sanity sharply declined. By Storm Bringer he completely snaps and obsesses around Chuuya, intent on murdering everyone the boy cares about out of a belief that as a (possible) fellow clone Chuuya is the only one in the world who can understand him.
    • Subverted with Chuuya, who questioned his identity as a teenager, as his lack of memories from the first seven years of his life and connection to Arahabaki made him believe he wasn't human, and he severely injures a man for asking where he was born. However, unlike Verlaine, Chuuya stays sane and is able to move past his identity issues due to having friends to support him, though he fully believes he would have turned out the same had he been in Verlaine's position.
  • Al from Fullmetal Alchemist experiences a short one after his encounter with Barry the Chopper, who attempts Break Them by Talking by insinuating that Al has never been real and is just an artificial soul created by Ed, bounded to a suit of armor, and given Fake Memories to hide that truth. He uncharacteristically blows up at Ed and accuses him of lying to him. Ed is so shaken by the exchange he has to leave the room. Luckily, Winry was witness to the entire exchange and sets Al straight right then and there and Al talks it out with Ed.
  • Kill la Kill: Ryuko suffers a big one after she is told the Awful Truth by Big Bad Ragyo Kiryuin in episode 19: she is the Artificial Hybrid daughter of Ragyo and Life Fibers. Her resulting Freak Out is only stopped by Satsuki choosing that moment to blow up the entire school. When she gains consciousness at the end of the episode, though she accepts her new identity, doing so has clearly broken her as Ryuko suffers a Sanity Slippage that lasts through the following episode and only ends when she becomes Brainwashed and Crazy by Ragyo.
  • My Hero Academia: This is the backstory of the villain Twice, who has the power to create less-durable duplicates of things. He used to be a fairly normal (if lonely) man who fell on hard times. He used his Quirk to duplicate himself many times over, but then each clone became convinced they were the real one and started attacking each other. The Twice we see isn't sure if he's the original one or just a clone; the experience deeply traumatized him and gave him multiple voices in his head and prone to Suddenly Shouting.
  • Naruto: Kabuto Yakushi's entire character revolves around a huge identity crisis that begins when he was orphaned and suffers a head injury that robbed him of his memories at a young age. He was later taken in by a kind orphanage matron where he was named Kabuto. Soon after Danzo employs him as a spy, which meant adopting new cover identities on a regular basis. When an assassin comes for him during a mission, he is horrified to find out it was the orphanage matron who doesn't even recognize him. This triggers a full-blown identity crisis that is resolved with Orochimaru telling him that Danzo had manipulated the matron with fake pictures and suggesting that Kabuto should find his own identity in life. Kabuto thus reorients his entire life and identity in service of Orochimaru. Orochimaru's death later on leaves Kabuto adrift once again until he eventually decides to focus on attaining power surpassing any other ninja in an attempt to bring meaning to his nameless existence.
  • Identity and memory are central themes in PandoraHearts and several characters are on their own Quest for Identity. In his search, Amnesiac Hero Oz Vessalius suffers a breakdown after the one-two punch he gets when Jack tells him 1) he's neither a legitimate Vessalius nor even a human being, but the ''real'' Chain B-Rabbit who ended up possessing the body of Jack, his contractor, and 2) that Jack is Evil All Along and has been manipulating him the entire time.
  • Perfect Blue: Mima is a pop star turned actress struggling with the intense demands that come with her new role and how it fits with her previous image as an idol. She begins to lose her sense of self and her grasp on reality after she stumbles across a hate message online ridiculing her new persona change that is supposedly posted by her. "Who are you?" and "I'm the real Mima" become Arc Words over the course of the film as Mima becomes more and more unsure of herself and she naturally freaks out several times in the film because of this.
  • Puella Magi Madoka Magica: While she is certainly suffering from a lot of issues by her eventual crack, it's learning the Awful Truth about magical girls ( every single one will eventually become the very witches they are fighting against if they live that long) that pushes Sayaka over the edge, in part because it makes her season-long attempt to become a heroic ideal futile. Her eventual acceptance of this truth hurts more than it helps and the resulting Sanity Slippage, which includes Laughing Mad and becoming Ax-Crazy, quickly brings her to the Despair Event Horizon, at which point she turns into a witch and has to be put down by the other girls.
  • The titular Lain from Serial Experiments Lain spends a lot of time wondering about who she is and the nature of her own existence, spurred on in part by her having three different personalities: an introverted loner one in the "real world", an assertive persona she adopts in The Wired, and an evil version that seems to exist as a separate entity in The Wired. Then in episode 8, she is picked up by The Men in Black and is interrogated, during which they ask her "Who are you? Are your parents really your parents?" These questions, along with the silent confirmation from her parents when Lain brings this up with them, causes Lain to spiral for the next couple of episodes, peaking with The Reveal that her digital self is her true self, causing a Heroic BSoD. She manages to overcome it by realizing that though she may not be human, she is essentially the Physical God of The Wired. She ends up abandoning her physical form, merging with her evil virtual self, and resets the entire world.

