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Grown-ups and Growth
As she sifts through the day's e-mails, Barbara pauses to admire the sparkling diamond on her ring finger, a present from William, her fourth (yes, fourth) husband. (I have changed all of the subjects' names and identifying characteristics but have otherwise stayed true to the information that I have collected about them.) She and William just celebrated their fifteenth anniversary, but Barbara still shudders to think that she burned through three previous marriages in twenty years.
Back when her college pals were in the social whirl, Barbara—now one of the country's leading nuclear physicists—was working furiously in the lab. By the time she was a senior, she had spent two summers training at the premier nuclear research lab in the country. But her parents couldn't understand how a pretty girl like Barbara could be interested in spending all her time in the basement of the science building.
So Barbara made her parents happy by marrying her boyfriend. He was nice enough but not her intellectual equal. And in fact he wasn't so nice when she started spending nights and weekends at school working on her graduate thesis. Once after running an experiment until three in the morning, she stumbled home to find that he had cleared out of their apartment.
Marriage number two lasted ten years and produced her two oldest children. Although she could write her first divorce off to marrying too early, or marrying just to please her parents, she couldn't figure out what exactly she did wrong in the second one. Yet, shortly after it ended, she was once again ready to try again. Marriage number three brought her a lovely boy, ten years after she thought that her motherhood days were pretty much behind her. She never imagined having four husbands, but she never imagined having three children, either.
It took three husbands to get to William, but he was worth it. A medical researcher specializing in neurodegenerative diseases, William retired a few years ago. William doesn't seem to mind Barbara's long hours, her preoccupation, her endless wondering about whether she handled a delicate situation correctly. Yes, Barbara has finally met the man who not only is her intellectual equal but who also really understands what makes her tick.
Still, Barbara is filled with self-doubts. Despite a significant record of scientific accomplishments, she's scarred from her colleagues' hostile reception of her as a pioneering female scientist. And while she appears to have it all—a stimulating job, a beautiful home, a loving husband, and three well-adjusted children, she wonders: Why am I not happier? She knows that she's been tough to live with, and now she is beginning to see, perhaps for the first time in her life, just how tough she has been. This is probably a good realization, but it will not lead to her being able to dismiss her feelings of regret and despair.
Barbara was born with a particular temperament and abilities that blossomed in her childhood. As an adult, she made many choices that changed the course of her life and was also a victim of circumstances beyond her control. Where, then, do we begin if we want to pick apart Barbara's history to figure out how she can feel more fulfilled now?
I've put Barbara's and dozens of her fellow baby boomers' lives under the microscope, in the hope of proving or disproving the assumptions we make about what will bring us happiness, and to show whether and— more important—how we can change as adults. I've used the theory of Erik Erikson to guide me in my analyses, a theory that posits that adults do continue to develop well past the point of physical maturation. But these changes, Erikson believed, don't necessarily happen in a predictable lockstep fashion. Understanding how change occurs and how we can make change work to our benefit is one of the key themes in this book.
A Turbulent Time
In the film The Graduate, Dustin Hoffman's character floated aimlessly in his parents' pool after finishing college, just around the time Barbara and her classmates began participating in my study. With the Vietnam War looming as a backdrop, university campuses became the main stages upon which drastic cultural changes were getting played out. A restless and rebellious youth movement offered more choices, both good and bad, to its adherents.
Barbara was part of a surge of women students: About 12 percent of eighteen- and nineteen-year-old women attended college in 1947, compared with about 35 percent in 1970. Even in light of these new opportunities, the pressures to conform to a traditional life path were strong. To put into context Barbara's choice to marry, consider that in 1966, on average, women married at age 20.5 and men at 22.8.
Sex and Stagnation: Dominant Views of Development
Credited with discovering that the roots of personality lie deep within our unconscious, Freud, the founder of psychodynamic theory, believed that our personalities are essentially formed by the time we are five, the result of our passing through (or not passing through) sexually oriented phases—notably the oral stage, the anal stage, and, most important, the oedipal or phallic stage. After that it was a matter of playing out the results of one's failure or success at passing through each stage. Though Freud was the founder of talk therapy, he didn't think there was much hope of changing the personalities of people older than fifty—they were too rigidly set in their ways.
