I have a lot of questions. I would like exact answers to all of them if that were possible. In general, I don’t do well with ambiguity. It makes me anxious. I like my world simple and clear and planned out as much as possible.
The irony is I rarely see things in black and white when I am peering into someone else’s world. I can hear five sides to a story and believe them all. I can see different perspectives and understand how each person sees it. In another’s world, I love to dabble in shades of gray. I find it fascinating. I will sit in your world all day long and ask you open ended questions and dig deep to find out who you are and how you are feeling about your place in the world. I will see the beauty in your answers as black and white fade into each other and you find your way through it.
There are a few questions that are always up to the individual to answer and they must be answered with a YES or NO. They are existential in nature and based on the psychosocial development stages of Erik Erikson. They roughly correlate with our chronological age as we move from infancy to death and the way we answer them in one stage dramatically affects the way we answer them in every stage that follows.
If you are imagining a conversation with yourself and wondering if you answered yes or no, I’ll have to stop you right there. These questions rarely come off our tongues but they are buried in the core of who we are as human beings. They originate from our self concept and continue throughout our lives to shape the way we see ourselves, often at an unconscious level. You can always tell by the way one lives their life if they have answered with a yes or a no. Let me explain.
In the very first year of our life, born from our mothers we begin asking ourselves, “Can I trust the world?” This is our greatest stage of dependence for our every need to be met. It is the responses of our caregivers that help us answer with a resounding YES or emphatic NO! Did they hear our cries, feed our hungry bellies? Were our needs met in general or were we abandoned and left to soothe ourselves. If you find in general that you have distrust in people and the world, you might check back on your early days. For most of us, having had “good enough” caretakers allows us to answer YES when asking ourselves if we trust the world.
Over the next couple of years a new question arises. We want to know, “Is it ok to be me?” This is where we begin to toddle away from parents and say things like, “me do it” and “no”. We do this to begin creating our independent selves by trying to do things by ourselves and going against authority. We seek the autonomy that is necessary to create an individual personality. Do you ever notice how toddlers seem to be looking back at their parents just as they are getting into trouble? It’s important to allow for safe exploration but always keep a close eye encouraging any appropriate independence that you can. They really are watching to see if you are there, not because they don’t want to get caught, but in fact, because they do want you to “catch them” if they fall. When we can answer YES to the question of, “Is it ok to be me” then we have gained a sense of autonomy. When we answer NO, we are carrying our first load of shame by age 3.
By the time we hit age 5, we have moved on to the next question, “It is ok for me to do, move and act?” This is a time when we like to see our ideas carried out and can get extremely frustrated when the adults in our lives are still trying to do everything for us. Our self esteem during this stage grows from our ability to contribute to the family, which means we need to be able to try and do things on our own. We need to have our ideas accepted which allows us to answer YES. Otherwise, we can gain a sense of guilt, fear, failure and begin limiting our ideas in the future, telling us that we have answered NO to this particular question. Parents can help greatly in this stage by emphasizing process rather than product and assuring their children that mistakes are ok and they are often how we often learn.
The next stage last roughly 8 years or so. It lasts just long enough to bump us close to the teenage years. It’s the middle childhood years when we are attempting to absorb so much knowledge as well as develop our physical and mental skills. This is when we begin the comparison game. Our peers are so important to us, we often check to see if we measure up. We ask, “Can I make it in the world of people and things?” This is often the time when sports and other interests are introduced to us. When we line up ourselves with our peers, we want to know if are competent. When we are competent and measure up, we answer YES. When we feel inferior to our peers, or the adults in our lives downplay the value of our peers, we answer NO and are left with a great sense of inferiority. These are the years when parents are better off sharing their own personal stories from childhood to show empathy. Lectures and making unfavorable comparisons will not serve their children well during this stage.
