How are identity problems linked to childhood trauma?
Our identity (ie how we define ourselves) is based upon our beliefs, values, memories, behaviors, and how we go about living our lives in general. It comprises, for example, our likes and dislikes, our religious beliefs/lack of beliefs, our general philosophy of life, our political leanings, our sexual orientation/behavior, our hobbies, and interests, etc.
All being well, our identity starts to crystallize between the ages of about 18 and 25 years.
The psychologist, Erikson, suggested that four stages of development need to be traversed if we are successfully to get to this point (ie the point of developing a solid identity). These four stages are as follows:
1) 0 to 1.5 years – TRUST VERSUS MISTRUST
2) 1.5 to 3 years – AUTONOMY VERSUS SHAME/DOUBT
3) 3 to 6 years – INITIATIVE VERSUS GUILT
4) 6 to 18 years – INDUSTRY VERSUS INFERIORITY
If we get through these stages successfully, they form firm foundations upon which our identity can be built. However, if we have problems getting through one or more of the stages, we are likely to develop significant problems with forming a strong identity in our adult lives.
As each stage builds upon the stage preceding it, problems traversing any of the stages lead to further problems traversing later stages.
Let’s now examine examples of problems that might occur at each of the four stages above, thus endangering and undermining the development of our identity and subsequent identity problems:
1) TRUST VERSUS MISTRUST:
Successful completion of this stage allows the infant to perceive the world as essentially safe and to believe s/he can depend on her/his carers.
However, abuse, neglect, and/or abandonment can severely adversely affect how the infant negotiates this phase, as can inconsistent parenting and parental stress that interferes with the parent-infant bonding process.
2) AUTONOMY VERSUS SHAME/DOUBT:
During this stage, the infant needs to start developing some autonomy whilst still feeling safe in the world. In other words, s/he needs to start seeing her/himself as a separate entity from her/his patents with her/his own unique will. For example, learning s/he can say ‘no’ or exploring her/his immediate environment on her/his own.
Parents who are over-protective can cause their child problems traversing this stage (ie by stifling their efforts to achieve a degree of ‘separateness’ from the parents).
Also, parents who are too permissive may also prevent their child from getting through this stage effectively. For example, if the parents are too permissive the child may not learn to behave in accordance with her/his society’s/culture’s expectations (eg s/he may ‘misbehave’ at nursery school) leading to feelings of shame when members of that society/culture criticize and punish the child for her/his ‘transgressions’.
3) INITIATIVE VERSUS GUILT:
In this phase the child endeavors to develop new skills (eg by helping her/his parents with cooking, gardening, etc.).
If, however, the parents are critical, discouraging the child by pointing out every minor error, for example, s/he is likely to lose the confidence necessary to try new things and use initiative, thus preventing the successful completion of this stage.
4) INDUSTRY VERSUS INFERIORITY:
During this stage, the young person needs to develop the requisite confidence, skills, and abilities which will allow her/him to flourish within her/his particular culture. These include:
– work/career skills
– social skills
– skills necessary to achieve independence
– solid self-esteem
– feeling good/fulfilled in relation to career/lifestyle
If the young person tries to develop these things, but in a way that the parents do not approve of (eg the parents may criticize the young person for wanting to specialize in the ‘wrong’ academic subjects at school, causing her/him to abandon the subjects s/he finds most interesting) then another obstacle is likely to be placed in her/his path to forming a strong sense of identity.
EFFECT ON ADULT IDENTITY:
How the young person develops through these four stages will affect the first adult stage relating to identity, according to Erikson’s theory. Depending on how the first four stages were traversed, the first adult stage the young person enters (which lasts from about the age of eighteen to the age of thirty) may be any of the following four:
1) Identity achieved
ie we have obtained a solid sense of our own identity
2) Psychosocial moratorium :
ie in terms of our identity, we have moved on little since adolescence.
4) Identity confused:
i.e. our view of our own identity is extremely nebulous and we have no clear idea of ‘who we are’, what we want to do in life or what our values are.
THE PSYCHOLOGICAL MORATORIUM STAGE:
Erikson suggested that in order to form a strong identity everyone needs to go through a period of rebellion which he called the psychosocial moratorium stage. This involves questioning the values and beliefs inculcated into us during youth and then breaking away from them, or embracing them, as the case may be. The point is that this allows us to truly ‘own’ our beliefs and values, rather than having them as a consequence of having been conditioned to hold them by authority figures in our youth.
In order to possess a strong identity, Erikson also stressed the importance of being committed to one’s values and beliefs. In other words, one needs to act on them rather than, say, just talk about them.
IDENTITY PROBLEMS AND BORDERLINE PERSONALITY DISORDER (BPD):
Identity problems in adulthood are often a symptom of BPD. BPD frequently occurs as a result of childhood trauma.