    Comic Books 
  • Superman: In the Silver Age stories "The Day There Was No Jimmy Olsen" and "The Day Lois Lane Vanished" (the latter is a Recycled Script of the former), Jimmy and Lois return from vacation to find their coworkers claiming not to know them and every story they've written under someone else's name. They even find that their identification has a different name on it. Finding out that they seemingly imagined a large portion of their lives sends them into Heroic BSODs. However, the explanation (which both eventually manipulate the others into admitting) is that the Daily Planet wanted to test their potential as foreign correspondents. Perry claims that enemies would resort to even worse things to discredit them.
  • New X-Men: In the "Planet X" arc, Xorn reveals himself to be Magneto in disguise. Later on, he starts hallucinating due to inhaling too much of the Kick drug, which causes him to question what his true identity is. The X-Men exploit this during the final battle, calling him Xorn to throw him off balance and leave himself vulnerable to their attacks.
  • Rogue frequently suffers this in the X-Men franchise. Her mutation gives her the ability to drain essential qualities—from other superpowers to memories to life energy itself—from whoever she touches. It's ultimately revealed that if Rogue is in contact with someone for too long, the things she absorbs become a permanent part of her psyche, leaving her fractured and confused; for example, her Combo Platter Powers of flight and super-strength only arose because she spent too much time holding onto Ms. Marvel. While this does generate a form of Psychic Static—Rogue's mind is so cluttered with other people's thoughts that it's hard for telepaths to get a read on her—it also causes her a great deal of stress and existential pain.
    • One of the running themes of X-Men is the continued attempt to "cure" mutations, and whether or not such a cure would be a blessing or a curse. Most of the X-Men protest that there's nothing wrong with them and thus they don't need curing, but others struggle with the choice. Rogue, as mentioned above, can never touch other people without risking their very lives. Similarly, Beast's advanced mutation has left him with the body of a blue-furred monster which generally terrifies everyone he meets; he was also originally human and struggles with the memory of not being hated for his appearance (Astonishing X-Men centers on his struggle with another iteration of a mutant cure). Whenever the question of a cure arises, many of the X-Men are left debating if they should take it, what message it sends to younger mutants, and if they would truly be themselves if it weren't for their X-genes.

    Fan Works 
  • I Against I, Me Against You:
    • After discovering he's an AI, Church becomes even more irritable than usual and goes into insane levels of denial, but he eventually comes to terms with it and decides that he's human in all the ways that matter.
    • Twilight becomes increasingly depressed after finding out she's an MI, though this is partially the result of having undergone a session of relentless psychological torture to realize it. She begins to believe that her identity is a mere fabrication, but Church reassures her that she's still Twilight Sparkle no matter what.