The following stage takes us from about age 13 to 21. The big question during this time period is, “Who am I and what can I be?” It’s no wonder the teen years are so tough, it takes a lot to work through this stage which is centered on establishing a stable personal identity. It is more than knowing our role in the family. It is finding out who we really are and expanding our horizons, even at the risk of conflict with our parents. Our social world is everything at this stage and our parents quickly move to the bottom of the totem pole. Parents, who use active listening, allow for natural consequences and continue to share their own experiences can really support the crystallizing sense of identity that is necessary for independent living that allows us to answer this question with a YES. When we answer NO, we have often been denied opportunity to grow in the presence of parents that are too rigid and unwilling to recognize the need for independence at this stage.
Well we’ve made it into the adult world, but the questions don’t stop here. From roughly age 21 to age 40 there is a natural yearning for intimacy. The big question now is, “Can I love?” This is a time of finding a career and forming lots of relationships. Often during this stage, we grow close with one person in particular and find that sense of closeness. This allows us to answer with a resounding YES! The inability to form friendships and a close relationship will result in a feeling of isolation. In other words, you will have answered with a NO. I mentioned before that our answers in previous stages can greatly affect stages that follow. Imagine answering NO to previous questions regarding if you can trust the world and if it is ok to be you. Do you see that playing out well in your intimate relationships? Are you wondering why your adult relationships don’t ever work out? It is worth your while to revisit previous stages and see where something went wrong. I can see you connecting the dots now… Aha! Don’t worry, I’ll finish the stages but I won’t leave you without some hope. Keep reading!
Whether or not you find out if you can love, another stage is right on it’s heels with yet another question. The thing that most often comes to mind when we hear about turning 40 is that ever dreadful midlife crisis. Will I have one? What is wrong with these people? Stop wondering. Nothing is wrong with them. They are simply in an existential crisis. What I mean is they are asking the big question for this stage of life, “Can I make my life count?” For some that have never been happy in love, never found their dream job or followed their passion, never had the family they hoped for, they can begin to panic. We want to know during these years that we are leaving our “mark” on the world, that we are making a difference and can proudly answer YES, my life counts. Depending on our experiences during this stage, whether we are working, parenting, volunteering, etc., some of us may feel stuck and experience a sense of stagnation rather than generativity. This means we are answering with a very sad NO, my life does not count. These people are so easy to recognize. They have inconsistent relationships, poor intimacy skills, a sense of isolation, they continue to rebel, they are poor role models, and they are suffering from a sense of despair and life dissatisfaction. Oftentimes, they are so lost in the midst of these negative traits, they cannot see their own predicament much less know what to do about it.
The last psychosocial stage takes us from about age 60 to the end of our life. It is a natural time of reflection and the time to ponder the question, “Is it ok to have been me?” It goes without saying that if the earlier stages were full of YES’s, this stage is likely to result in a feeling of great satisfaction about a life well spent. Now it is simply time to relax and enjoy the final years and answer with a final YES and a great sense of integrity. For those souls who have had significant negative experiences during the prior stages, with depression and despair along the way, they are likely to feel overwhelmed in this final stage of life and may emotionally give up on life before it gives up on them. This would be their final NO in life answering the question, “Was it ok to have been me?” This leaves them in a state of despair.
I just can’t leave you on such a sad note. There is always hope. Always. If you feel like you are answering NO in your current stage of life that is ok. That is your incentive to take a look around and figure out what you’re going to do. People get stuck all the time in stages. Just because you’re 40 years old now doesn’t mean you moved out of the previous stage of intimacy vs. isolation. It means you haven’t been able to move out of it with a YES. The good news is this…you can revisit any stage you want and identify what it is you need. While you can’t go back to being swaddled in a blanket and being fed from a bottle, you can certainly go back and begin addressing the question of trust. You have the power to create your own experience as an adult and move yourself successfully through each stage. It can be heavy work, so don’t hesitate to call on a professional counselor to take the journey with you. Consider them to be your greatest witness as you begin saying YES all the way through!