Erikson was a psychoanalyst trained by Freud's own daughter, Anna. He spent his time on the playground of the therapeutic institute she directed, watching young children play with their toys. After leaving Vienna and setting up his own shop at Harvard University, where he was to develop his own influential theory, Erikson decided that Freud had misrepresented the process of human growth and change. The more he thought about it, the more convinced Erikson became that our development is shaped by forces other than sexual ones. Just as important, Erikson couldn't envision development coming to an abrupt halt in childhood or even in puberty. That notion ?didn't fit with his own observations of the lives of his patients and the lives of the famous subjects of his biographical studies.
Although Freud's work fascinated me, and in fact triggered my decision to major in psychology, it was Erikson's work that really engaged my imagination. I was inspired by Erikson's optimism about the potential for change throughout life and by the breadth of his vision about the influences on our development, influences that go beyond sexual motives. Because I was pretty convinced myself, at the ripe old age of twenty-five, that personality continued to evolve through life, I was eager to immerse myself in his theory—and to put it to the test.
Erikson's Building Blocks of Personality
Like Freud, Erikson conceived of personality development as a series of stages. But unlike Freud, he took into account the importance of social experiences throughout our lives. Erikson imagined that at each of these "psychosocial" stages people face a conflict between two forces. If they successfully wage the battle, they will acquire a positive psychological quality. If they lose that battle, an unfavorable outcome will occur. Whatever the result, one stage builds on the next.
To give Erikson's theory the consideration it deserves would require a book in itself, but I've done my best to summarize the psychosocial stages here. I've also, somewhat reluctantly, indicated at what age the stages are most likely to emerge. However, early stages can occur at later points and vice versa. Thinking of them as building blocks rather than stages helps keep this point in mind. The blocks can be combined and recombined in infinitely varying ways throughout our lives.
1. Trust vs. Mistrust
(typically emerges between birth and age one)
The first issue we confront in life is the need to establish a basic sense of trust, or confidence that the world is a safe place for us. If our parents are consistent caregivers, providing food, support, and protection, we resolve this issue successfully and believe that we can rely on other people to care for us in times of trouble. We are confident that the world is a benevolent place, and as we go through our day-to-day lives, we are generally in a good mood.
Jane, for example, is the president of a student theater troupe at a prestigious high school. Whether she's speaking about her husband's recent interest in Eastern religions or her students' efforts to learn a difficult play, she's full of wonder and good humor. She sincerely believes her mentoring can help the kids she works with, and always sees the best in them. Throughout her life, her personality has benefited from the solid foundation she has in her sense of trust, a strength that has allowed her to maintain faith in herself and hope for others.
The people you know who are low in the quality of trust have a fundamental sense of cynicism, and instead of looking on the bright side, they expect the worst of people. They try to take advantage of others because they believe that if they don't, others will take advantage of them first.
One of Jane's classmates, Bob, was such a person. In fact, he was the polar opposite of Jane, starting out in his college days as just about as low on trust as you could possibly be. He gradually dug himself out of this hole, but his early personality deficits continued to plague him. His choice of profession as a divorce lawyer probably fit well with this personality profile, since many of his dealings would by definition be contentious and bitter. Now he is full of regret about how he has conducted his life, but with such a deficient beginning, it is hard to imagine how it could have been otherwise.
We will look at people who span the full range on trust, from the Janes to the Bobs. We'll see how trust served as the bedrock of personality and how people high in this quality throughout life managed to buffer themselves from some of the most unimaginably painful life events. We will also see how it's possible for people even as badly off as Bob was to reclaim their lives and reach fulfillment.
