How are identity problems linked to childhood trauma?
Our identity (ie how we define ourselves) is based upon our beliefs, values, memories, behaviours 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/behaviour, 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 leads to further problems traversing later stages.
Let’s now examine examples of problems which 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 criticise and punish the child for her/his ‘transgressions’.
3) INITIATIVE VERSUS GUILT:
In this phase the child endeavours 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 criticise 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.
David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).
Holder of MSc and post graduate teaching diploma in psychology. Highly experienced in education. Founder of childhoodtraumarecovery.com. Survivor of severe childhood trauma.