    Film—Live Action 
  • Black Swan depicts one long Sanity Slippage when professional ballet dancer Nina has the chance to play the star role in her troupe's production of Swan Lake. Nina clearly suffers from a whole host of issues before this, but preparing and competing for the dual role (and realizing her Shrinking Violet personality is unsuited for the Darker and Edgier Black Swan part), pushes her over the edge, as she struggles to reconcile her personality with the demands of the role, eventually becoming paranoid to the point of hallucinating an Evil Counterpart that is the manifestation of the Black Swan persona she both seeks and represses. This reaches its climax at the end when Nina embraces the Black Swan persona and performs the role, until she collapses mid-performance as she is bleeding out from a self-inflicted stab wound she gave herself while hallucinating.
  • Troy Bolton's plot in every High School Musical film is about his identity struggles of being both a star basketball player and a guy who's really into musical theatre, with each film ramping up the pressure it's putting on him. His solo song "Bet On It" in High School Musical 2 downplays the trope since despite lines like "It's no good at all to see yourself and not recognize your face," Troy is ultimately defiant about not letting anyone define him but himself, rediscovering his identity in the process.
    • Come High School Musical 3: Senior Year however, with his girlfriend Gabriella choosing to go to Stanford early (essentially breaking up with him over the phone) and his family and best friend Chad Danforth pressuring him to take a basketball scholarship at a school in their hometown of Albuquerque with a good program, Troy snaps. His song "Scream" features him running around the empty halls of his school at night, singing about how lost he feels, the voices of others inside his head telling him what to do, repeating different Madness Mantras (or Survival Mantras depending on how far gone you think he is) and, fittingly, closing with a Cathartic Scream. Lucky for him, Psychologist Teacher Darbus witnessed the entire thing and offers him some words of advice.
  • The film I Heart Huckabees is all about this trope; the main characters are "existential detectives" who help people when they have these kind of identity crises. The plot kicks off when a man is faced with the Armor-Piercing Question "How am I not myself?", which sends him spiraling and leads him to call the detectives to help him.
  • In Thor, Loki is not the most mentally stable person to begin with. Discovering that he's really a Jotunn who was adopted by Odin and raised as an Asgardian sends him down the path to full-on villainy.

    Literature 
  • All My Sins Remembered: This is the problem facing Otto McGavin, and indeed all Prime Operators employed by the Confederacion, by the end of the book. A long career of having his real identity subsumed by false or stolen personalities has caused him to suffer an identity breakdown as his mind tries to reconcile his true memories with the various Fake Memories used to shield him from detection on missions. He's ultimately left howling in madness as his handlers lament his fate due to him being one of their best agents and they retire him by permanently locking him in suspended animation.
  • A Song of Ice and Fire: When he is captured by Ramsay Bolton, Theon Greyjoy is horrifically tortured with the express purpose of stripping him of any aspect of humanity and his past self, leaving only "Reek," the identity he is forced to assume. His body, mind, spirit sufficiently broken, his chapter titles no longer even use his name, instead alternating between "Reek" and "The Ghost of Winterfell" depending on his mental state. His struggle to reassert his identity (and even remember what it was) becomes central to his character development, reaching a climax when he finally manages to escape the Boltons, motivated by his desire to save Jeyne Poole. The resolution of his breakdown is punctuated by his final chapter in A Dance With Dragons being titled "Theon."
  • In Animorphs, Tobias struggles with his identity as a human stuck as a hawk. The first time he eats prey that he hunted, he freaks out and tries to kill himself.