In the case of IDENTITY DISTURBANCE ASSOCIATED WITH BPD, some psychologists break identity disorder associated with BPD into four categories; these are as follows :
- ROLE ABSORPTION
- PAINFUL INCOHERENCE
- LACK OF COMMITMENT
Let’s look at each of these four categories in a little more detail :
1. ROLE ABSORPTION :
This involves individuals with an intrinsically weak sense of their own identity desperately attempting to create one by defining themselves through a particular role or cause. This may involve adopting a different name and radically altering their world view, values and belief system. Such individuals are vulnerable to being lured into cults whereby they may completely subjugate any sense of their own identity and, instead, overlay it with the identity into which the cult leader inculcates and indoctrinates them. Such individuals are obviously at high risk of being exploited by unscrupulous others.
2. PAINFUL INCOHERENCE :
Those who fall into this category constantly experience a distressing sense of emptiness.
3. INCONSISTENCY :
Individuals in this category are prone to changing their values, attitudes and opinions according to the people they happen to be associating with at any given time and, because of this, are sometimes referred to as ‘social chameleons’, as referred to above.
4. LACK OF COMMITMENT :
Lack of commitment can manifest itself in relation to many important areas of life including education (e.g. frequently changing courses but never completing any); career (frequently changing jobs); geographic location (frequently moving home); relationships (e.g. inability to maintain relationships with friends/partners/spouses); interests/hobbies.
DEVELOPING A MORE CONSISTENT AND STRONGER SENSE OF ONE’S IDENTITY:
How can people with identity problems make their sense of identity stronger? One possible place to start this process, which needs to be gradually worked on over time, is for the individual suffering from the crisis in identity to consider the things which are of most importance to him/her in life; identities are largely formed based on these considerations. Priorities in life that people choose to concentrate on, and, which, therefore, contribute to making up their identities include:
- academic interests
- creativity (for example, painting, writing, acting)
- choice of entertainment (for example, musical taste, taste in film, cinema, theatre, favourite kinds of books etc.)
- material possessions
- spirituality, religion, atheism, agnosticism
- charity work (for example, for homeless, rehabilitation of ex-prisoners, environment, hospice, Amnesty International)
- physical appearance
- financial situation
- This is not, of course, an exhaustive list and there may well be other areas that can be added, depending on preferences.
A starting point might be to pick out 3 or 4 areas of interest (this, in itself, reflects identity, and, therefore, can be seen as providing foundational pieces of the jig-saw yet to emerge, as it were) and to concentrate on these at first (other elements can be added later; merely starting the process may lead to other ideas emerging at a later time).
For each of the factors selected, it can then prove of use to set some goals relating to how these areas may be incorporated, or, more fully incorporated, into one’s life (these goals need to be quite specific and achievable; there is little point starting with such challenging goals that they may prove impossible to meet and thus damage morale).
Here are some examples:
- because academic achievement is important to me, I will enroll in a night-school class (investigate and specify appropriate course) and complete the course.
- because family and/or friends are important to me I will attend an anger management course.
- because creativity is important to me I will set aside two hours a week to write poetry or a novel.
- because my mental health is important to me I will seek out appropriate counseling and complete the sessions recommended (provided the therapy proves of potential value, of course).
The more the individual is able to incorporate and develop areas such as those listed above, which reflect his true values, interests, and priorities, the more AUTHENTIC and REWARDING the person’s life is likely to be; the more, too, will the individual’s true and stable sense of self continue to evolve.
3 PROBLEMS WITH AUTONOETIC CONSCIOUSNESS:
Autogenetic consciousness refers to the sense of ‘owning’ a personal experience and a sense of what has been termed ‘mineness’ about it. It is associated with difficulties planning, and thinking about one’s future experiences and the future in general.
PROBLEMS WITH MENTAL TIME TRAVEL INTO THE FUTURE IMPAIR SENSE OF SELF AND CONTRIBUTE TO DISINHIBITION:
Because the BPD sufferer has an impaired ability to mentally project him/herself into the future and to actually feel what it would be like to be there due to impaired autonoetic consciousness, it is much harder for him/her than it is for the average person to fully pre-experience situations and the consequences of his/her actions and behaviors. This, in turn, leads to an impairment of rational decision-making and rational agency, as well as an increase in disinhibition (even seriously bad future consequences of behavior lose their inhibitory power if the BPD individual can not imagine him/herself experiencing such consequences in the future in any substantial and personally meaningful way).
Self and identity in borderline personality disorder: Agency and mental time travelNatalie Gold PhD, Michalis Kyratsous MBBS MRCPsych First published: 24 May 2017Wily Online Library https://doi.org/10.1111/jep.12769