Life is not an escalator
Living as I do in the beautiful Northumbrian countryside, I try to take a daily walk between clients as part of my own self-care practice. Today, as the late autumn sunshine poured over the hills and the last few green leaves clung to their faded glory, I could sense that winter is waiting in the next room, already pushing at the seasonal door.
We often use seasonal metaphors when thinking of the human life span. It can be a useful symbolism, but sometimes the most important thing about seasons is forgotten - that one follows the next, with the inevitable change repeating and repeating throughout time.
The Pressure of "Progress" in Therapy
I have written of how the therapeutic professions can be caught up in the idea of “progress” rather than change, that we are must move towards some final level or destination or be branded a failure.
Many models of human development carry in them this idea of life being like an escalator where we travel towards some societally-approved goal. Even Erik Erikson, who produced my favourite therapeutic model, is often suggested as a "measuring tool" or map to where you should be. The problem with this is that life is not an escalator - it's an ongoing process of change, not a predefined pull in one direction.
To understand this better, let's look at Erikson's therapeutic model. Erikson divided our development into different stages, and saw each stage as having an either / or outcome. His psychosocial model of development is wider than Freud's, and considers the social context of an individual. The eight stages are;
- Stage 1 - Trust vs. Mistrust (Birth to 18 months)
When we first learn that the world contains those who nurture, and those who can harm.
- Stage 2 - Autonomy vs. Shame and Doubt (18 months to 3 years)
As we explore independence, and are encouraged to do so, failure of this support leads to shame and self doubt
- Stage 3 - Initiative vs. Guilt (3 to 5 years)
The stage at which we discover our purpose from our interactions with others...or, in failing to do so, fall into guilt.
- Stage 4 - Industry vs. Inferiority (5 to 13 years)
When our self belief forms from the encouragement of those around us.
- Stage 5 - Identity vs. Confusion (13 to 21 years)
The classic and perhaps most vital question of “Who am I?”
- Stage 6 - Intimacy vs. Isolation (21 to 39 years)
As we progress through each previous stage (according to Erikson), we will become able to form successful intimate relationships with others. If we fail to progress, isolation will result.
- Stage 7 - Generativity vs. Stagnation (40 to 65 years)
The stage in which we consider how we have contributed to the world - what we have generated through our choices and actions
- Stage 8 - Integrity vs. Despair (65+)
Contentment with where we are, or regret with our life choices, and a belief there can be no further changes to be made.
The ages are attached to these stages (indeed that is how Erikson saw them), and so a virtual measuring stick is produced of where people "should be" in their own lives.
The limitations of Erikson's Model - and the problem with "should"s
Erikson's model can be useful, especially when someone is struggling with issues such as role confusion, isolation or stagnation...except of course, these can happen at any age. A 30-year-old can feel despair as they compare themselves to where they think they are and where they think they should be. A 50-year-old can be exploring the excitement of coming out and finding a community which welcomes and celebrates them.
Try it now: consider the different stages, and try to identify which one describes where you are. Ignore the ages - it might surprise you which one speaks to you.
By widening the model, and removing the idea that certain stages must be linked to age, we can use Erikson's insights to resolve the tensions we are experiencing. Someone may realise they feel like the preschooler as they leave a marriage, ready for independence but full of guilt and shame, framing themselves as selfish for wanting and pursuing that autonomy. Another person may be struggling with identity and role confusion as their child leaves for university. These are just two examples of how we can be a different stages at different times, moving beyond a linear model of progression.
Seasons will always change...and so can we
Winter is not the end. It is not an ending, but part of a cycle which turns and repeats, never identically but instead with a familiarity which can be frightening...or comforting.
The goal of therapy can be to identify where in the cycle we are, not according to numbers on a birthday cake, but instead by how we feel. Removing the "shoulds", the thoughts saying “this is where I should be” and instead looking at where we are, and how we feel about that, can be rich and rewarding work. It also allows for genuine change, if instead of feeling despair at the metaphorical winter, we learn to accept that winter is always followed by spring.
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