    Live-Action TV 
  • In Battlestar Galactica (2003) a number of characters suffer identity crises and breakdowns. The Eights get the worst of this: Boomer almost shoots herself because she 'doesn't know who she is anymore.' She and other 'sleeper' Cylons have serious identity crises when they discover that they've been Cylons the entire time and that all their memories from before their placement are falsehoods implanted by Cavil or other Cylons.
  • Discussed on an episode of The Big Bang Theory:
    Howard: Sheldon, if you were a robot, and I knew and you didn't, would you want me to tell you?
    Sheldon: That depends. When I learn that I'm a robot, will I be able to handle it?
    Howard: Maybe, although the history of science fiction is not on your side.
  • Heroes: Many of the Villainous Breakdowns Sylar goes through during the series overlap with this trope as resolving issues surrounding his identity due to massive Parental Issues and finding meaning in his near Story-Breaker Power are some of his main drivers (before Motive Decay at least). One example occurs after he gains the power of Voluntary Shapeshifting and suffers a Shapeshifter Identity Crisis as he switches between his normal appearance and that of his mother and starts to talk to himself using her voice by imagining what she would say. This eventually leads him to write "I AM SYLAR" in blood at his next murder scene as he desperately tries to hang onto his own identity. It's a fairly clear example of Sanity Slippage only undermined by the fact that Sylar was psychotic to begin with and had only gotten crazier since.
  • Power Rangers Zeo: In "King for a Day (Part 2)", the Monster of the Week Altor is implanted with a copy of Tommy's memories, allowing him to perfectly replicate his combat style. Realizing this, Jason appeals to the stolen memories within Altor, causing him to doubt himself. Altor ultimately reasserts his own identity - meaning he no longer has access to Tommy's combat knowledge, which allows Jason to defeat him.
  • Red Dwarf: Virtual Ghost Rimmer has a bit of a Heroic BSoD and almost lets his battery run down in "The Promised Land" after The Cat tells him that the real Rimmer is long dead and that he is just a computer acting on what the real Rimmer would think. Luckily, Lister is able to snap him out of it.
  • Played for Laughs in the season 1 episode of The Suite Life of Zack & Cody, "Poor Little Rich Girl." Zack and Cody watch a baby video of theirs in which their parents accidentally mix the two up. Despite their mom pointing out that all babies kind of look alike anyways, the two spend the rest of the episode questioning their own identities and adopting the traits of the other. They demand their mom find their birth certificates so they can prove once and for all they are who they thought they were.
  • Supernatural: A Season 4 episode features Dean catching a ghost sickness that makes him fearful of everything. This causes him to question his entire life's profession by asking why anyone would spend their lives hunting monsters because doing so means running toward danger and is therefore insane. Dean recovers and is quite embarrassed by his cowardice.

    Visual Novel 

    Western Animation 
  • Steven Universe: In Future, Steven struggles with a Loss of Identity as helping people has become central to his identity and the resolution of the main conflict has allowed everyone to move forward with their lives, leaving Steven purposeless and incredibly lonely. Trying to repress these feelings only makes him spiral further. Thus begins a season long Sanity Slippage that includes him accidentally imprisoning his friends, talking to the plants in his garden as replacements for his friends, and attempting to shatter White Diamond as he places the blame for all of his problems on her. The final bad guy to fight in the entire series comes from Steven having a full blown meltdown and manifesting a Superpowered Evil Side that embodies all of Steven's bottled up resentment and anger. He does get better though and rare for the trope, decides to see a psychiatrist regularly to deal with his issues.
  • Parodied on the SpongeBob SquarePants episode "Missing Identity", where SpongeBob loses his nametag and treats it as if he's lost his identity. He hyperventilates and passes out when he is reminded of the loss. Turns out he had it on the whole time, he had just worn his shirt backwards.
    • In the season 10 episode, "Mimic Madness", Spongebob develops a case of "Mocking Mimicry Madness" when he transforms his upper half to do over 80,000 near perfect impressions of people after learning about the Sincerest Form of Flattery. Sandy, Mr. Krabs, Patrick, Squidward, and Plankton stage an intervention to get him to stop after they become annoyed by it which forces Spongebob to realize he no longer remembers what his true personality is. He calls himself a freak before fleeing and running off to a cave where he begins to exhibit Sanity Slippage. The gang finds him and is able to remind him of who he is by impersonating him back...only to develop "Mocking Mimicry Madness" themselves.
  • In the X-Men: Evolution episode "Self Possessed," Rogue's Energy Absorption powers are revealed to not only take the abilities of others, but permanently store them inside of her. The personalities of all the people she's absorbed abilities from begin to overwhelm her and threaten a Split-Personality Takeover, which over the course of the episode drives her to the brink of madness as she struggles to maintain her sense of self. Xavier has to intervene, erasing the personalities from her mind, in order to save her.
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