2. Autonomy vs. Shame and Doubt
(typically emerges in toddlerhood)
Next in the sequence of building blocks is the feeling that you can trust yourself, a feeling that comes with independence. According to Erikson, if you are able to trust your instincts, you can express yourself spontaneously without running the risk of embarrassing yourself or feeling ashamed. During the "terrible twos," children want to do things on their own, and to do so they need to feel free from self-doubt. Toddlers who can choose their food and toys and learn to control their bodily functions are rewarded with a sense of independence and confidence. Adults who have resolved this period of personality development in a positive manner feel that they are in command of their destiny. They are self-confident and don't frequently question whether what they are doing is right. One of my best examples of this quality is Rita, whose strong autonomy streak in college seemed to prepare her for a lifetime of leadership. A Ph.D. in computer science, she retired early from what was a successful professional career. Over a period of years, she had become increasingly concerned about environmental issues in her hometown. Instead of sitting back and just criticizing her local politicians, however, Rita took action. After her retirement, she joined a citizen's group and eventually became its chair, speaking out forcefully so she could effect as much change as possible.
Those who haven't navigated this stage successfully are afraid of doing the wrong thing. That shame and doubt that Erikson talked about makes them so inhibited and fearful of making mistakes that they engage in rigid or even obsessive routines to give themselves a sense of control. I could see that this was the problem that afflicted Claire, who in college scored in the direction of shame and doubt rather than autonomy. The route she chose to pursue in life was one that was safe and low risk, but ultimately unfulfilling. Now in midlife, she's the type of person who outwardly seems to be doing very well, with a successful marriage and family life. But she revealed to me that she is restrained, uncertain of who she is, and regretful of her failure to take risks when she had the chance.
Autonomy continues to remain an issue throughout our lives, particularly in Western culture, where the need to have control is seen as central to happiness. People like Claire, who are unable to stand on their own two feet, may feel unfulfilled because they haven't been able to achieve that ideal. What's more, by failing to take risks, we may actually miss out on some golden opportunities to improve our lives. However, we'll see later in the book that even after a lifetime of feeling afraid of taking risks, it's possible to change your attitudes and take that leap of faith that will lead to greater fulfillment.
3. Initiative vs. Guilt
(typically emerges in the preschool years)
The quality of "initiative" is the enjoyment of exercising your mind, directing others, and enjoying flights of fancy. We develop the potential to acquire initiative during the preschool years, when we are most imaginative and begin negotiating playtime with other children. As we get older, our creative impulses are channeled into thoughts and ideas. Being able to express our creativity is a direct follow-up to feeling that we can trust ourselves (and others). Developing the playful side of our nature allows us to maintain a sense of humor and avoid taking ourselves too seriously. It can also make us fun to be around.
It was this quality of initiative that struck me as prominent in the life of Fred, who in his life decisions showed that he wasn't afraid to chase a whim. Although employed as a college professor, he dabbled in science writing. It seemed that he took great pleasure in covering some of the more entertaining stories put out by the research establishment. He went even further than that in expressing his playful side when he decided to buy the childhood home of Donna Reed, a star he and his parents enjoyed watching together when he was kid. I wonder how much thought went into that decision, because it seems to me kind of rash. Nevertheless I bet he enjoyed the process of restoring it. Fred also had his first child at the age of fifty-three— another delightfully spontaneous decision.
The opposite of initiative is guilt, perhaps a strange term to use in this context. Erikson was by training a psychoanalyst, and to him this was actually the quality that developed during the oedipal stage, when children are overpowered by emotional attraction to the opposite-sex parent. Erikson thought it was okay for kids to have these feelings as long as they subsided when the preschool years were over. Those who don't develop well through this stage will be plagued by the sense that they could, would, or did violate social taboos against incest.
From the Hardcover edition.
Posted May 6, 2010
What an excellent and insightful book with relevance for all ages!
A fascinating, enjoyable, life-changing read. Dr. Susan Whitbourne provides a compass to guide all age groups towards a more fulfilling journey as we navigate the path of life!
Who would start an exciting trip without consulting a map or the GPS? "The Search for Fulfillment" is an excellent "map" providing direction for those who are just starting on life's journey or for those who have gotten "lost" along the way.
As a young adult, I believe this book would make an excellent (and wise) addition to the bookshelves of recent graduates.