I am a fan of formal and ongoing inquiry. Though I don’t exactly believe that “the unexamined life is not worth living” (Socrates)—all lives are worth living – it’s essential to learn about self to understand how one meets the challenges of daily living, particularly examining any helpful or maladaptive coping mechanisms at work (such as, in my case, repeatedly coping with shame and unclear identity). There’s nothing stopping us from learning more about ourselves, and with the Internet at our fingertips (although don’t just take the Internet’s word for it all), we can find information that might explain some aspects of our confusion. Information, paired with self-examination and sometimes therapy (and good social support), gives us a solid chance to evolve as human beings.
When I was confused about who I really was—and what exactly was real and what wasn’t—in my earlier years, I suffered greatly and I believe I experienced a form of an identity crisis. I was, after all, a relinquishee without any idea about who my biological relatives were and where exactly I came from. Even with a loving family, a stable childhood and many advantages in life, I was very much at a loss as to how I fit in.
In my book, Parallel Universes, I talk about the great shame that hounded me from my early years—the kind of shame that I couldn’t cope with or explain to myself. Later, I understood why I felt that way, and if you find yourself confused as I was—or if you’re not sure what exactly happened that made you feel so fragmented—one of the theories I find helpful are Erik Erikson’s Psychosocial Stages of Development (listed at the end). An example I could use in relation to myself would be the Stage One: Trust vs. Mistrust, that occurs between the ages of 0 to 2 years old. With a responsive, reliable parent, Erikson says, a child is able to develop the virtue of hope. I was relinquished very early in life and my parents were loving and reliable, so even though I was not with my biological mother, I still flourished; I’ve always had the sense of hope. It’s one of the mechanisms that drives one’s ability to recover from addiction—having hope that things will get better.
(Incidentally, some of us start to use chemicals addictively after experiencing an “identity crisis.” According to Erikson, Identity vs. Confusion is the 5th stage of Development and it occurs during the teenage years—same time when most of us start to experiment with drugs, alcohol or other maladaptive behaviors.)
Many reliquishees talk about never finding “closure”—there is no “closure,” because not knowing where they come from, who they are, can really shake one’s sense of identity. And without “closure” it might not be possible for some of us to move on. But sometimes closure is not possible, which doesn’t mean that we cannot reclaim ourselves and our very identities! We can. We just have to do it gently and with help of others (therapy) – and we have to forgive ourselves for events that might be of our own doing but that stemmed from something that we might’ve not been aware of—a Psychosocial Developmental Stage in our lives that was disrupted. The good news is that the more we understand about ourselves, the better we’re able to cope with life and its realities.
8 Psychosocial Stages
- Trust vs. Mistrust: This stage occurs between the ages of birth and 2 years and is centered on developing a sense of trust in caregivers and the world. Children who receive responsive care are able to develop the psychological quality of hope.
- Autonomy vs. Shame and Doubt: This stage takes place between the ages of 2 and 3 years and involves gaining a sense of independence and personal control. Success in this stage allows people to develop will and determination.
- Initiative vs. Guilt: Between the ages of 3 and 6 years, children begin to explore their environment and exert more control over their choices. By successfully completing this stage, children are able to develop a sense of purpose.
- Industry vs. Inferiority: The stage that takes place between the ages of about 5 and 11 years is focused on developing a sense of personal pride and accomplishment. Success at this point in development leads to a sense of competence.
- Identity vs. Confusion: The teen years are a time of personal exploration. Those who are able to successfully forge a healthy identity develop a sense of fidelity. Those who do not complete this stage well may be left feeling confused about their role and place in life.
- Intimacy vs. Isolation: The stage that takes place in early adulthood is all about forging healthy relationships with others. Success leads to the ability to form committed, lasting, and nurturing relationships with others.
- Generativity vs. Stagnation: At the stage occurring during middle adulthood, people become concerned with contributing something to society and leaving their mark on the world. Raising a family and having a career are two key activities that contribute to success at this stage.
- Integrity vs. Despair: The final stage of psychosocial development takes place in late adulthood and involves reflecting back on life. Those who look back and feel a sense of satisfaction develop a sense of integrity and wisdom, while those who are left with regrets may experience bitterness and despair.